Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon always believed he'd be great, even when no one else saw it

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon talks about being named AFC defensive player of the week. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

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, Mich.

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 Chicago Bears and his career-best outing last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

NFL coaches and general managers adore a player who can handle multiple roles by himself. Judon came out of Grand Valley touted as promising edge rusher. But in his best games this season, he has also been a stout run defender and even a capable cover man. Put all that together in a 6-foot-3, 275-pound package, and you have reasons for genuine excitement.

“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.”

Harbaugh isn’t the least bit surprised by the fifth-round pick’s versatility. “Not at all,” he said. “He is a very smart player, and for a 270-pound-plus guy, he is a really good athlete. He is living up to our expectations right now.”

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. I think he plays a position on our defense where you don’t necessarily get a ton of love and fanfare for everything that he does. Even though he is that kind of [eccentric] player, he’s really embraced his role — going out there playing hard, dirty football.”

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. The skinny dude seemed to have the frame of a future defensive end, but he didn’t play like one.

The idea that Judon would leave Grand Valley as a 275-pound NFL prospect? “No one thought that,” Mitchell said.

But Judon bought into the long process ahead, the unglamorous life of a Divison II program that traveled up and down the Michigan peninsula by bus and survived without fancy training tables or armies of academic tutors.


Judon’s Ravens teammate, Brandon Carr, also played at Grand Valley. When he heard good things about the young pass rusher, 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.”

The pivot point came when Judon tore up his knee at the beginning of his junior season. In that year away, the hardest of his career, he grew into a wiser player and a more physically powerful one.

He could still go screaming by an opposing tackle on the outside, but on the next play, he’d fake the same way to get the blocker back peddling and then simply bowl him over.

Second-year pro Matthew Judon of the Ravens filled up the stat sheet Sunday in Green Bay, registering two sacks, seven tackles and a forced fumble.

Judon mostly lined up as a defensive end, with his hand in the dirt and the quarterback in his sights. His 21 sacks as a senior earned him the Gene Upshaw Award honoring the nation’s best lineman in Division II. But Grand Valley coaches also saw the seeds of the player who’s now covering NFL tight ends.

“Matt’s always had a really good feel for space,” Mitchell said. “Just a kinesthetic sense of how to bend and lean. He’s not a tunnel-vision player.”

Mitchell told NFL scouts they’d be getting a smart guy who could do many things on the field and who wouldn’t screw up off it.

The pre-draft reports included skepticism about the level of blockers Judon faced in Division II. But of course, he was used to doubters by that point.

He represents his small-school lineage proudly. On the day he was named defensive player of the week, he arrived at the Ravens complex wearing a Grand Valley hoodie and sweatpants.

“I still want to go talk to Michigan State’s recruiters and Michigan’s recruiters and ask them why they wouldn’t take me,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t even know. I don’t dwell on it. … There’s plenty of great players who went unnoticed until they got to this level.”

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