The Arizona Cardinals' locker room is squeezed tight these days, with 90 men filling a space that 53 comfortably call home for half the year.
For the next few months, they’ll put aside their college rivalries and step over the college football hierarchy to call each other teammates. Of the 90, 65 played for a college or university in one of the big six conferences -- Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big East (at least when it was the Big East, with football).
Of the other 25, nine went to schools that would be considered mid-majors or schools that are typically bowl eligible.
The remaining 16 are from small schools, some not even Division I.
But when they’re all on the field, where they played doesn't mean a thing.
“The small-school guys that I dealt with over the past have usually come in with a chip on their shoulder,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You have to do everything it takes to win the job. That’s what got him here. So, I got to tell them the first day, 'I don’t care how you got here, where you came from, we’re going to play the best guys.’”
If they need any proof that some of the best guys don’t need Alabama or Florida State or Southern California on the back of their football cards, there are plenty of examples.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer, whom the Cardinals signed to a five-year deal worth $35 million in March, played at Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan. Arizona’s third-round pick in last month’s draft, John Brown, also played college football at a Division II school, Pittsburg State.
Bethel is proof that small-school players can succeed in the NFL. It took him two years to become a Pro Bowler and Bethel’s already impressing Arians during practice as he’s working on becoming a better defensive back.
“He’s starting to get his hands on balls,” Arians said. “He’s playing a lot more confidently. And you can see it in the way he walks around the locker room. I think going to the Pro Bowl added some swagger to him which he needed desperately.”
Once small-school players usually get over the novelty of being in the same locker room as Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett, they begin to realize it’s the same game they’ve been playing since childhood and there’s a reason they’re in the NFL.
“Normally they’re such gifted athletes to get here,” Arians said. “If they can get over the 'wow' factor -- how fast they get over the factor -- 'that's Larry Fitzgerald or that’s so-and-so in the locker room,' but that’s all rookies.
“It’s no different,” Arians added. “It’s just football. It’s learning the language. The hardest thing for all the young guys is learning the language so that their brains don’t kill their feet. They can’t run because they don’t know where they’re going because they’re trying to decipher information. Once you learn the information it’s just your football skills. Your skill set versus somebody else’s.”