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In the fight or flight nature of the NFL world, New Orleans Saints’ superstar defensive end Cameron Jordan is about as warm and genuine as they come. He’s about as good a player as they come, too. And at 28 years old, Jordan — a former first-round draft pick — is enjoying the best season of his career while becoming a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year award candidate for one of the league’s most improved units.
To understand Jordan’s brilliance, we must first understand his football origin. At 6-foot-4, 287 pounds, Jordan’s foray into the gridiron was not a smooth or particularly graceful one.
As an eighth grader, he was instead excelling in myriad activities like tap dance, piano, golf, tennis, soccer and most especially, on the hoops circuit. “In my mind, I thought I was going to become a great basketball player,” Jordan tells Yahoo Sports. “I loved it.”
His father, Steve — a former six-time Pro Bowl tight end with the Minnesota Vikings — had other ideas, though.
“I told him, ‘You don’t even like to run, and you’re really not going to like it when you’re 240 pounds in a couple years,'” the elder Jordan tells Yahoo. “He’s a smart guy, so he stopped playing basketball.”
“My father dropped me off at [football] practice and said figure it out,” the younger Jordan says. “He threw pads on me and that was it.”
“At age two, he would bang his head on the wall,” Steve, now an engineer, says. “He was a rough kid. It was like the WWE in our house. Wrestling half the time. I could see really early that he was going to be a physical kid. At nine years old, he had an altercation on the bus and I was like, ‘Some day, there’s going to be a time when we will celebrate that type of behavior.'”
Cameron Jordan, however, didn’t take to football right away either, in part because his coaches stuck him at offensive tackle, a position he loathed. In turn, he complained of asthma attacks to skip additional running, despite the fact he’s never actually been diagnosed with asthma. “I was fighting the concept of it because it was forced upon me,” Jordan says. “The whining of being an over-pampered child. I wasn’t interested in the gateway to football.”
What flipped the switch for Jordan wasn’t some jarring hit or marquee win either, but rather the cumulative effect of losing playing time to less talented, harder working kids, something he says “deeply bothered” him. “I’ve got a major competitive streak. I don’t really lose,” he explains.
Steve agrees: “He’s always been super competitive and has always loved the team camaraderie, but even he never played football, he would have been successful.”
As a junior in high school, Cam was attending a Nike SPARQ camp, a breeding ground for recruits to draw the eye of college recruiters. One day, the coaches asked the campers to divide between offense and defense, and Jordan seized the opportunity. “I play defense,” he declared. “It was like the flip of a switch. ‘Why I am taking all these hits when I can deliver them?’ ”
And that was that. Within the next year, Jordan flourished and his football prowess became nationally known. As a high school senior in Chandler, Arizona, he recorded 17.5 sacks and committed to California-Berkeley, where he became one of college football’s most devastating defensive players.
To best describe Jordan’s dominance, the former basketball standout — and “weekend warrior” as he refers to his YMCA pickup runs — wants to implement a well known basketball statistic to the NFL.
He thinks having double-digit sacks, tackles for loss and passes defensed should be coined the football “triple-double.” That way he can draw comparisons to his favorite hoopers, a list that includes LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and his new favorite player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom he says he “can’t wait to watch what he does next.”
With two games still remaining in the regular season, Jordan accomplished the “triple-double.” That translates to 12 sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 11 pass defenses, something that hadn’t been done since Houston Texans mega-talent J.J. Watt. The defensive end did so in both 2012 and 2014, while simultaneously capturing the AP Defensive Player of the Year award each year.
Jordan is also the league’s highest-rated edge rusher, according to Pro Football Focus, and has played a remarkable 92 percent of snaps this season. In fact, he has eclipsed the 90 percent mark every season since 2012 and has not missed a single game in seven professional seasons, both of which showcase his remarkable commitment to conditioning. In other words, his durability matched with his production is unparalleled.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jordan became just the second player over the past 10 years to bat down four passes in a single game (their stats on batted passes don’t go back any further than that). Moreover, since 2012, Jordan ranks second in the NFL with 29 batted passes (behind only Watt) and ranks ninth in the league with 57.5 sacks. All of this for a guy who has played defensive end, defensive tackle and even partook in a stint at outside linebacker.
“Anything to mess with the quarterback,” he says.
As much as Jordan now loves football, he is very much a man with an assortment of interests and passions. For one, family always comes first, a reality instilled in him as a child. His mother, whom he calls “the most kind-hearted person,” is an inspiration. The two communicate on a daily basis.
He refers to his father as “an inspiration because of how active he was within the community.”
When his sister got married last summer, it was a quiet ceremony with zero guests. Jordan flew in surprised her anyway by crashing the wedding. Steve says: “He took a red eye to Arizona after a charity event in Carolina, and then flew to Turks and Caicos. He just said, ‘I’m not missing this.’ ”
Cam and his fiance Nicki, have two children, whom he gushes about.
“I’m completely able to compartmentalize my life,” he says. “It’s not fair for me to come home after a bad game and let my emotions affect the way I am as a parent to my kids. Separating the two and separating football from everything else, it’s a necessity.”
Most recently, Jordan was nominated for the NFL’s prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award, given annually to the player who best represents the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. It’s a nomination he was frankly surprised to garner and quickly deflect.
“It’s great if I can start a scholarship for inner city youth,” Jordan says, “but it’s not going to encourage or discourage me.”
“The community side came early, because he saw what we did,” the elder Jordan tells Yahoo Sports. “I try to tell him sometimes, now that you’ve got kids, you need to make sure you spend enough time at home. That’s not something you can force on a person. … He just has the bent to try and be that light. It’s what we talk about. Being that light in the world.”
Jordan is a proponent of literacy programs, physical fitness for youth, as well as anti-bullying and ending domestic violence, shepherding his message throughout all of New Orleans. He spends nearly every off-day in the community as the face of the Saints Kids Club. He also gives motivational speeches, visits hospitals and supports his teammates’ foundations, either by hosting the events or attending them.
And he loves spending time with children. “I do enjoy the organic aspect of being around elementary school kids,” he says. “They treat you like a normal person and they know that another person cares about them. … This is just something I’ve always done and it’s because of the dad and mother I have.”
“He understands the impact you can have in terms of the position he’s in,” Steve Jordan says. “He’s magical with kids. He really has a passion for them.”
When he wasn’t working summer camps during the offseason, Jordan also embarked on a USO tour to southwest Asia and the Middle East to spend time with American soldiers. He has family members who have served in the military and felt he’d never fully really grasp what it meant to serve until spending time with military personnel on a foreign base.
“You think about what our military does for us, but you don’t think about the conditions,” Jordan says. “I wanted to understand what they are going through and tell them how much I appreciated what they are doing.”
Moving forward, Jordan wants to visit more military bases and spend time with troops. He is excited to get married and hellbent on continuing his work within the community to help fulfill the dreams of those who are less fortunate. As for his football goals, they are quite simple: He wants to win a Super Bowl — the Saints will compete in the playoffs for the first time since 2013 — and he wants to be the best player in the NFL. Ideally both will go hand-in-hand. Regardless of what happens, he will be happy.
“I want to keep improving as a person,” Jordan says. “I’m completely blessed. I’m thankful.”
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.