Matthew Judon was assigned a seat on the sideline on Sunday, Oct. 1. The Patriots traveled to Dallas, Texas that weekend to play the Cowboys with a less-than-promising season ahead of them. Struggling with offensive woes, the team had a 1-2 record, Mac Jones grappling with poor performance at quarterback, and very little depth on their receiving core. But, that day, the Patriots defense would receive a blow they never wanted.
Dressed in the dark blue Patriots uniform with his identifiable red sleeves, Judon and the rest of the New England defense seemed like the team’s only chance to be spared from last place in the AFC East division. But all that changed in a single game.
Early in the fourth quarter, they were on track to lose with a score of 31-3, one of the worst losses of Bill Belichick’s career as the Patriots' Head Coach, and one of the many this season. Judon attempted to tackle Cowboys running back, Christopher “Deuce” Vaughn, but his arm was pulled behind him as he hit the ground.
He didn’t get back up after the play, and once he got back up, he held his arm while walking to the blue medical tent. At that moment, teammates and fans knew something was wrong.
“After the game, his teammates talked about how he looked devastated. Devastated to know that it was a serious injury,” Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss said.
Only four games into his seventh NFL season, veteran linebacker and team leader Matthew Judon was told he would need surgery on his right bicep which would take at least two months to heal.
But, much like other instances in his life, Judon decided he wouldn’t let this injury decide his fate.
Judon came from what those around him described as humble beginnings, which many credit to being his motivation to strive for success. Being one of ten children, he took the number 9 in honor of his siblings. His career started playing football at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield, MI.
“He’s not the son of a superstar NFL player, but you would never be able to tell from the way he works,” said Mackenzie Barrett, one of Judon’s former teammates in high school. He took the opportunities he was given and became a team captain because of it.
His confidence in the sport carried with him into college. He committed to Grand Valley State University, a Division II school, as a defensive end. Even though he never played in Division I, Judon was one of the sack leaders in the NCAA while at GVSU.
“I can remember him telling starters in the weight room our freshman year ‘Hey, I’m taking your spot next year. I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’ll be playing and you won’t’,” Judon’s former roommate Isiah Dunning said in a joking tone.
They roomed together all four years Dunning was at GVSU. Today, Dunning is the Defensive Line Coach at their alma mater.
Right before training camp in 2011, a guest speaker came to speak to the team. The message was, the odds are stacked against you as a D2 player trying to enter the NFL. When the speaker asked who wanted to play in the NFL one day, Dunning remembered Judon was one of the first to shoot his hand up.
“That’s just who Matt was, confident,” Dunning said. He never expected that Judon would make it to the NFL, despite his skill. Dunning said the development they received from the Laker coaches helped make Judon into the athlete he is today.
It was unlike Judon not to get back up, and that instance rarely occurred since high school. During his time playing at Grand Valley State University, Judon suffered a major tear in his ACL and was medically redshirted for his entire junior season.
The day of the injury was also the team’s season opener against Azusa Pacific University, another Division II school. Judon went down seven plays into the game and was taken to the locker room to be evaluated.
“He kind of limped off to the sideline and then tried to run back onto the field a few plays later before the trainers had to pull him in,” Dunning said. He was mentally struggling over not being able to play that season, but according to Dunning, you would have never been able to tell.
“He was never the one to let it show how bad it hurt him to the open public,” Dunning said.
Even during his season on the bench, Judon attended practices, traveled with the team, and hit the weight room. So, when he returned to the field, he played even better than he did before.
In 2015, Judon broke the NCAA Division II individual single-season sack record with 20.5 sacks. The Lakers’ record drastically improved with his re-entry. They went from having a 6-5 record to having a 12-3 record from one season to the next.
Judon was drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 draft by the Baltimore Ravens, despite there being fears of his skills being non-transferable and his history of injuries. By 2017, he earned the spot of starting outside linebacker. That season, Judon ranked fifth on the team for a total number of tackles at 60. He also had 8 sacks, the second-highest on the team.
In 2021, he was signed by the New England Patriots. According to Reiss, people weren’t sure if Judon’s talent was “a product of the Ravens’ defensive scheme.”
“He was a little bit more of a part-time player, and that’s actually why [the Ravens] allowed him to make it to unrestricted free agency,” Reiss said.
Boston Globe journalist Christopher Price said people were expecting a lot from Judon because he was a “defensive star” and was “getting a lot of money” to play in New England.
Judon signed with the Patriots under a four-year, $56 million contract which made him the highest-paid defender on the team at the time based on contract value.
Price said he thought Belichick wanted Judon to lead the defense, but Judon had to respect what he called the “pecking order” of the team to be accepted. He noted that Judon had made the mistake of misstepping when understanding the culture at the Ravens.
“I believe that Bill told him to be a leader, to be assertive, to be aggressive, to be the kind of guy who serves as an example. And I think that he did that. He walked that line very, very well,” Price said.
