Markus Golden just had the best game of his career, and all he could think about – other than the victory – was that his family back in St. Louis got to watch the Thursday night game on broadcast TV.
Parents, siblings, cousins, even Grandma -- who doesn’t have cable TV, Golden was quick to point out -- saw him dominate the 49ers.
The second-year linebacker has been arguably the best player on defense for the Cardinals this season. He’s the first player in franchise history to record a sack in each of the first five games of the season, and his six sacks are among the NFL leaders. Despite being a second-round pick, there were questions about Golden’s potential coming into the NFL. His arms were short, he didn’t look like the long, athletic pass rusher.
But he had a motor.
That has always been Golden’s biggest attribute – a motor that didn’t quit. Fellow linebacker Chandler Jones marvels at him – “He’s the Energizer Bunny. I never see him get tired” – and the word relentless has been used to describe him countless times.
The motor has always been there, Golden said. As far back as he can remember it was about going, refusing to stop, and making sure he’d win. Victories not only on the football field but at home, showing his younger family members that there were ways to make life better outside of their neighborhoods in St. Louis.
His road wasn’t simple. But a look under the hood – and maybe Golden’s engine is a little less Lamborghini and a little more muscle car – that motor remains in prime condition.
“The motor comes from wanting to be that guy, wanting to make a name for my family,” Golden said. “My grandmother was always like, ‘You’re the one who will make something of yourself, you’ll be the one who goes to college.’ The motivation my family members gave me, the confidence they had in me. That’s where the motor comes from me.”
And in Golden’s mind, it’s always driving him home.
Midway through high school, Golden was getting into “a little trouble.” He would get into fights, and eventually, he was suspended from Affton High School and spent the spring semester of his sophomore year at an alternative school.
“It was like he was angry at everybody and everything,” his mother, Rhonda Golden, said.
But the move served as a wake-up call for Golden, who accepted the new discipline, determined not to let his future slip away. When he returned to Affton as a junior, Rhonda also sat him down to have a talk.
Some of the top shots of of outside linebacker Markus Golden
Rhonda Golden made Markus vow that every day when he went to school, he’d say hello to someone whom he didn’t normally say hello. If someone was sitting by himself, Markus needed to go sit next to that person for a minute. Have lunch with someone you wouldn’t normally eat with. See beyond yourself, his mother insisted. Sometimes, when you make others happy, she reasoned, you can make yourself happy.
Markus followed through. He had little choice.
“Every day I’d come home after school, she’d be like, ‘Did you do it? Did you talk to somebody?’ ” Markus said with a smile.
Golden was already a burgeoning football star. The team itself wasn’t very good, but that season, Golden exploded for 1,139 yards rushing as a running back and set a school-record with 168 tackles and 16 sacks. He followed that up with an astounding 2,264 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns as a senior, along with another 10 sacks.
His maturity kicked in as well. Before, “He wanted to be successful so badly,” his high school football coach, Dan Oliver said. “He wanted to win at all costs.” Oliver noted that Golden was so talented on the field, he couldn’t understand why other kids – trying their hardest – couldn’t produce more wins. Off the field, a “win” might be up for grabs in a verbal battle, or something could escalate.
That couldn’t continue.
“The neighborhood I was in, you try to be cool like the other kids, and I just had to be a leader,” Golden said. “I just didn’t want to be the one who made bad decisions.”
Oliver wonders if Golden had been 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds and not 6-2, 225 if he might’ve been allowed more leeway behaviorally – “People expect you to act like an adult because you look like an adult,” Oliver said – but said Golden’s transformation was nonetheless impressive.
Everyone on campus now was looking up to Golden. He even became the go-to person for teachers and administrators to help other students having a rough time. His mother chuckled when she noted that Markus would feel good about being called to the office and “it wasn’t for anything bad.”
“The best student in our school for those two years was Markus Golden,” Oliver said. “He went from a kid who was most likely to be in an argument to the kid who was most likely to mediate an argument.”
Golden hadn’t lost focus on winning. He just approached it differently, putting problems to the side and moving on. It paired nicely with an athlete who was still dominating. His older brother had had a chance to play at Missouri but after a trip to a junior college, it didn’t work out. Missouri wanted Golden as well, but he too needed to go the JC route, and Golden openly wondered to Oliver if he thought he would eventually get back to Missouri.
Oliver was never concerned. He saw how focused Golden had become. Not only did Golden go from junior college to Missouri, he became a star.
“I just realized, ‘Man, somebody has got to make it in my family and I’d rather it be me,’ ” Golden said. “I always believed I could do stuff. And we’re here today.”
The Cardinals almost didn’t draft Golden. As chronicled in the Amazon/NFL Films series “All or Nothing,” the team was planning on drafting running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round. Instead, the Lions jumped in to take Abdullah, and the Cardinals grabbed Golden.
This does not bother Golden. He was going to have the same mindset wherever he was in the NFL. He had an example to set.
Golden was the first member of his family to go to college and graduate. Multiple cousins have followed behind him. Now, Rhonda Golden said, forgoing college “is not an option anymore” when they come out of high school.
“He never takes credit, but he paved the way for a whole lot of our family,” Rhonda Golden said.
This is what inspires Golden. It’s the idea of Markus Golden Jr., his son that was born two days after the Cardinals drafted him in May of 2015. It’s the idea that his grandma, watching him on her cable-less television back in Missouri, can point at the screen and smile about his latest sack.
“It’s always been my mission to make my family members proud,” Golden said.
The Cardinals are pretty happy with him as well. Learning under Dwight Freeney last season as a rookie – Golden broke out a spin move against the Rams for a sack – he has paired with Jones to become the outside linebackers the team has sought for a while.
The guy coach Bruce Arians has begun calling “Junk” – short for the nickname “Junkyard Dog” – admits he still has much to learn. But he isn’t interested in measuring it either. No reason to set a limit on himself. Why start now?
He still calls his mother daily. If there is any one thing that makes her proud, it’s how humble her son has remained. It sounds like a family trait – “Sometimes I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, my son is playing in the NFL,’ ” she said – but she said there are times when she has to remind Markus he is a peer who works with certain players rather than a kid from St. Louis hanging around his idols.
In Golden’s mind, humble has nothing to do with it. Ask him about his football exploits, and the answer won’t be much. There’s no reason to celebrate two sacks against the 49ers when there’s a game against the Jets upcoming, just like there’s no reason to think he’s arrived, not when there will be more cousins growing up, looking west for that role model.
The motor doesn’t idle for long.
“People say, ‘Oh, he’s not happy with things,’ ” Golden said. “But I just have this mindset that I have to keep going. I promise you, I try to let it down. But it doesn’t go anywhere.”