TEMPE, Ariz. — Perhaps it’s fitting that Robert Nkemdiche will wear No. 90 for the Arizona Cardinals.
The number was donned by Cory Redding in 2015, but before that, Darnell Dockett wore it from 2004 to 2014, and in the process turned it into one of the more feared jerseys in the NFL.
Like Dockett, Nkemdiche enters the NFL with high expectations and a bit of a checkered past. And, as was the case with the man who they called “Nine-O,” Nkemdiche is his own person.
Where some teams saw a red flag, the Cardinals saw an opportunity.
“Number one, I think in any process, when you hear about an incident, you have a perception,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. “When he came and spent a significant amount of time with us, it changed my perception.
“He’s actually an artistic guy, plays the saxophone. I think he’s very well-rounded; reads a lot of books. But more than anything, he’s remorseful.”
With Keim and head coach Bruce Arians leading the way, the Cardinals have not been particularly averse to letting players be themselves. The mentality starts at the top with the ever-quotable Arians and permeates throughout the entire organization.
If you want a standard football player — whatever that even means — Nkemdiche is not your guy. He is a talented athlete, yes, but he has personality and a wide variety of interests.
“It’s a different side of Robert,” defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said when asked about Nkemdiche’s saxophone skills. “He’s not an A personality or a B personality; he marches to the beat of his own drum.
“And in life, and I think inside a football locker room, you should welcome stuff like that. I don’t want all these cookie-cutter guys, everybody’s just alike. I want some guys with their own personality, but when the come together it makes perfect harmony.”
Those words from his position coach are music to Nkemdiche’s ears.
“It’s not even the fact of not conforming,” he said of the mindset. “It’s the fact of just knowing yourself, just being yourself, know what I mean? I’m a simple man; I’m not even a complex guy, and for the fact that [Buckner] is a guy that likes people that move to the beat of their own drum, I love to play for him and I can’t wait to go to work for him.”
While Nkemdiche would have been happy no matter which team he was drafted to, the feeling of being accepted for who he is in Arizona made the Cardinals a team he was hoping to land with. He recalled a meeting with Arians in which he told the coach he was not just telling him what he wanted to hear.
“I’m really just trying to be me,” he recalled saying. “He was like, ‘No, I feel you. I’m not listening to you — I’m feeling you.’
“I’m like, ‘I like this guy. I like this guy.'”
The feeling was mutual.
Of course, not every team was willing to take a chance on Nkemdiche, believing for whatever reason he would not be a good choice with their top pick. Given that talent was never really an issue, all signs point back to one night that he has regretted ever since.
Yet, Nkemdiche believes teams had a problem with something else.
“I think they were more shook by the fact of me not being a stereotype more than my incident, because if you look at my past, my history, I don’t get in trouble — I’m not a troublemaker,” he said. “I was confused over where all these issues were coming from, and the issue is I’m not a stereotype. They don’t want to say that, but that’s the truth.
“I don’t have a long history of incidences; I had an incident. That was stupid, of course, and I learned from it. But this team saw what they were supposed to see, and that’s why I’m here and I’m excited.”
What the Cardinals saw was a player they believe will fit in with their current roster. Both Keim and Arians have expressed confidence in their team’s leadership and culture, and because of that they have been willing to add players like Nkemdiche and Chandler Jones, neither of whom arrives with a perfectly clean record.
Are the Cardinals taking a risk here? Sure, but in today’s NFL it is difficult to find players without a single question mark. The question really is whether or a not a player is willing to move forward and have a productive career, and if a team has the right structure to help guide him along the way.
And in that regard, Nkemdiche and the Cardinals belong together.
“This is the perfect place to be because somewhere along the lines somebody on the staff knows how to look through people and see people’s souls,” Nkemdiche said. “And that speaks measures because people in this world, it’s hard to look at somebody’s soul because they’re so caught up on the perception of whatever they heard, what they’re supposed to think, and they don’t really have an opinion of their own.
“Somebody on this staff has an opinion of their own, and that’s why I’m here. I’m very excited and I’m very thankful to get the opportunity to be a Cardinal.”
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