Thank You, Arizona
A lot of people tell me that I have a distinctive voice.
Well, to be more specific, a lot of people tell me that I sound like a mix of Shaq and Cookie Monster.
Personally, I like the way my voice sounds. I think it adds character. And I also like it because it wasn’t the voice I was born with. It was developed over time — earned in a way. Football changed the way I speak. Like literally.
You see, there are some guys who play the game without much emotion. They take care of their business and mostly keep to themselves.
I’m not really one of those guys.
When it’s game day, I’m pretty much screaming from the time I wake up in the morning until the final whistle blows. In my mind, that’s always just been part of my job – to keep the intensity level up as much as possible.
So I’d scream myself hoarse on Sunday, slowly get my voice back during the week and then repeat again the following Sunday.
I kept that cycle up for several years, until one week I lost my voice and it just never fully came back. I guess my vocal chords just couldn’t take it anymore. And I’m kind of proud of that, to be honest. Because I know why my voice went. It was for my team, from trying to get everybody going. In short, it was worth it.
Of course, it was really never difficult for me to feel passionate about playing for the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, I think it was destiny.
The summer after my sophomore year of college at Miami, I was working out with Antrel Rolle, who had come back to campus to train after his third season with the Cardinals.
We had played together for one season at the U, and he was always a person who I looked up to and respected. He was the type of guy who had everything together, you know? Now at that time, I was coming off a pretty big season, and I was hoping to jump to the NFL the following spring. I was surveying different teams in the league, and one whose roster really stood out was the Cardinals’. They looked like a team on the rise, and Arizona seemed like a place where I could fit in and create my own legacy.
Like a lot of college students looking for a job, I sought out a recommendation.
One day after one of our workouts, I turned to Antrel and said, “Uh … so … it would be pretty dope to play with you in Arizona, so … can you put in a good word for me?”
He laughed, and nodded like, O.K., bro. I got you.
Fast-forward to the following spring. I’m at the ESPN Zone in Denver with my family watching the draft. Now at that point, I had kind of put the idea of playing for the Cardinals behind me. I’d had a pretty bad combine performance, and while a few teams had been in close touch with my agent, Arizona wasn’t one of them.
My family had rented out a private area at the restaurant to watch the draft, and we did it up big with all of these appetizers and drinks. There were a bunch of people celebrating. But me? I was pretty much a nervous wreck. As the picks rolled on and I watched other linemen get drafted ahead of me, people I knew kept calling to reassure me that I was going to be O.K. I had to keep being like, “Why are you calling me, man? We gotta leave this line open.”
Now as the draft moves into the second round, the appetizers are getting cold. The cheese on the nachos has hardened up. And I’m still waiting, hoping to hear from somebody as the rest of the people at the party start to settle in for what might be a longer wait than they expected.
Then, finally, my phone rings, and it’s this number I don’t recognize. My heart jumps as I answer — and I can’t hear anything. It’s too loud in the room with everyone around me screaming and asking if it’s a team on the other line.
I make a mad dash for the entrance of the restaurant, phone held to my head and my mom following right behind me. My mom, man, she’s my rock. Making it to the NFL was as much about her as it was about me. She wasn’t about to miss this, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to.
So I make it outside, and I have the phone in one hand and I’m hugging my mom with my other arm. It was Ron Graves, who was the Cardinals’ general manager at the time. He asks me what I think about moving to Arizona.
Right away, my mom starts crying. And then I know that I’m done. My eyes start tearing up and now I’m crying too.
Meanwhile, you got all these other people who are just there for lunch walking in and out of the restaurant past this giant dude crying on the phone and holding his momma. I’m guessing it was probably a memorable day for them too.
When we hung up, I was so happy and exhausted. My dream had come true.
And then my first thought was,Damn, thanks Antrel!
I came to Arizona at the perfect time. It was back in 2008, right when the franchise was turning a corner. This wasn’t a young team. We had a bunch of talented guys, and many of them had played together for a few seasons at that point. And after years of losing, they were coming off of their first decent season in a long time, and everyone know the team had a good chance at making the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
There were a lot of teams I could have gone to where I would have been expected to perform right away. But in Arizona, there was enough depth that I got to take some time to really adjust to life in the NFL. I realized pretty early on that as a rookie, my biggest job was to not mess up. Or basically, just watch Larry Fitzgerald (G.O.A.T.) and do what he did.
Of course Larry wasn’t the only person who set a good example for me. Our defense had so many leaders. That first year, I had guys like Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson showing me what it meant to be a presence in the locker room. What I was saying before about keeping up the intensity level and infusing your game with passion? I learned that from them.
It wasn’t until midway through my first season that I started to get steady playing time, and by then it was becoming clear that we really had something going. When we ultimately made the playoffs, nobody really expected much out of us. We were a 9-7 team that was supposed to just be happy to be there.
Nobody gave us a chance to beat the Falcons in the wild-card game. Then nobody gave us a chance to beat the Panthers in the divisional round. Then for sure nobody thought would beat the Eagles in the NFC championship game.
But we did.
I tried to do whatever I could during our playoff run to contribute to the team’s success. I’ve made 16 special teams tackles in my career, and four of them came during our playoff run that year.
There’s really no way to adequately describe what it feels like to play in the Super Bowl. My only regret about playing in that game as a rookie was that I wish I could have been able to appreciate more how hard it was to get there. If you had told me then that Super Bowl XLIII would be the only time I would ever play for a championship in nine seasons with the Cardinals, I would have never believed you. No chance. Not with the guys we had.
