Linebacker Karlos Dansby, left, walks off the Superdome turf in New Orleans after his final game as a Cardinal in the 2009 playoffs, and right, sporting his new 55 jersey as he works at a recent training camp practice in his return to Arizona.
He stood in the locker room that he once and now again called home, close to where his actual first stall had been in University of Phoenix Stadium.
Gone for three seasons in Miami, Karlos Dansby had returned to the team that drafted him in 2004 in a storyline that the linebacker had never quite dismissed.
"It was always a thought in my mind that it could happen," Dansby said. "That's how the league goes sometimes."
Dansby returns a different player, though. He's older and wiser, no surprise for a guy who is now 31 and entering his 10th season. He's richer too, having parlayed his back-to-back franchise tag years at the end of his first Cardinals stint (worth $18
million total) into the free-agent contract with the Dolphins that paid him more than $22 million before he was released this past offseason.
Money was a major force in why Dansby left the first time – "I knew when it came down to what he was asking for and what he deserved, he wasn't going to be here," said Dansby's teammate and friend, Darnell Dockett – but so too was the pull of home.
Dansby, from Alabama, loved the idea of being closer to home after six years in the desert.
"It was a very hard thing to do, leaving the Cardinals," Dansby said. "So many friends, so many relationships we built over the years. It was hard to make that kind of decision but it was a decision I had to make for my family.
"I was closer to home, closer to family. I had been out West for so long, my nieces and nephews were growing up and I didn't get a chance to see them, interact with them. It was something that was heavy on me at the time, and I needed to get home and see my family."
Dansby smiles at the thought. He has his own family now too, and fatherhood has impacted him as a person. The old Karlos would have had a hard time accepting the fact the only contract waiting for him after his Miami release was for one year and a little more than $2 million. He might have had a hard time dealing with the fact an incumbent – in this case, linebacker Daryl Washington – had his long-time NFL number 58 and he wasn't going to get it back.
(Dansby now wears No. 55.)
But this is a Dansby with perspective, and that has been invaluable to a defense that desperately needed him once Washington was suspended four games by the NFL.
"Karlos has been outstanding since he came back," said Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who coached Dansby in Miami. "He teaches the young guys. He's a veteran. He has a feel for things. He can call out things by experience that a lot of people can't see but Karlos can still play. He can still run. He still has the ability. He's smooth, he's smart. He's a great team player. He's a great leader."
Coach Bruce Arians was giddy the day the Cardinals signed Dansby, in no small part because he would fill the Washington void. Dansby now is a "security blanket" for leadership, Arians said.
"It's everything we needed in Daryl's absence," Arians said.
Perhaps the three years away made the heart grow fonder. Dockett always stayed in touch with Dansby, and when Dansby was released and the Cardinals were undergoing the roster overhaul, a possible return was a frequent topic of conversation.
Dansby laughed at the suggestion at first, Dockett said, but he kept pushing and eventually reached out to General Manager Steve Keim to endorse such a move.
"When he left we never replaced him," Dockett said. "We had guys fill in the role but you can't replace Karlos."
Dansby comes back to a franchise that looks little like the one he left. Only a handful of players remain on the roster since the 2009 team Dansby last played on. His best friend was safety Adrian Wilson, who was already released himself and signed with New England by the time Dansby became a Cardinal again.
The conversation of Dansby going back to Arizona never came up between he and Wilson, Dansby said. But when Dansby signed, "he called me and cussed me out about it," Dansby said, laughing.
Dansby isn't about reminiscing, though. He wants to find his role, wants to get the team back to the postseason. The Cardinals, in Dansby's mind, are a playoff franchise. He was gone for the years when they weren't.
His time away "is the best thing it could have happened to me," Dansby said.
"Change, sometimes, it's a good thing."