The night before the Cardinals’ season opener, Paris Lenon stood in front of his defensive teammates and let them inside.
For many in that room at the team hotel Saturday night, it was a place they hadn’t been before.
They’ve all seen his hulking exterior walking around the locker room with the rippling muscles stacked upon rippling muscles and the shine of his freshly shaven head propped up by his burly traps. They’ve seen the brutal punishments his 237-pound frame can unload on a helpless ball carrier. They’ve seen it help Lenon blossom into a two-time captain for the Cardinals.
But they never knew what made those muscles. They didn’t know how he got here.
Then again, not many people do.
For 10 minutes, Lenon stood in front of his defensive charges and gave them a peak behind the curtain. Hidden there in plain view were his stints with seven NFL teams, some as short as 11 days, his time in the XFL, his season in NFL Europe and the years Lenon spent out of football hoping to get another chance.
But as much as Lenon, 34, showed his teammates, he left a lot out.
“I didn’t want to spend a lot of time about it because it’s not about me,” said Lenon, who signed with the Cardinals in 2010.
Saturday night, Lenon shared his background so he could make two main points, passed down from his father, also named Paris: Don’t take grief from anyone and wherever you go, always establish yourself.
“At times in life, and especially in football, you establish who you are with force,” Lenon said. “And that’s OK. That’s pretty much what I was trying to say, that us as a defense going out there, we can’t take any mess from any team. We have to establish who we are every play and every time we step out on that field.”
They’re words Lenon lives by and they’ve become the foundation of his leadership philosophy.
He’s heard the story about the boy who cried wolf enough to know it translates into real life. He’s sparse with his words around the locker room and, to his teammates, it looks like Lenon is keeping to himself. But Lenon doesn’t like to talk just to talk.
“If you say a lot that really has no substance then when the time comes when you’re trying to convey something, people are generally going to try to ignore you because they heard so much noise so many times,” Lenon said. “So I just prefer to say something that’s meaningful at the right time as opposed to a lot of stuff all the time.”
And when Lenon does talk, there’s less fluff than his body fat index. His words get even leaner in the huddle.
“Man, if he’s anymore straight forward he’ll be a politician,” fellow linebacker O’Brien Schofield said. “He’s real serious. No one on the defense takes him lightly.”
Third-year nose tackle
He doesn’t have time to.
In the last year of a three-year contract, Lenon said he wants to keep playing. He feels like he can keep playing, but for how much longer? That he doesn’t know but one thing is for sure: he’s outworking men 10 years his junior.
Lenon’s work ethic is myth-like in the Cardinals’ locker room. He’ll often work out twice a day, once with the team and again at Performance Enhancement Professionals in Scottsdale.
But if his work ethic has reached mythic proportions, his workouts have become legendary.
During the offseason he pushed a Cadillac Escalade and did “the craziest type of sled work you can imagine” until his legs were numb. Even in the gym, Lenon isn’t walking around the weight room cheering in his teammates – or as Schofield, who works out with Lenon at PEP, put it: “He’s not a rah-rah guy.”
Lenon doesn’t just rely on his statuesque physique to keep him in the league. He hits the books as hard as he hits the weights, Schofield said.
“You can tell that over the years he’s accumulated so much information that his football IQ is like crazy,” he said.
Just being around Lenon makes Williams want to work harder. It’s also showed the lineman what’s in store for the opponents’ offense.
“Sometimes looking into Paris’ eyes I’m glad he’s on my team,” Williams said. “The way he looks, the way he plays, the way he just reacts, it’s like something possesses him, especially when he’s on the field.
“When he puts on that helmet, he goes to a different mode. Good dude off the field, but football-wise, I definitely don’t want to be in (Number) 51’s way when we’re on the field.”
Lenon’s been living by the words of his father since he signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent out of Richmond in 2000. Less than two months later he was cut and spent the season out of football.
His next opportunity came with the Memphis Maniacs of the XFL in 2001. The short-lived league gave Lenon a chance to learn under defensive coordinator Walt Corey, the mastermind of the Buffalo Bills’ defense during their Super Bowl run of the early 1990s.
Lenon returned to the NFL in April 2001 with the Green Bay Packers, but was only on the roster three months. He signed with Seattle in August that year but spent just 11 days with the Seahawks before getting cut again.
Two days after Christmas in 2001, Lenon received a gift that’s kept on giving. The Packers re-signed him to their practice squad. When the NFL season ended he was assigned to the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe and when the 2002 NFL season kicked off, Lenon was on the Packers’ 53-man roster.
He’s played in all 16 games the last 10 seasons for the Packers, the Lions, the Rams and the Cardinals. But it’s with the Cardinals where Lenon has flourished.
He had five sacks in his first two seasons in Arizona, which equaled his previous career total. But what was it about the Cardinals that allowed Lenon to blossom? Even he can’t put a finger on it. Maybe it’s the defensive scheme? Maybe Lenon’s just reached that point in his career?
“To be honest with you, I’ve improved as a player but for the most part I’ve been a solid player my whole career,” he said. “I’m taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Lenon has started all 33 games he’s played for the Cardinals, he was named the defensive captain for the second straight season and had his first multi-sack game of his career Sunday against the Seahawks.
“He has an opportunity and he’s just taken off,” said
“Something that has not wavered in his approach to the game is his intensity, his worth ethic, his approach to just being a professional. I’m very, very impressed with what he’s done and how long he’s done it.”
But without those first two seasons, Lenon may not have thrived in this league.
Every down he plays, every pound he lifts, every hit he makes is driven by those teams that passed on him. His teammates see it. It took Holliday less than 30 seconds to bring it up.
“I came into this world probably with a chip on my shoulder,” Lenon said. “You know, that’s just me. Anybody who knows me, they would tell you the same thing.
“Honestly, I prefer it that way. I love when people doubt me. Love it.”