TEMPE, Ariz. – Four weeks into the season, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was asked to evaluate his blossoming young linebacking corps.
“Does that include young Paris Lenon?” Whisenhunt asked with a smile.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the money the Cardinals spent to sign free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley before the 2011 season. There’s been a lot of discussion of what Bradley hasn’t done in his quest to supplant Lenon in the starting lineup.
But Bradley’s inability to start has had almost nothing to do with Bradley. It has had everything to do with the soon-to-be 35-year-old Lenon, who was named a team captain at the start of the season.
“He does kind of defy logic as far as getting better and better,” said Cards defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who smiled when the topic turned to Lenon. “He works at it.”
Lenon has had to. He wasn’t drafted out of the University of Richmond. He signed as a rookie free agent with Carolina in April of 2000 and was waived less than two months later. He also signed with Green Bay and Seattle in 2001, getting waived by both before the Packers resigned him to their practice squad in December of 2001.
He played with the XFL’s Memphis Maniacs, where the rules were relaxed. He played with NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals, where the laws were relaxed and the fans all had whistles. And when he was out of football, he worked as a substitute teacher and in a post office, sorting mail at night so he could train during the day.
“It was good work,” he said. “It helped me do what I needed to do during that time.”
At this point, you half expect Lenon to detail the mental and psychological anguish he experienced during that period in his life. You’re waiting for another Kurt Warner-bagging-groceries story.
But Lenon won’t dramatize anything — not for the benefit of his story, not for the benefit of your story.
“It’s just life,” he said. “You deal with it.”
It’s a present-tense attitude fostered from his childhood experiences in Lynchburg, Va., and put into play every day when he takes the field. Read and react.
“My neighborhood wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst,” he said. “We had our fair share of issues.
“Early on, I learned to let people know what I was all about, because where I grew up, if you had a bicycle, you wanted to keep that bicycle. There was no guarantee you were going to come home with that bicycle — or your football or your basketball or your shoes.
“If you had a nice pair of shoes on, somebody might approach you and ask you what size you wore. They weren’t asking because they wanted to go to the store and buy their own. They were asking because they wanted to take them from you, so you learned that you don’t allow certain things to happen, because if you allow it to happen once, it’s going to happen every day.”
Lenon was a newly benched quarterback at Heritage High School in Lynchburg when defensive coordinator Jeff Pultz got a hold of him.
“Sometimes athletes are high-maintenance people who want attention, but not Paris. He preferred to be in the shadows — just go on about his business,” Pultz said. “When he got benched, it was one of the first times I’d seen Paris visibly upset, so I told him, ‘I want to play you on defense.’
“In five ballgames his senior year, he made all-state.”
Pultz credits Lenon’s parents with instilling fundamental virtues such as worth ethic and humility that trace at least as far back as Paris’ grandfather (also named Paris), a boxer from Philadelphia.
“His parents taught him to be responsible with his money, responsible for his family and never forget where you came from,” Pultz said. “He carries those values with him today. He even calls his dad after every game just to let him know he’s OK.”
That grounded sense of self helped Lenon weather a lot of losing in Detroit and St. Louis. And it helped him weather Bradley’s signing, which most observers assumed spelled the end of Lenon’s career in Arizona.
“I feel like if you put me in a situation where I’m allowed to compete, I’m going to play a lot,” Lenon said.
Whisenhunt and Horton both admit, somewhat baffled, that they haven’t seen any drop-off in Lenon’s physical skills as he hits the turn in his 30s. But of equal value has been their reliance on Lenon’s knowledge of the defensive scheme and his ability to call the plays on the field.
“I grew up playing quarterback, so I’m fine with that,” said Lenon, who is second on the team in total tackles (37) and solo tackles (30) and also has two sacks. “Different schemes have different names, but it boils down to being the same thing. If you have a mind for football, you can pick it up.”
Lenon insists there is no secret to his longevity and fine-wine aging. He trains even harder than he did when he was younger as a concession to his body’s changing needs. He eats right and spends almost every non-football moment at home with his wife, Heather, and his “three crazy kids.”
“Retirement comes for everybody, and I’ve thought about it some, but I don’t look too far in the future,” Lenon said. “If you call me and you want to try to plan something for a couple months ahead, I’m going to tell you, ‘Man, I don’t know. You’ve got to remind me when we get closer to the time.’ I’m just livin’.”