Kene Nwangwu always knew his little brother, Odilinna, was special.
Odilinna wasn't exactly like all the other boys his age, but that never bothered Kene, who formed a deep bond with his younger brother at an early age.
As a child, Odilinna was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning level of autism spectrum disorder.
"Growing up with him, I understood that he was different, but he's still my little brother," Kene said. "He's still like everyone else [in a lot of ways]. He's just unique. I've always wanted people to see him for him. Not just as, 'Oh, that dude's different.' Or, 'he's weird.' "
Kene explained that Odilinna often is hyper-focused on specific interests.
Now 17 years old, Odilinna is deeply fascinated by space and can spend hours researching the topic. He's passionate about all things automotive-related and regularly attends car shows.
"Growing up, he really loved weather. I think he still does," Kene said with a smile. "Every time there's a thunderstorm, he opens the door and looks outside."
Kene, 23, can't help but become engaged in the same topics that excite his brother.
"His interests became my interests," Kene said. "If he wants to play video games, I'll hop on the game whenever he wants to play. And he loves to tell me about cars."
Odilinna isn't pursuing football like his brother did, though he did play one season as a guard, but he couldn't be more excited about Kene's journey to the NFL.
"He came up to Minnesota for the Cowboys game. He's really upset about that loss," Kene said. "But he's so supportive of me. He loves what I do.
"I think he sees me as his best friend," Kene added. "And honestly, I see him as my best friend, too. I just love hanging out with him."
The Vikings rookie will be honoring Odilinna during the Vikings My Cause My Cleats game against the Steelers on Thursday, Dec. 9. Kene will don custom-designed kicks repping the Autism Self-Advocacy Network.
ASAN's mission is to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. After researching a number of nonprofits around autism spectrum disorder, Kene found himself drawn to ASAN because it's actually run by autistic individuals.
"I thought that was really cool that it's autistic people running the nonprofit and helping others with autism," Kene said. "That's why I chose the organization."
Kene's mantra has always been to treat others with kindness.
"I think that's something I learned at an early age," he said. "My dad always preached that, like the Golden Rule. Treat others like you want to be treated. That's just what I live by."
Kene hopes that his story – and his cleats – will help remind people to act with gentleness and respect towards everyone, including those who have unique personalities, behavior or disabilities.
"If I could deliver one message, it's really, 'Treat others with kindness. Don't be quick to judge. Just see people how they are,' " Kene said. "That's how I want others to see my little brother."
O'Neill raising autism awareness in support of sister
Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill is again representing Autism Speaks on his cleats.
O'Neill wears the custom-designed kicks to honor one of his sisters, Lorraine, who is autistic.
Autism Speaks promotes solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. The organization provides advocacy and support for people with autism and works to increase understanding and acceptance.
An estimated one-third of people with autism are nonverbal, including Lorraine, which prevents Brian from staying connected across the miles through phone calls.
O'Neill told Vikings.com in an earlier interview that he especially is grateful for visits home that allow him to communicate with Lorraine. Though living with autism may affect the logistics of Lorraine's relationship with her younger brother, it doesn't affect the siblings' bond.
"It's a unique relationship and a special one, for sure," O'Neill said.