Playing with edge pays off for ex-Grand Valley star Judon

Childs Walker
Baltimore Sun

Matthew Judon scoffed at the question.

Did he believe that in just his second NFL season, he’d be an every-down force against both the run and the pass?

“Do you think you could be a good reporter? Did you?” the Ravens linebacker shot back at his interviewer. “Like, come on. I mean, this is what I do. I love playing football. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, raining, sleet, hot — I’m going to go out there and play. Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Do I think I can?’ Yes. I believe in myself. I don’t think y’all believe in me, but I believe in myself.”

If that seems a bit prickly, well, you have to stand in Judon’s shoes to understand where he’s coming from.

The current AFC Defensive Player of the Week envisioned himself as this kind of player all the way back to his childhood days dancing around the fields of West Bloomfield.

No one else shared his outlook.

Not a single Division I program came sniffing. The coaches at Division II Grand Valley State were happy to have him, but they saw a lanky kid who might grow into something, not a surefire NFL prospect. Even when he got to the Ravens as a fifth-round pick last year, he sensed he might be rubbing some players and coaches the wrong way with his loud, edgy demeanor.

So if Judon didn’t hold on to his vision with unusual ferocity, he never would have gotten here. When you get past his armor of self-belief, a more nuanced person emerges.

Judon grew up the sixth of 10 children in a family that came together when his mother, Pieretta, married his stepfather, Earl Hairston. Judon’s self-described “edge” softens when he talks about his siblings, who range from the eighth grade to age 32.

“We always had to work,” he said. “We were never given handouts. We never had anybody to help us. So we always leaned on each other. … There’s something about that bond you have with nine other people that you can go to at any time, for any reason.”

His college coaches, who had him for six years at Grand Valley (he redshirted his first year and then again when he tore his ACL as a junior), say his upbringing gave him an unusual social intelligence.

“I think it made him a selfless person,” said Grand Valley defensive line coach E.J. Whitlow, who became close with Judon. “You understand it’s not just you in the world, and that translates to football. With him, it was always, ‘What can I do to help the team?’"

Judon agrees that his family life directly impacted his football life.

“Everybody’s different in this world,” he said. “And you can’t treat one person how you treat the next person. That’s how I am with my siblings. Some I’m more sensitive with and some I can joke with. It’s different conversations with different folks, and I do feel like I understand people more, just by reading body language.”

Judon became a foundational piece for coach Matt Mitchell’s program, not just the most gifted player but the guy who could be counted on to lift a younger teammate’s spirits or to demand accountability in the Grand Valley locker room.

“He had a big voice,” Mitchell said. “And everyone listened.”

When representatives of Camp Sunshine, a program for cognitively impaired people ages 12-50, visited a team meeting in search of volunteers, Judon quickly stepped forward. Again, you can hear the tenderness in his voice when he recalls the songs he sang and the mentoring words he offered the campers.

That outgoing, compassionate side has endeared Judon to Ravens teammates as they’ve gotten to know him over the last two years. Defensive stars Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley have taken him under their wings. Of course, that’s not just because he’s a likable character. NFL veterans decide rapidly whether a young guy can play, and Judon convinced them he was worth the effort. Even players from the other side of the ball, such as All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda, reached out to give him pointers.

“Nothing,” Suggs said when asked what’s impressed him about Judon this season. “Because we expected it.”

Judon played in 14 games and delivered five sacks as a rookie, but Ravens coaches anticipated a big leap based on what they saw in the offseason. It didn’t happen right away, as Judon managed just six tackles and no sacks in his first four games this season. But he’s blown up over the last six weeks, which have included a 14-tackle, 2-sack game against the Bears and his career-best outing last Sunday against the Packers.

“He just continues to improve,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He is a very talented guy, a very smart player. He does not make the same mistake twice. He understands the concept of the defense, and when you get out there and you know what is going on around you and what other people are supposed to do, you make good decisions. He has done that.”

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has seen enough from Judon to know he wouldn’t want to play against him.

“Matt’s great,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with him as soon as he’s gotten here.”

So how did Judon transform from a guy who didn’t register at all with Division I recruiters to a key piece for one of the NFL’s best defenses?

The answers lie in his six years at Grand Valley.

When Mitchell first glimpsed Judon as a 225-pound teenager playing in the Detroit suburbs, he didn’t know exactly what he was.

Judon’s Ravens teammate, Brandon Carr, also played at Grand Valley. He wanted to know if Judon had spent his whole career in the little-known program.

“If a guy goes that route, he has the biggest chip on his shoulder, the biggest work ethic,” Carr said. “And just being here this year and seeing his work ethic, he’s going to be special, man.”

Lions at Ravens

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore

Records: Lions 6-5, Ravens 5-5

TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760

Series: Ravens lead, 3-1 (Ravens 18, Lions 16, Dec. 16, 2013)

Line: Ravens by 2½