As the sun illuminates Winter Park’s grass fields during a routine practice, teammates and coaches occasionally need Xavier Rhodes to return to Earth — you know, where the Vikings star cornerback plays and is now paid like one of the NFL’s best.
The only problem is he’s visiting “Planet Xavier,” the fictional addition to our solar system that exists whenever Rhodes drifts into one of his daydreams.
“It’s his other world he lives in,” safety Harrison Smith said. “I’ve never been there.”
Usually a thud on the shoulder pads brings him back.
“I cannot hear them literally calling my name,” Rhodes said. “So I’m completely zoned out. So they come to me, tap me and I always flinch like, ‘Whoa, what’s up?’ They’re like, ‘Bro, where were you? You were gone. Were you here on Earth? Were you on Planet Xav? How was it? Was it stormy? Was it rainy right now?’ ”
A member of the Vikings’ top-five defense — maybe linebacker Anthony Barr, or safeties Smith or Andrew Sendejo — named the planet, but Rhodes can’t exactly recall. What’s important is he’s making fewer trips there in his fifth NFL season.
That’s important because Rhodes, a mild-mannered Pro Bowler who is now the Vikings’ highest-paid defender, is being leaned upon more than ever in the team’s stingy secondary.
Rhodes, who teammates jokingly invite to Las Vegas excursions knowing he won’t come, is trying to become more vocal as his role with the team evolves. The Vikings are wanting that natural progression — growing from playing like a leader to also sounding like one — from Rhodes, who signed a five-year, $70 million extension on July 30.
“The older guys believe I can take that next step,” Rhodes said. “Help some of the guys that need to be helped, because when I was a younger guy, those guys helped me. So they want me to be like that and help out. Instead of being quiet, be more vocal and express my emotions.”
Staying in character
Kids at Rhodes’ football camp at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul this summer kept reminding him about the time last year he says his emotions worked against him.
“Odell. Odell is the number one question,” Rhodes said. “That’s the only question.”
Rhodes typically lets his play do the talking, but he had words for Odell Beckham Jr. while frustrating the Giants star wideout in last season’s nationally televised 24-10 Vikings victory. Beckham was held to a career-low 23 yards with Rhodes shadowing him throughout the game.
Problem was Rhodes kept following and taunting Beckham after plays, too. On the Giants sideline, Rhodes draped a condescending arm on Beckham’s shoulder after an incompletion. On the Vikings sideline, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray needed to physically restrain Rhodes from more rare trash talk after a Beckham catch.
“Yeah, we won, it was good. But I mean, that’s not me,” Rhodes said. “That was out of character on that one. We were trying to knock each other’s heads off rather than getting in the play.”
That was not a glimpse into the new Rhodes. He says he isn’t trying to change his persona and become the guy he’s often asked about. He is, however, trying to grow beyond the soft-spoken guy who was seldom heard.
Entering the prime of his career, the 27-year-old Rhodes doesn’t want to be known for Richard Sherman-esque jawing or showboating. That wouldn’t be true to who he is, according to Terrell Buckley, the former NFL cornerback who has mentored Rhodes since coaching him at Florida State.
“When he’s playing between the lines, he’s tough and he’ll quietly get after you,” Buckley said. “Off the field, he’s very laid back, very calm, very thoughtful.”
And often lighthearted. So when a kid at Rhodes’ football camp arrived with a Beckham hairdo, the bleached fade faux hawk, Rhodes jokingly withheld an autograph. When the kid mimed shaving his own head, Rhodes burst into laughter and signed for him.
“It’s just kind of the personality he is,” Gray said. “He’s more of a loosey guy. So he knows how to click it back in now. About three or four years ago when we first got here, he was a different guy. [Now] he understands what we expect out of him mentally.”
Finding a voice
Rhodes’ physical gifts — 4.4 40-yard speed with freakishly long arms — are what made him the 25th overall pick in the 2013 draft and a primary focus of defensive-minded Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who was hired before Rhodes’ second season.
Years of meticulous correction from Zimmer, Gray and veteran corner Terence Newman has helped mold Rhodes into one of the game’s best. Now Rhodes, reaping the benefits of his own work, is searching for his voice to share those lessons. Having never really been comfortable with public speaking, Rhodes won’t be doing Ray Lewis speeches in front of the team. That’s not quite his style.
“See now, that’s not me. Baby steps, we’ve got to take baby steps,” Rhodes said. “It’s more when I see a guy, pull him to the side and tell him what he need or if he’s in practice and I’ll be behind him, telling him what he need to do.”
Terrell Sinkfield, a converted receiver learning Rhodes’ position on the right side of the defense, is one young player he’s taken under his wing.
“I hear guys kind of joking with him and stuff about being a leader and taking that role and everything,” Sinkfield said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s taking it. You can tell he’s getting more and more comfortable.”
Rhodes said he’s always had the confidence, but production like last year’s five interceptions is helping him seize a leadership role.
“I think a lot was helped with having Terence Newman here, helping him with some of those things,” Zimmer said. He added: “Having some success last year and being able to go to the Pro Bowl and some of those things, I think that has given him another boost of confidence.”
Student of the game
A key for Rhodes is embracing classroom study. When Rhodes was absent from an offseason Vikings practice in June, speculation stirred about his ongoing contract negotiations. The Miami native was actually making a day trip to Florida, where his son, Justin, was honored during a first-grade awards ceremony.
“Knowing my son is able to sit there and study and get all A’s and be awarded for that, it’s a great feeling as a father,” Rhodes said. “Letting me know he’s taking school seriously now.”
So is father Rhodes, who is expecting a second child in November with his girlfriend.
The path from first-round pick to stingy NFL corner was paved with scribbles on notepads. Rhodes sits next to Newman, the league’s eldest defender at age 38, in defensive back meetings, which has sparked Rhodes’ understanding of formations and routes.
“I think the mental part has taken a huge step, the way he views the game,” Newman said. “He wants to continue to be dominant and do what he’s doing. It’s beautiful to see that.”
Rhodes has taken the initiative to learn other positions in the Vikings secondary, on top of his most critical role of defending the opponent’s best receiver. Asserting himself verbally helps with maintaining the necessary concentration.
“My thing is I’m always thinking,” Rhodes said. “Like I replay my mistakes in my head over and over again. Sometimes I tend to lose focus with what’s going on in front of me, because I’m playing that over in my head. So guys are telling me just live in the moment, leave it alone.
“Sometimes you need to get off Planet Xav.”
Because when on Earth, he’s starting to make it Rhodes’ world anyway.