Wojo: Is Lions' fearless 'Big Play Slay' set for stardom?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions cornerback Darius Slay breaks up a pass during last week's win over the Jets.

Allen Park — He loves games, from video games to Ping-Pong to verbal jousting. Darius Slay lives to play, and wears a smile as if it's part of the uniform.

He's the rambunctious one, a rising star in the stout Lions secondary, and he's eyeing the next step. Because for the defense to be dominant again, Slay will have to show he's truly a game-changer.

It's grown-up time now for the Lions, coming off an 11-5 season. It's been grown-up time for a while for Slay — it just took him a bit to accept it. The third-year Lions cornerback became a father at 15, and now recognizes his responsibility every time he sees his 8-year-old son.

But in the experienced, cohesive secondary, Slay is the kid. And Rashean Mathis, 34, recognizes his responsibility every time he sees his 24-year-old teammate.

"He's my little brother and I have to keep him out of trouble, and that's off the field as well," Mathis said as Detroit prepared to face Washington in tonight's second exhibition.

"I take it as an honor, with all humility, just to be in the position God has put me to be able to mentor guys. (Slay) has all the talent to become even better than he is, if he taps into it. In our league, talent gets wasted too often. It's the elder statesmen's job to take ownership within our brotherhood and make sure our guys fly right."

Slay calls himself "Big Play Slay," a moniker that's more a prediction than a pronouncement. He has the skill, speed and fearlessness to be a star, if he doesn't lose sight of it.

Mathis is determined to help direct him. In his own way, he's as uniquely gifted as Slay. He has played cornerback at a high level for 13 seasons, and speaks with gravelly wisdom. When the Lions drafted Slay in the second round out of Mississippi State in 2013, Mathis was just arriving after 10 seasons with the Jaguars.

Mathis learned a long time ago the game is a job, and you have to respect the line between the two. Slay understands it more and more, partly because he hears it constantly from Mathis. They spend time with each other's families and work out together. Slay likes to talk and Mathis likes to listen, for the most part.

"As much as he talks on the field, times that by 100 how much he talks off the field," Mathis said with a laugh. "It goes hand in hand with his personality. He asks questions, he's eager to learn, and that's hard to find in a young guy with that much talent."

Rated league's 19th cornerback

After a rough rookie campaign, Slay solidified himself on the second-ranked Lions defense last season. But for all his playful boasting, he knows he hasn't arrived. Pro Football Focus rated him the 19th cornerback in the league, and he has two interceptions in his career.

While much of the offseason was focused on who departed — Suuuuhhh — the Lions quietly brought just about everybody else back on defense. That includes a secondary that could be among the league's best, with veterans Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo at safety, and Mathis and Slay at the corners. They're deep enough that the raging training camp battles are for backup spots.

Quin had seven interceptions and made the Pro Bowl last season, and along with Ihedigbo and Mathis, they're the type of level-headed leaders that Jim Caldwell prefers. Slay doesn't have to look far for guidance, which is good, because he admits he needs it.

Darius Slay, left, and Rashean Mathis joke around in practice.

Mathis 'showed me a lot'

"(Mathis) is like a big-time father figure for me, I love the guy," Slay said. "The man showed me a lot, took me under his wing. I like to goof off and enjoy myself. I like to be Big Play Slay, and I got a lot of people that depend on me. I didn't come into the league just to be a player. I want to be the best at what I do. The guys trust me, and they want me to be great."

Which brings us back to that line, the one between the game and the job. After a recent practice, Slay jokingly referred to himself as "Earth," because while Jets superstar Darrelle Revis has Revis Island, Slay figures he can cover the whole planet.

It was just fun showmanship, similar to the finger wag he breaks out, ala Dikembe Mutombo, when he defends a pass. Slay touts his video game skills, although teammates dispute his claims of dominance. Confidence can mask insecurity, but Slay's persona rings real now.

"He always had the physical skill, but now he's putting the head knowledge together with it," Caldwell said. "At the position he plays, you better have some confidence. You have to be a riverboat gambler with a short memory."

That explains the demeanor of many cornerbacks in those one-on-one battles against equally confident receivers. There's a certain mental dragon that must be slayed, and Slay is determined to slay it.

Aiming to be the best

Maturity is arriving, although in bits and pieces. He had his first child, Darion, when he was in high school in Georgia and considered dropping out, but his mother wouldn't let him.

Family helped in the raising process, and Darion now lives with his father and a cousin here. Slay also recently had a second son, Demetrius.

"I had to grow up and stop the kiddie games at a young age, because I knew I had to provide for someone else," Slay said.

"I got a lot of support. We did what we could, and that was my drive to be the best father I can be."

Those are powerful driving forces — to be a great father and a great football player — and they don't have to conflict. If they do, Slay hears the voice, the one that reminds him he can be elite.

It's not a common piece for the Lions, who have had two Pro Bowl cornerbacks — Lem Barney and Dre Bly — in 46 years. The hope is, Slay is an uncommon guy.

"He definitely can be (among the best), and I'll speak on it, he definitely will be," Mathis said. "He just has to buy in that this is his job, it's not a game. Whatever you do off the field is gonna affect what you do on the field. He's a funny, goofy guy, not some wild clubbing guy. We're just trying to switch the college mentality into a grown-man professional mentality."

It's the reality of sports, that the game always changes. The players that endure are the ones who learn how and when to play.



Detroit at Washington

Kickoff: 7:30 tonight, FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

TV/radio: Channel 2/97.1

Exhibition records: Both teams 1-0