FOXBOROUGH — Matt Judon wanted out.
He wasn’t interested in tweaks to the game plan. He wanted no part of listening to in-game adjustments. And most of all, he didn’t want to hear any halftime speeches.
Matt Judon just wanted out of the locker room so he could continue wreaking havoc.
Grand Valley State was dominating undefeated Ashland in a NCAA Division 2 football quarterfinal in 2015 and Judon, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Patriots in March, was spearheading the Lakers’ defensive effort en route to a 28-14 halftime lead.
From Judon’s perspective, everything was going perfectly against a squad that had handled Grand Valley a few weeks earlier. Revenge was tasting particularly sweet, and he didn’t want anything spoiling it.
“I was getting ready to pull the team back up to try and give that talk, you know, the coach giving the talk for a locker room,” coach Matt Mitchell recently recalled. “And Matt was basically like, ‘Coach, we don’t need no talking to. We’re here to play and we’re going to beat these guys in the second half. Get us out of here. Get us out. Get us out of the locker room.’ And he said that in front of the whole squad. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ "
This was no display of disrespect from a rogue player. The complete opposite, said Mitchell.
“He had respect and a voice with the coaching staff too,” said Mitchell. “I think that the best teams I’ve ever been around, we’ve won a lot of games for Grand Valley, the best teams are not coach led, they’re peer led … Matt represented peer leadership, which drives the team way farther than the coach leadership.”
Judon smiled last week as he was reminded of it. One of his assignments as a defensive end that day was to check standout tight end Adam Shaheen (coincidentally now with the Dolphins), and he was handling it with aplomb.
“Coaches always want to over emphasize stuff, and make sure everybody got it. And make sure and yell and try to heighten the moment,” said Judon. “And I just knew that our defense was so prepared, and we were doing a great job talking, and our offense was moving the ball. And they were scoring almost at will. And so, I just thought at the time, for him to come in and like give a rah-rah speech, we don’t need that. We actually really didn’t even need halftime with how we were doing.”
Following that standout season, in which Grand Valley reached the national semifinals and Judon led all NCAA divisions with 20 sacks, he brought his leadership — and uncanny ability to get to the quarterback — to the Ravens.
There was a pitstop in New England before he made his way to Baltimore, when then Patriots assistant Brendan Daly put Judon through a grueling pre-draft private workout.
“It sucked for real,” said Judon, shaking his head. “He put me through a hell of a workout. And then we also went in a meeting room, and he just wrote down some plays and stuff, and it was extensive. Just unfortunate they didn’t get me back then, but I’m here now and things have a way of working out.”
The last five seasons, Judon has racked up 34.5 sacks, and some memorable moments and “fun battles” against the team he’s now joined. In his rookie season, Judon had one of his welcome to the NFL moments at Gillette Stadium courtesy of one of New England’s most popular players.
“I remember tackling LeGarrette Blount and getting a headache,” Judon said. “That’s a big man.”
In 2019, Judon helped the Ravens hand the Patriots their first loss in a Week 9, prime-time matchup.
“So, just handing them that ‘L,’ that was pretty fun,” said Judon. “Now I’m on the other side and I’m trying to see how it is to hand teams Ls when I’m in this building.”
Among the many enjoyable memories Judon has of the rivalry are his dealings with Tom Brady. Both the physical and verbal jousting.
“Tom talks on the field and, you know, he says what comes to mind in the moment. He says what he feels like he has to say, but it’s never disrespectful or it’s never personal,” said Judon, who will get to renew acquaintances with Brady in Week 4. “So, I enjoy talking trash with Tom because I talk as well. It’s not cordial, but it never gets personal. It’s never like a point-the-finger-at-somebody type thing. So, it was just always cool. And you played it off.
“He is who he is, and he’s done so much for this league. You help him up, and be like, ‘Better luck next time.’ Or you just say whatever you’re going to say, but you never attack the person. It’s always respect for the game and respect for the player. But you know, you talk trash. That just comes along with it. And Tom’s been in this league for a long time, so he knows how to talk enough and try to get under people’s skin.”
In addition to Brady, Judon and the Patriots are set to face a bevy of big-name quarterbacks, including six games against AFC East foes that feature mobile signal-callers. Judon’s quickness and instincts will be key in helping to control and defend the dual threat.
“You’ve got to execute the game plan … And you’ve got to know where your help’s coming from and you’ve got to know the type of leverage and support you have,” Judon said. “So, it’s give and take. If you want to be a runner, a ball carrier, you’ll get hit like a ball carrier. Stay in the pocket and you just have a little more protection. So, you just have to know who you’re dealing with, what you’re dealing with, and try to prevent that as much as possible.”
With minicamp set to start Monday morning, Judon is excited to be part of a linebacking corps welcoming back veterans Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, two guys that have helped Judon’s acclimation.
“Kyle doesn’t talk a lot, but he’s a teacher,” said Judon, who called Van Noy a “Swiss Army knife.” “Whatever you need him to do, he can do. He can play shade, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, on the ball, off the ball. He can be the guy running stunts. He can be the guy penetrating. He’s a unique player … And so is Hightower. Hightower’s always making a play in a critical time. And people like that, you just pick their brain.”
Judon also said the chance to play and learn under Bill Belichick, “one of the best to ever coach the game,” was at the forefront as to why he chose New England.
“I’ll always want a chance to win,” he said. “Championships, divisional championships, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl. I just want to win. I want to continue to add to my legacy and also add to the legacy that the Patriots have. And I think if I continue to just have fun with the game and not make it more business, just continue to have fun, continue to be a little child playing like I was with my two older brothers, I think I can do that.”