Patriots fans seemed excited when Judon signed. A poll with more than 3100 respondents posted on the Pats Pulpit’s website, a news and opinion site for fans, showed that 94 percent of voters graded his signing as an A or B.
As for his teammates, it didn’t seem to take long for him to adjust to the team. Price said the guys on the team seemingly respected Judon because of how well he understood and acclimated to the Patriots’ culture.
Besides meshing well with his teammates, Judon quickly became the player who was most likely to sack their opponent’s quarterback.
In his first season with the Patriots, the team had a 10-7 record and clinched a wildcard seed for the playoffs. Judon had reached a career-high of 12.5 sacks in 2021 and reached 15.5 sacks in 2022.
Judon’s number of sacks in 2021 was double the number of the second-highest sack leader, Kyle Van Noy. Despite the instability of the New England offense, Judon acted as a pillar for the defense.
“I think what he has proven coming to the Patriots is his skills are not a result of the scheme as much as his excellence as a player,” Reiss said.
He has always acted as a beam of light for the team to pull them out of bad moods and bickering with each other.
“It’s no coincidence that he has a locker that’s one of the central spots in the locker room,” Price said with a smile on his face. “He has two giant speakers next to his locker and sometimes, when you go in there, the music is cranked to 11.”
And, even though he can’t compete on the field, he finds other ways to hold competitions with his teammates. Price remembers one notable interaction between Judon and safety Jabrill Peppers the week the Patriots played the Jets.
“He and Jabrill Peppers, another guy who just brings a relentless level of energy, were talking trash back and forth across the locker room about Madden,” Price said. “That for me encapsulated the level of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement, he seems to bring all the time.”
Back in high school, Barrett said he had a presence and always made everyone laugh. And, according to Dunning, the only difference in Judon’s personality is he got significantly better at being interviewed and talking to groups of people.
“He hasn’t changed much. He’s still the same guy. He doesn’t let the fame or success go to his head,” Dunning said. “What you see is what you get. What you see in the interviews, what you see on the field, what you see outside the locker room, that’s who Matt Judon has always been.”
Dunning recalled his first time talking to Judon the summer before they both arrived at GVSU when they decided to be roommates. They had connected over Facebook and started messaging each other.
“One of the first things he asked me was like ‘Hey, do you play video games’,” Dunning said. “I let him know what games, what system, and whatnot. And, the first thing he says ‘Oh, I can’t wait to whoop you when we get to campus.”
Dunning said Judon’s competitiveness was one of his most identifiable traits.
“Whether it was racing, lifting weights, or even video games, he played over and over and over again until he won.”
As of Week 14 of this season, the Patriots are 3-10 and were eliminated from playoff contention at the earliest point they have since 2000. To onlookers, the losses seem to be weighing on the team.
“You can tell it’s kind of wearing on him. I mean, it’s wearing on everybody around the team,” Price said.
Since his injury, Judon has watched only two wins and eight losses from the sidelines. According to Reiss, he looks like he is impacted by the losses.
“Obviously, he’s hurt by it. Because he wants to be playing more than anything,” Reiss said.
But, his humor still hasn’t gone away. The week the Patriots lost to the Colts at home, Judon did his part to try and motivate the team.
“We were in the locker room and he came walking through. He was coming from the weight room and he was upbeat and trying to get everyone to stay loose and not take [the loss] too hard,” Reiss said.
Judon has always been rumored to aim for a 2023 return, and Belichick left an open door for him to return to practice according to an article in the Boston Herald and NESN published on Dec. 4.
Judon has taken the necessary steps to ensure a smooth return. He has been traveling with the team, training with them, and, as Reiss described, “acting as a coach” to his teammates.
But, as a veteran, a smooth return isn’t guaranteed. As players get older, the odds of them bouncing back become less. Though it is impossible to predict, those around him say his resilience will keep him on the field.
After graduating from GVSU in 2015, Dunning remained close to Judon. To this day, he describes their relationship as “very close”. After seeing his recovery from his ACL injury in college, Dunning has a unique perspective on how he recovers.
“He’s always been a control the controllables and not spending too much time worrying about the things that are out of his reach or control,” Dunning said. Judon’s mindset hasn’t changed, the same mindset that allowed him to beat the odds he was formerly told were stacked against him.
“Whenever it’s time for him to be back on the field, it’s gonna be better than he was before.”
Barrett also had a similar response when asked how he thought Judon was handling his injury as a veteran defenseman. And, even Reiss and Price both said Judon is taking the steps necessary to ensure a proper return.
“I think one of the reasons why he continues to attack his rehab is that he wants to prove people wrong,” Price said. “He’s over 30, he suffered a season-ending injury, and some people think that he can’t get back to the level that he was before.”
On Oct. 1, Matthew Judon suffered a season-ending injury and has since sat on the sideline. As a veteran player, the odds are once again stacked against him playing to his full potential in the NFL. But, because of his competitiveness and perseverance, the odds of it becoming a career-ending injury remain low.
“We can assume he’s not going to allow it to derail him when it comes to trying to get back out there and trying to continue to shape his legacy,” Price said.
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