When Christian Matthew arrived at the Dignity Health Training Center for the first time Thursday, he paused to look at the signage and the birdhead logo on the building.
"I had to take a moment," the cornerback said Friday, after the Cardinals had the first practice of their rookie minicamp. "That was surreal."
Surreal not just because Matthew was coming from Valdosta State, not just because he was a seventh-round pick, but because Matthew's NFL career almost never happened of his own volition. He'll be trying to win a job in the Cardinals' secondary with a locker among Byron Murphy and Budda Baker, when his locker could have been near the breakroom of a Walmart back in Georgia.
The NFL was Matthew's original plan, of course, when he first arrived at Georgia Southern as a freshman. But coaching changes, eligibility issues and Covid bounced him from there to Samford and Valdosta State.
"Moving around I held the faith for sure, but it felt like (the dream) died when I got to Valdosta," Matthew acknowledged.
His future career was going to be in management and logistics, so when Walmart offered him a manager job at his young age, "I was like, 'All right, I'm about to be getting a little older here, maybe I should get a job, maybe I should move on with my life."
He was "very close" to going through with the store director job with Walmart, hoping it could be a stepping stone for the future. That's when his family and his girlfriend stepped in.
They reminded him that the window of being an NFL player is much smaller than as a manager at Walmart or any company. Those jobs would always be there. A chance to play football wouldn't.
At 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, Matthew has the frame NFL teams crave at the position. He lists the usual suspects of star players over the years he'd like to emulate – Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson – hoping that at some point, he too can make his NFL mark.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury said it is the players that face adversity – that haven't had a storybook high school and college career – that tend to be better prepared for the challenge of pro football.
"I think that can be a real advantage for him if he approaches his opportunity the right way," Kingsbury said.
Matthew is 25, about six weeks older than Jeff Gladney, about 14 months older than Murphy and more than two years older than Marco Wilson, the presumed top three cornerbacks on the roster at the moment.
With that age comes some maturity – "I'll make sure I get to sleep and not up all night playing video games" – but he can't help but laugh when it's brought up that he is "old" in his position room.
"You think about it, no other occupation starting off at 25 is old," Matthew said. "Of course, in the NFL, it gets poked a little bit."
That's OK with Matthew. He wants to use that too to his advantage, just like he plans on using some of the skills that almost got him his managerial position with the team. As a manager, he said, you have to hold yourself accountable first before your team. That definitely can translate.
Maybe, after all, this football gig will work on his resumé as a future manager just as well as that potential position at Walmart.
"(This is) a forever thing," Matthew said. "No matter what happens, that (draft) phone call definitely changed my life."
Images from the first day of 2022 Rookie Minicamp