Growing up in Paulsboro, NJ, how I got into football is a bit of a funny story. I have a cousin named Steven and he’s one year older than me and he got to start football a year ahead of me and I used to always want to go out there but I was too young. I used to always love, back in the day, when they had the plastic crated face masks. He used to come home from practice and he was carrying his plastic crated facemask and shoulder pads and I would just get so jealous.
I wanted to be out there, I loved that plastic face mask and that was really how I started. I was seven and I finally got my face mask. As a kid you know you’re just out there running around and playing sports, you’re just a busy-body and your parents are trying to keep you active and things like that. As I got older, the more I just started to fall in love with it and football became key for myself and my life.
When I was starting to look at going to college, the one big thing was I always wanted to give my family the same experience that I had in college, as far as being able to come to the games, experience the crowd, experience the atmosphere.
I always told my family that wherever I play college football I always want them to be there, to be able to come at any time.
Penn State was just such a big school, a monumental school, especially as a kid growing up watching Joe Paterno and all the history that comes with the program. As I got older I said to myself Penn State is big-time football and it’s close enough where my family could get a chance to come and see me play and we could all experience this thing together.
The biggest moment I had in college was the first day I stepped on campus. I’m from a smaller neighborhood, a smaller town (Paulsboro), and I had never really been too far from home. Penn State was four hours away from home – almost a completely different world. The reason that first day sticks out is because I started school early in January, without all the other freshmen so it just seemed so big, I couldn’t believe it.
While I was at Penn State I was fortunate to play behind both Navorro Bowman (San Francisco 49ers) and Sean Lee (Dallas Cowboys) and had a great, perfectionist of a linebackers coach in Ron Vanderlinden.
I learned so much from Navorro and Sean, seeing how they approached football, and studying film, you couldn’t help but to follow in their footsteps. After the way they laid the pavement, you’d be dumb not to.
The first time I really considered that I might be able to play in the NFL came in my sophomore year at Penn State. I started making some plays while still playing behind those two guys and I started to think: “Man, I’m making big-time plays, I can play with the best of them.” Once I got that confidence going I knew that I’d be able to play in the NFL it was just about when I would go into the draft.
I went in the 4th round of the draft (2013) and I believe that definitely put a chip on my shoulder. You never want to compare yourself to other guys, but you look around after the draft and think to yourself: “Man why so low?” It made me want to come in and prove what I could do as a player and as a leader. My first year, though, I didn’t get to play much and it was definitely a humbling experience.
It lets you know that there’s so much talent in this league and so many guys you have to separate yourself from. I made an oath to myself that I was going to separate myself and not just sit back because once you get lost in the NFL the easier it is to get sent right out. I didn’t want to get lost, I wanted to make myself known, not just as a player but as a leader too.
Last year, my second year, I felt like I just had the defense down. I felt like the only thing that could hold me back at that moment was just not making the play when I arrived there.
I was locking in on the offenses, and just studying them so well, that I knew like: “Man I can take this thing to the next level, and not just be a role player linebacker, but be a great linebacker for the team and in the NFL.”
This season presented a new challenge as I moved from outside linebacker into the middle. I’ve played both the Sam (strongside) and Will (weakside) linebacker spots and usually out there you have your one gap, your one assignment. As a Mike (middle) linebacker, depending on the shift, the formations, you have to make sure everyone is lined up, you have to make sure everyone’s aligned right, you have to make sure the defense is called in time. At the same time I have to get aligned myself, and diagnose the play that the offense is lining up to. It’s definitely a lot of tasks, but I love it.
I like living in Minnesota, I’m not a big city kid, I come from a small neighborhood and where I stay out here it’s a small town called Eden Prairie, nice quite little town. It’s great come football season, because I don’t do much – I just sit back, watch my film and study.
Before my career is over, I want to have a Super Bowl with the guys I line up with day-by-day, fighting with, in camp with, I want a Super Bowl with those guys. After my career, on a personal note, I want to be known as a great linebacker and I won’t stop until I am. There’s nothing I feel that’s going to hold me back from accomplishing that goal.