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After the third win of their current four-game streak, the Arizona Cardinals came off the field in Jacksonville with a variety of expressions. A couple players snuck glances at cheerleaders. Two others joked about the fans who asked for their helmets. Quarterback Carson Palmer looked weary from a long game in humid conditions. Star receiver Larry Fitzgerald wore a huge, satisfied grin, and gave a bear hug to a team official waiting at the locker room door.
Then there was cornerback Patrick Peterson, coated in sweat, jogging briskly into the locker room, staring straight ahead. He looked like he was leaving the locker room before the game, rather than departing the field after a victory.
There has been a lot of discussion this season about the dark side of football culture, and how certain players can create an atmosphere of fear and negativity. But there is also the flip side: certain locker room leaders can cause a ripple effect of focus and professionalism. Patrick Peterson is one of those leaders.
"It's contagious, man," says linebacker Kevin Minter, who was Peterson's teammate at LSU. "You see him and you want to be just like that."
Peterson's leadership is a major reason why the Cardinals are 7-4 after a 40-11 destruction of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. They are ranked eighth in points allowed and tied for second with 15 interceptions. "You can't win if you don't score," Minter says mirthfully. Then he strikes a serious tone when he says, "We want to step on their necks."
Peterson, despite being only 23, is "definitely" one of the most respected players in the locker room, Minter says. That's shown in his play and his mentorship of Tyrann Mathieu, who was in jail last fall after being arrested on drug-related charges and is now a candidate for defensive Rookie of the Year. Peterson and Mathieu were teammates in Baton Rouge, and it was Peterson and his parents who housed Mathieu in South Florida when his football career was imperiled by marijuana use.
"We just wanted to get him away from all the distractions in Louisiana," Peterson says. "We wanted to help him start a new life. Not being around that Louisiana crowd.
"Not saying they're bad people, but he wasn't playing football. He was sitting around all day and guys were saying negative things."
Football is battling a toxic reputation, made worse with Jonathan Martin's sudden departure from the Miami Dolphins after bouts of alleged bullying, but the sport and a teammate within that sport turned Mathieu's life around. The "Honey Badger" has said a night in jail last fall woke him up to his deep love of football, and that he would do anything and everything to live his NFL dream. It was Peterson who helped him chase it. If there's a word for the opposite of bullying, that's what Peterson did with Mathieu.
Peterson himself hasn't needed much in the way of mentoring, other than from his parents. His LSU position coach, Ron Cooper, was struck by how unbothered Peterson was from the moment he was recruited.
"Patrick is a complete, total, rounded football player," says Cooper, who is now at the University of South Florida. "He knew where he was headed, and he knew at a young age. He had a total plan of preparation. Whatever his dad and mom did, it needs to be written in a book."
Cooper says Peterson was never late to a meeting, and he entered the classroom like he was entering a boardroom. (Peterson is one of the best-dressed players in the league, and he once said he wanted his NFL draft outfit to be "presidential.") The contagiousness Minter speaks of was apparent, even in a college setting. "The way he carried himself carried not only Tyrann, but a lot of the guys," Cooper says. "There was no doubt Pat was leading. His work ethic was very exceptional."
Perhaps it's no coincidence Mathieu unraveled after Peterson left campus, and then has pulled himself together over the last year. Mathieu won the starting free safety spot during the course of this win streak, and there have been no bad headlines since the draft. That's saying something, considering respected former general manager Bill Polian said he would have taken Mathieu off his board because he was "a poor teammate and a poor risk."
The poor risk had four tackles and two pass break-ups on Sunday against the Colts. His ability to understand schemes, which ramped up quickly between his first and second years at LSU, seems to be accelerating in Arizona as well. The Cardinals have allowed 14 and 11 points in the past two games with Mathieu as the starter in the secondary.
"He's been extremely focused, making nonstop plays each and every series," Peterson says. "He's done nothing but the right things here. His maturity level is unbelievable. He'll continue to grow as a man and a football player."
Skepticism is warranted with Mathieu, and he knows it better than anyone. But sometimes the story of an influential veteran leader, the impressionable young player, and the NFL locker room culture has a different ending than anyone expects.