Before the game started, it felt like I was floating. I was filled with so many nerves and so much excitement. It was like I was in a dream. While the national anthem was playing, I remember just trying to catch my breath.
Then, on the opening kickoff, I ran over some backup corner on special teams and it was another football game — well, maybe it was a little bigger than that.
You guys know what happened after that. James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown right before halftime to knock the wind out of us, and then Larry did Larry things to just about win us the game before Santonio Holmes kept his toes inbounds by a couple of millimeters on the game-winning TD.
It was an awesome, terrible, amazing, heartbreaking experience.
But as memorable as the game was, it’s what happened after the game ended that will stick with me for the rest of my career — the rest of my life, really.
The flight back to Arizona wasn’t fun. Nobody was really talking, we all just felt emotionally and physically exhausted. We all knew that in the most important game of our lives, we had fallen just short.
But when the plane landed and we started pulling up to the gate, we saw something amazing.
Thousands of them.
They were all waiting there, cheering for us — screaming and clapping for their team … which had just lost the biggest game of the year. It was unbelievable. All these people — who had to be hurting just as bad as we were — had come out in droves to show that they were still proud of us. For the first time since the game had ended, I actually smiled. A lot of guys did.
That showed me everything I ever needed to know about Cardinals fans. It was a gesture that fueled my desire to do everything I could to help this become a winning football franchise. I knew that that was what the people who showed up at the airport that day deserved.
One thing I always loved about playing for the Cardinals was that we were at our best when we were having fun.
During pregame, while all the guys would be getting in the zone, I’d always know that we were ready when the dancing started. Usually it would be Tony Jefferson kicking it off. I mean, there really weren’t too many moments in the day when that guy wasn’t dancing, but his pregame dance was special.
When Patrick Peterson would join in, and start a dance-off with Tony, all the guys in the locker room would start hollering — and that was when I knew. I’d glance over at Frostee Rucker, who had the locker next to mine, and he’d just look back and nod, “Mmmm-hmmmm!”
Sometimes, if nobody else was feeling it and we looked tense, I’d step up for the team and start dancing myself. Now I’m not into any of that new-school rap, I’m more of a Tupac/Jay-Z guy myself, but when duty calls, sometimes you gotta bust a move.
Those were truly my favorite moments as a Cardinal — when everybody was vibing before a game and we all knew there was no doubt that this other team we were playing against (didn’t matter who it was) was about to get murdered out there.
Over the years, we danced a lot and we won a lot — just about more than any other team in franchise history. We created a foundation of excellence. That’s something I’ll always take tremendous pride in.
That leap from being a team of talented players to a franchise with a winning culture is difficult. It requires buy-in at every level of the organization. And it’s a challenge I’m ready to take on in Jacksonville.
What gives me confidence is that I know that I’m not going to be doing it alone.
With a guy like Tom Coughlin in the front office, the tone has clearly been set. There is a plan in place to truly transform the franchise, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.
This is a young team that excites me. In so many ways they remind me of the Cardinals when I first arrived in Arizona. They’ve been considered a bad team for a long time, but when you look up and down the roster, the talent is there. I see guys like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler, just to name a few, and all I can think about is how scary this defense can be.
Now with the other experienced vets that Jacksonville is bringing in, we can start the process of building a winning culture. The pieces are in place. We just have to put them all together.
Now before I begin this next chapter in North Florida, I just want to offer a sincere thank you every Cardinals fan reading this.
As I reflect on my time here, I’m most grateful for the many connections I’ve made off the field.
I’ve spoken a lot about how much of myself I’ve given to the franchise, but it truly pales in comparison to what I got back in return.
This place was much more than simply where I worked. It was home, in every sense of the word. And I’m going to miss the many friendships I made here.
For example, every Thursday during the season for the past four years, you could listen to me and my “distinctive” voice on Big Red Rage, a Cardinals radio show. We’d record every week at Marjele’s, and the same fans would show up for every taping. I mean every taping. Over the years, I got to know quite a few of them pretty well. I’d recognize them at home games because they sat together and their section was always the loudest in the stadium. I’d also see them at away games, where many of them would sit with my mom to keep her company.
One of the radio-show regulars was Layna. I first met her when she was eight, during my first year on the show. She loved dancing and football, possibly more than any other person in the world.
Over the years, I got to watch her grow up. We’d talk every week. On rare occasions that she couldn’t be there because of a dance recital, she’d be so upset. Like she’d feel serious remorse. She’d come up to me disappointed and say, “I’m so sorry, it’s my fault you guys lost last week. I know I’m the good luck charm, I should have been here.”
Getting to develop relationships with kids like Layna always made me thankful for the opportunity to play in Arizona. And that’s really the only word that comes to mind as I say goodbye: thankful.
I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to be part of a locker room where I was constantly surrounded by talent, love and pranks. (For real, don’t take your eyes off Larry Fitzgerald, or else he’s gonna end up jumping on your back.) I’m thankful for the many long conversations I’ve shared with our head trainer, Tom Reed, about life, football and everything in between. And finally, I’m so thankful for the opportunity to interact with fans like Layna, who always reminded me of what I was really playing for.
Nine years is a long time. That’s a lot of hikes up Camelback Mountain and double orders at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles. I wish so badly that I could have helped bring Arizona the Super Bowl title it deserves, but I’m still proud of every second I spent here. I’m a much better person for it.
There were a lot of places where I could have started my career, but I’m so glad I found my way to the desert. I’m never going to forget where I lost my voice.
And also found it.