How embracing 'the Patriot Way' turned into a career year for Matthew Judon

The characteristic red sleeves you see on the gridiron are replaced by a pullover, though a smile still remains on Matthew Judon's face. It's Thursday afternoon before the New England Patriots' trip to Miami and their star linebacker is happy. Why shouldn't he be? Judon has turned in a phenomenal first season in Foxborough, spearheading a defense capable of reuniting his side with the Lombardi Trophy - even after their 33-24 loss to the Dolphins in Florida.

The 29-year-old has just made his third consecutive Pro Bowl on the back of a career-high year for sacks (12.5). But despite such an achievement, there's little fanfare from the man himself. Judon has been indoctrinated into 'the Patriot Way'; tenets whereby togetherness always supersedes individuality. As teammate Hunter Henry puts it; "Everybody's basically one body and we need all of the parts of the body to come together to execute what we do on Sundays."

Judon is a 6'3" muscle-bound incarnation of accountability, modesty and hyper-focus. But none of it seems forced, it's who he is.

"I think you kind of do that after the season or after your career, that you can say 'look I did this, this is what I accomplished," Judon tells ESPN of his career year. "But right now, it's more a team approach. I need to get to the quarterback; get sacks, hit the quarterback, or affect the quarterback so my team can have success. Not so I can have success. When I'm done, hopefully my highlight tape will be pretty sweet but I'm not looking for that right now, I'm not looking for the 'look what I did or all eyes on me', it's about the Patriots. It's about us going out there and getting wins."

After 20 minutes with the Michigan native, it's obvious why Bill Belichick swooped on Judon in free agency - despite never meeting him outside of the white lines. It seems he knew Judon's skill set -- both tangible and otherwise -- would fit seamlessly in Foxborough. As the topic of Belichick arises, Judon sits up, his eyes widen, his focus sharpens.

"It's been so cool working with Bill, man," he says. "The way he sees the game, I think it's different from every coach in the league just because of how long he's been in the league. His in-game adjustments are so fast because he's seen the scheme, or he's come up with the scheme or he knows the person who came up with the scheme. He knows the defense that will attack that [offensive] scheme, so I think just working with him in that aspect has been pretty interesting."

Judon's smile broadens. Something else about Belichick lights the lamp inside his mind.

"Then just his personality ... he's the most interesting person in the league. Nobody kind of knows him but I think his personality is great for being a head coach for a lot of men, and just how he carries himself. I definitely respect him and how he carries himself," he says.

"He's seen it all, done it all, heard it all and that's just how he handles himself. I don't think it's really nothing new, besides social media, that he's not up on in the NFL."

Is Judon sure Belichick doesn't have a burner account out there somewhere?

"Man, I don't have no clue what he does with his personal time or on his phone! I don't know," he laughs.

Things weren't always this easy though. Judon and his family were comfortable in Baltimore, willing and happy to stay. The Ravens had other ideas, refusing to match the Pats' four-year $56 million offer in March 2019. So, after five seasons under John Harbaugh, Judon packed up his life in Maryland to start afresh in Massachusetts. It was hard, and Judon doesn't hide from it - there was trepidation moving his wife and family into the unknown.

"I was comfortable where I was at," Judon says. "I had been there for five years, I had my house and my kids where [their] school was, BreighAnn had her doctors and all that stuff. Not just comfortable in my play but comfortable in my life situation. So just switching teams it can get hard, but the transition has been pretty smooth obviously.

"A lot of people really don't think about what we have to go through just to go to a different team. You know the housing situation, kids, cars, clothes and stuff like that. I had a lot of people help me out and I appreciate them. Now I'm out here and I'm a...what do they call them? I know in Michigan you're a Michigander. New Englander? But I'm in Massachusetts? Ah, I guess I'm a New Englander!"

Judon may now sit in the contemporary pantheon for his position -- he trails only T.J Watt in quarterback hits since 2019 -- but his star has only shined of late, at least to the outside world. Judon was unloved and unwanted coming out of high school, deemed surplus to requirements by every Power Five school. Ironically, the University of Buffalo -- in the city Judon wants to make miserable Saturday night -- had conditional interest.

If they failed to secure their prime target, Judon would be offered his scholarship. The phone never rang, so Judon answered the bell for Division II school Grand Valley State in Michigan. To this day, he holds the DII record for most sacks in a single season. From Allendale to league-wide acclaim, it's been an incredible rise, but one never beyond him.

"I believed. I actually just believed, I just made sure I put in the work each and every day, and God took me to where I was meant to be. So, from Grand Valley, I just continued to work my butt off and never felt like I was an underdog but just always worked. Tried to work the hardest and outwork everybody that I see."

Judon continues to hustle as if he were still the Bulls' discarded goods. His competitive nature powers him toward perpetual improvement, though it hasn't stemmed from some desire to be seen as overly conscientious, nor to outshine his teammates. Whether it's treatment on his body or cardio workouts, Judon does what he must to prepare his body for peak performance.

So it may come as some surprise that in his day-to-day life, Judon lives rather calmly. Time with his wife BreighAnn and children Aniyah, Leonidas and Azayda are cherished. Putting rubber to the road on his bicycle and playing video games allow Judon to unwind amidst the pressure of representing the most storied franchise of his generation.

Though it's Judon's belief in Christ which transports him toward true peace. Judon and fellow teammates Jonnu Smith, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater -- among others -- participate in regular Bible study with team pastor Jua Robinson, sharing their life experiences and lessons through Jesus. Being present with other men of Christ is essential for Judon; it promotes exponential growth and solace during moments of misfortune.

"The bad times is only a little bit out of the day. I try to keep my faith in God to where I'm never down. I know there's going to be some bad stuff that happens in my life, and I know that I'm going to have to overcome some obstacles or whatnot, but my faith is built not on sand but on the land, in God, in Christ.

"With that being said, I know there's going to be something every day and if I let that affect me or move me or rock me, I won't be focused on what I have to do, I won't be focused on the tasks I have to accomplish. I kind of just wallow and simmer in something that really could've just been a passing couple minutes."

New England are now just 180 minutes away from their fifth Super Bowl appearance in eight years. Equally, they're one hour away from elimination and professional ignominy. That's how Judon views their situation - taking it for what it is.

"You know how we do it around here. We take it one game at a time and that's the only way you can. I can look forward to the Super Bowl all I want. If we go out there and don't take care of business every week until the Super Bowl, we'll be watching it at home. We don't have any expectations, we don't know. When it comes to the Super Bowl, hopefully we in it, but if we don't take care of our business each and every week, we definitely won't."

If No. 9 adds the Lombardi to his Pro Bowl season, he'll become more than a New Englander.

But even if he doesn't, his life will remain rich in faith, family and brotherhood. A Super Bowl victory would just be the icing on the cake.