Cardinals first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche (left) catches up with coach Bruce Arians on Friday at the team's training facility.
The literal drop came first, then the fall from grace, and finally, the tumble in the NFL draft.
One incident defined Robert Nkemdiche in the months between his college regular season finale and the first round on Thursday. The Cardinals' choice at No. 29 had the talent of a top-10 pick, but that possibility was erased when he fell from a fourth-floor hotel window in December and was charged with marijuana possession by the responding officers.
The star defensive tackle from Ole Miss was tagged with the catch-all "character concern" label, making teams wary of picking him, which began his slide down draft boards. Nkemdiche sat in the green room of Chicago's Auditorium Theatre for three hours on Thursday before the Cardinals called his name, but after a pre-draft thorough evaluation, they were one team that became a big believer.
"I've been following Robert since high school," defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said. "I'm from Georgia. Before I got into coaching in the NFL, I worked the Under Armour camps and things like that and I followed him. I've always said from Day One, 'This guy's got a future in the NFL if he takes care of the business he has.' Unfortunately some stuff happened, but then when you meet him, he owned up to it.
"I've been in that situation. I've done some stuff that probably would have kept me from standing right here talking to you now. But he was remorseful for it. He looked me in the eyes as a man and said, 'Yeah, Coach, I did it, but it's not a habit of mine. It's not something I do every day.' Then you go back and check his track record, and he's never been labeled as a bad guy, he's never flunked drug tests, he's never done those types of things. So who am I to say that one incident should keep him from living his dream?"
There is a perception of Nkemdiche – this drinking, smoking, troublemaker -- because of his transgression, but in truth, his persona is well-rounded.
He's a fine saxophone player who is looking forward to playing at jazz clubs in the Valley. He told ESPN he wants to own a domesticated panther. His Twitter account – inactive since October – is littered with philosophical questions and existential thoughts. At one point he asks his followers why they want him to only talk about football. When someone agrees and says balance is important, he tweets back, "Extremely."
Nkemdiche believes the inability to fit his personality into a neat box was a bigger reason for his draft day slip than his legal trouble.
"If you look at my past, my history, I don't get in trouble," Nkemdiche said. "I'm not a trouble-maker. So I was confused as to where these issues were coming from. The issues were, I'm not the stereotype. They don't want to say that, but that's the truth because I don't have a long history of incidents. I had an incident that was stupid, of course, and I learned from it. But this team saw what they were supposed to see. That's why I'm here, and I'm excited."
Nkemdiche was tracked down by entertainment website TMZ on the streets of Chicago after his selection Thursday night. Its camera taped him giving a bear-hug and some cash to a homeless man.
"There's a different side to Robert," Buckner said. "He's not an 'A' personality or a 'B' personality. He marches to the beat of his own drum. In life and inside the football locker room, you should welcome stuff like that. I don't want all these cookie-cut guys where everybody's alike. I want guys with their own personality, but when they come together it makes perfect harmony."
Some organizations don't like that, but from coach Bruce Arians and General Manager Steve Keim on down, the Cardinals have shown the willingness to take on perceived character risks. They did so with safety Tyrann Mathieu, and it has worked out fabulously.
This offseason, both outside linebacker Chandler Jones and Nkemdiche have been brought in despite high-profile off-field incidents.
When Nkemdiche went to dinner with Arians during the pre-draft process, he stopped himself during a conversation to let Arians know he wasn't just saying what the coach wanted to hear. Arians' response? "I'm feeling you. I'm not listening to you. I'm feeling you."
That was the point when Nkemdiche felt comfortable, when he knew this union could be mutually beneficial moving forward.
"This is the perfect place to be because somewhere along the line somebody on the staff knows how to look through people and see people's souls," Nkemdiche said. "That speaks measures, because for people in this world, it's hard to look at somebody's soul. They're so caught up in the perception of whatever they heard, what they're supposed to think. They don't really have an opinion of their own. Somebody on this staff has an opinion of their own and that's why I'm here. I'm very excited, and I'm very thankful."
First-round pick Robert Nkemdiche comes to Arizona as a member of the Cardinals