ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Packers game tape flashed across the big screen during a Lions defensive backs meeting this summer. Many of the men in the room had played at the stadium on the film, named after the founder of the 94-year-old Green Bay franchise. The corners and safeties got to talking about pro football’s most revered venue. Then a confused rookie piped up.
“Lambo? Like the car?”
The veterans were flabbergasted. Detroit’s second-round pick, Mississippi State corner Darius Slay, didn’t know what Lambeau Field was. He thought they were talking about a Lamborghini, the luxury car.
“I knew what a Lambo was, but I didn’t know it was Green Bay’s stadium. They said, ‘Man, that’s the stadium!’ I said, ‘Oh man . . .’ ”
The tale was relayed to defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who was not in the room. All “Gunn” could do was laugh: The rookie has a lot to learn about the NFL but knows just about everything about playing the game. “If you talk to him about football, he was really well-coached,” Cunningham says. “This kid knew the game coming in. I kept quizzing him. He knew things that a lot of coaches don’t know.”
Slay, 22, is one of two rookies expected to contribute from Day One in Cunningham’s defense, along with BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah, Detroit’s first-round pick. Slay has been grinning his way through the start of training camp, laughing off his NFL knowledge deficit and, Cunningham says, performing at a very high level. “He is one of the most gifted guys I’ve seen in a while,” Cunningham says. “I don’t want to put too much on him at this stage, but he’s got the raw skills you need at that position.”
Slay, who is recovering from offseason meniscus surgery, is the latest in a line of young corners the Lions have gathered to fix a perennially problematic pass defense. They added Bill Bentley in the third round and Jonte Green in the sixth last year, but neither nailed down a starting job opposite Chris Houston. The safety help is improved with the addition of free agent Glover Quin from the Texans, and veteran Chris Hope to back up Louis Delmas, who looks like one of the league’s premier safeties when healthy but has missed 13 games in two years due to various injuries.
Slay’s bona fides are less clear: He only became a full-time starter at Mississippi State as a senior, after a late transfer from Itawamba Community College as a rising junior. Slay didn’t have the grades to get into State as a Brunswick, Ga., high schooler. He didn’t even want to go to college in the first place after the birth of his son, Darion, when he was 15. He wanted to drop out and get a job, but his mother took care of the boy so that Darius, one of 10 siblings, could focus on graduating.
A track, hoops and football standout, he set his sights on playing football at Southern Cal. Why?
“Because Reggie Bush was playing there.”
Fast-forward eight years, and he’s sharing a locker room with Bush. One of the first things Slay did was introduce himself.
“Meeting Reggie was great, great, great,” he says. “I saw what he did in college, and now I’m on the team with him. That’s a shock.”
Says Bush, age 28: “It makes you feel old.”
Here’s something that should make Calvin Johnson feel old too: Slay was in high school when the now-27-year-old wide receiver debuted on Madden 2008. He became a staple in Slay’s video game strategy: just chuck deep to Megatron.
“That was the game plan,” Slay says. “Now it’s for real. He goes deep on me. I love going against him. Even though he’s worth a lot of money, he’s real competitive, goes up for balls. That’s what I love.”
It isn’t exactly a fair fight when the 6-0 Slay and the 6-5 Johnson match up in training camp. There’s the size difference, but more than that, defensive backs aren’t getting too physical with the franchise player, pads or not. Yet early indications are the rookie is learning his place in the scheme quickly. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen says that sounds about right. Mullen saw Slay arrive on campus determined to learn quickly and do things the right way. After just one season on the field and one spring game under his belt, Slay was leading the Friday-night player strategy sessions, explaining to teammates not just how the defense would operate on Saturday, but why it would follow a certain game plan.
“A lot of times with junior-college guys there’s an issue, but there was never an issue with him,” Mullen says. “He struggled academically early on, but he came in with a mission.
“He wants his kid to look up and have a father who took care of business, did his job, and became a successful man.”
Darion is just beginning to understand what his father does for a living, Darius says. He brought the boy along with his mother and a handful of his nine siblings to the draft in New York, climbing onstage with Darion perched on one arm, mugging for the Day 2 crowd. Darius is debating bringing Darion to stay with him in Detroit. Darius’ mother, however, has to stay in Georgia.
“She’s going to stay at home because I’m really protective of my granny, so mom is going to stay with her,” he says. “She’s going to come up here a lot. She’ll catch every game.”
Maybe even the one in Wisconsin, at that stadium named after the car.