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February 03, 2021

Tanoh Kpassagnon's journey from Wissahickon HS to Super Bowl LV starter

The Chiefs’ starting defensive end (and former Villanova standout) shows it’s better to be lucky and good

Sometime this coming Sunday afternoon in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, Tanoh Kpassagnon may close his eyes, take a moment and reflect as he’s padding up. He may think back to the lanky young man walking the hallways of Wissahickon High School one spring weekday afternoon in 2011.

He may think about the chance encounter, when he happened to run into Villanova head football coach Mark Ferrante, who was there to recruit a running back. Kpassagnon was tough to miss. He stood 6-foot-6 then and weighed around 240 pounds. Ferrante immediately inquired to Wissahickon assistant coach Larry Cannon, “Who is that guy?

Kpassagnon laughs about it today. A 2012 Wissahickon and 2017 Villanova graduate, Kpassagnon has grown a little since his high school days, listed at 6-7, 290 pounds. 

“Yeah,” he says, “I can say my football career started by bumping into someone in a high school hallway and wound up here.”

Here is Sunday, where Kpassagnon, or “TK,” will line up as the starting left defensive end for the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chief in Super Bowl LV against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. 

“I honestly didn’t see any of this happening for me, until my senior year at Villanova,” said Kpassagnon, who this past season made 28 total tackles and 20 solos during the regular season, with 1 sack, and has made two tackles and one major sack in the playoffs, taking down Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen for an 18-yard sack in the AFC Championship. “I went to one football camp going into my senior year of high school and that was Villanova, and they offered me a scholarship. 

“The funny thing is I’ll never forget telling my mother they offered me a scholarship, and my mother telling me that I wasn’t going to school to play football, and start applying to Temple and other schools — but look at us now.”

Kpassagnon, who has degrees in finance and accounting from Villanova and is now working on his MBA at the University of Indiana, wound up being a second-round draft choice of the Chiefs in 2017. After playing outside linebacker his first two seasons, the Chiefs hired Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs moved to a 4-3, allowing Kpassagnon to put his hand back in the dirt as a defensive end.

“That was awesome,” Kpassagnon said. “I think the difference for me was having my hand back in the dirt, and not worrying as much about dropping back into coverage. I still have that knowledge, and it helps a lot being able to know two receivers wide to my side may be a set up for a screen.

“Being able to read offenses that way is a plus, where being on the defensive line, my focus is on the line. But I do have a bigger picture and I do hear ‘outside contain,’ in my sleep (laughs).”

Ferrante began seeing Kpassagnon mature at Villanova. The Chiefs called Ferrante about Kpassagno, who is the first Villanova player ever drafted by the Chiefs. Ferrante knows Brendan Daly, the Chiefs’ defensive line coach who was also the defensive line coach at Villanova in 2005. Ferrante coached with Spagnuolo in the mid-1980s at Lafayette, and Reid lived a stone’s throw away from Villanova when he coached the Eagles. 

“The Chiefs knew Villanova really well, and we knew the Chiefs really well, and Tanoh is a great young man who was a dual major here,” Ferrante said. “Tanoh is 6-7, 289, and at the time, he broke the long jump record for anyone over 280 at the NFL Combine. Plus, when Tanoh walks through the door, he cuts a large figure. His body fat here was under 8 percent. 

“I’ll be wearing red on Sunday. Spags and I have been friends for a long time, and Coach Reid and that whole staff are awesome guys — plus we have someone there with the Chiefs. Tanoh red-shirted his freshman year, so early on, he wasn’t quite ready. Tanoh just had to pick up the game, and that really clicked after his sophomore year.

“What he’s doing now on the field doesn’t surprise me. Going from when he first walked through our doors to what he was when he left us, that was more like okay, it worked.”

Kpassagnon has been at Ground Zero in the transformation of the Chiefs. Much of it, he says, has to do with head coach Andy Reid and No. 15, reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.

Last year, the 26-year-old played in 51 snaps as Kansas City bested the Niners in Super Bowl LIV. On Sunday, Kpassagnon gets to chase the legendary Brady, who’s seen everything a defense can do.

“This will be about effort and execution, but we’ve been here before, so that helps us,” Kpassagnon said. “I would say we’re a special team, and I actually heard this from older veterans who come here from other teams, is Coach Reid allows his players to be who they are.

“Coach Reid honestly allows you to be who you are. Our slogan for us is to let our personalities show, and the fact that you have players being comfortable being themselves out on the field, without having to worry about conforming to anything, it really lets you play. 

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“And we have Patrick. We chase him from a distance in practice, since we watch him from a nice, protective bubble around him. It gets you ready to expect the unexpected. Pat will throw from any position. We do that especially in camp. Coach Reid runs stuff that he likes testing out on us, to see how a defense reacts to a certain play. It helps the defense to grow as well as the offense.”

Kpassagnon said he sees Mahomes do amazing things every day in practice. It’s not unusual for Mahomes to throw a 70-yard pass with the flick of his wrist.

Success hasn’t changed Mahomes. Success, it seems, hasn’t changed the Chiefs. And Kpassagnon, too, remains who he is. 

“It takes a conscious effort to stay yourself, and Pat had people screaming his name before he stepped on the field, even when we went out, and after everything he’s done, and everything he deserves, with Pat, seeing him how he operates with all of the fame, it’s humbling how he deals with it,” Kpassagnon said. “Pat is not the most vocal, he leads by example. Guys are willing to run through a wall for Pat, and I’m on the opposite side of the ball.

“Pat will put everything on his back and is not afraid to say it’s his fault. Even when it isn’t. It’s why he’s a great leader. Now I’m here playing with great players like Pat, on a great team full of great guys, and none of this would have been possible without bumping into Coach Ferrante in the halls at Wissahickon. I tell myself that every day.”

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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.