TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tanoh Kpassagnon grew up in a home where excellent grades and academic achievements were not only encouraged, they were expected.
That's what happens when your mother's a chemist and father an economist, both holding doctoral degrees. The bar is set incredibly high.
“I kind of always joke around with my mom,” the Kansas City Chiefs defensive end said with a smile. “I told her I got a Ph.D. in football instead.”
Well, Dr. Kpassagnon is about to head to the office again Sunday, with his sights set on winning a second straight Super Bowl.
“Dreams are dreams until they come true, you know?” Kpassagnon said. “And they definitely have come true.”
You see, the 26-year-old Kpassagnon's journey has been a bit unconventional. He grew up with his mother Winifred Wafuoyo in Ambler, Pennsylvania, a small city about 15 miles north of Philadelphia. Wafuoyo, who's from Uganda, wasn't familiar with American football, so Kpassagnon gravitated to the “other” football as a kid.
“Soccer was actually my first love,” he said. "That was the only sport my mom actually knew of. Once I got introduced to football, I just kind of jumped right in without knowing too much. ... It’s really that rush you get, man. It’s never gone away. And I still have it. So it’s awesome.”
Kpassagnon — whose full name is pronounced TAWN-oh Pass-N-yo — was a naturally gifted athlete, dabbling in three sports at Wissahickon High School: football, basketball and track and field. But there was something special about him on the football field.
Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante, who was the Wildcats' assistant head coach and offensive line coach then, was on a recruiting trip to scout a running back at Wissahickon when Larry Cannon, one of the school's assistants, asked him to check out Kpassagnon.
“All of a sudden, this 6-foot-7, 240-pounder comes walking down the hall,” Ferrante recalled with a laugh. “So from that day all the way through into the summer camp months, I was just trying to encourage him to come to one of our one-day camps.”
Kpassagnon, who didn't appear on any scouting lists, attended the final session — coming off a two-week trip to Orlando, Florida, with the Future Business Leaders of America. Kpassagnon ran his 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds, an eyebrow-raising speed for someone his size.
So, Ferrante had him run another. And Kpassagnon clocked the same time.
“Through the rest of the camp, he just impressed in everything we did,” Ferrante said. “He just became more and more impressive.”
Villanova offered him a scholarship the next day and Kpassagnon accepted soon after — with one condition from his mother: that he earn admittance into the business school.
Well, he did. And became a star at Villanova — on the gridiron, after redshirting his first year, and in the classroom.
Kpassagnon was a double-major in accounting and finance, carrying a heavy academic workload while carving out a path to a football career. He also spent two summers interning with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Philadelphia, learning all aspects of insurance, accounting and finance the first year, and homing in on tax accounting the second.
“They were irreplaceable, man,” Kpassagnon said of the internships. “You start to see there’s a lot of athletes in the finance and accounting world, just because it’s a competitive field. So our competitive nature definitely leads toward that.”
Meanwhile, things were also adding up for Kpassagnon in football. Still a bit raw and inexperienced, the Chiefs were fascinated by his potential and selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft.
“He's earned it all,” Ferrante said.
Things began slowly as Kpassagnon started just one game with two sacks in his first two seasons. He broke out with four sacks in 2019 and established himself as a starter with multiple roles on defense and special teams this season. Kpassagnon had just one sack in the regular season, but added another in the AFC championship win over Buffalo.
“All he wants to do is contribute in any way that he possibly can, and he’s found a way to do that and continue to get better while doing that,” Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. “He’s a pleasure to be around. Hard-working, humble guy. Got a little artistic flair to him, so he brings a little more to the table than just the grind of the football.”
His parents are happy to know Kpassagnon is continuing his education, recently signing up for online classes with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. First, though, he needs to take care of one more order of business on the football field.
Kpassagnon's mother was in Miami for last year's Super Bowl and will be watching her son on television try to win a second straight. His father, Patrice Kpassagnon Tagro, is living in the Ivory Coast but is planning a watch party that will start at midnight locally.
“So a lot of people are calling out sick for work definitely on Monday,” Kpassagnon said with a laugh.
Oh, and mom knows quite a bit about American football now. And she makes sure her son hears all about it.
“Honestly, her football knowledge probably has grown a lot faster than mine,” a smiling Kpassagnon said. “It’s hilarious. She'll text me before a game, like, 'Make sure you don’t let this guy grab you here — do this.' She'll give me tips and stuff.
“So you've got to love it.”
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell contributed.
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