A few blocks from Xavier Rhodes’ childhood doorstep sits Sun Life Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins.
As a kid , Rhodes could have dragged a chair from his mother and grandmother’s apartment in Carol City, Fla., to watch the Dolphins on the stadium’s videoboard, but it wasn’t in his plans. Neither were the Dolphins, nor the NFL.
This tenacious youngster was more interested in wrestling. He and his mother, Kim Shack, watched every pro wrestling show on TV, then playfully grappled in the living room. Rhodes, at 7, was so strong then that he accidentally hurt his mother by twisting her arm while reversing a headlock.
“I was terrified,” Rhodes said. “She always told me I was aggressive, and I don’t know my own strength. You can’t really play with me, because I don’t know when I can hurt somebody.”
That aggression was eventually funneled into football, and the toughness remained with Rhodes as he matured through tough early circumstances in life to become a standout second-year cornerback for the Vikings. Part of that maturity is a reserved, but confident, personality.
“He’s about his business, and that’s playing football,” teammate Captain Munnerlyn said. “I always mess with him — ‘Man, I’m glad you play football because other than that, you don’t say much.’ ”
Rhodes, however, had a hot temper growing up fatherless in difficult circumstances in a predominately black and Hispanic community. His grandmother, Maudrina Johnson, worked long hours as a nursing assistant, and his mother worked at a Wal-Mart, leaving Rhodes time to fend for himself.
“It was a lot going on down there, Carol City area,” Rhodes said. “It was intense. You have to look over your shoulder basically every time you step out your door.”
Rhodes had men to guide him, but none of them was his biological father, Daryl. Rhodes met his father for the first time at age 18 but didn’t bother to ask why he hadn’t been around when Xavier was growing up.
For what?“That’s what I” felt like. There was no reason for me to ask,” Rhodes said. “I know it was a reason, but I always feel like there’s two sides to a story. He’s going to tell his side, and my mom is going to tell her side. I’m never going to get the truth out of both of them.”
All the tools
Rhodes, 24, was blessed with a 6-1 frame, a 79-inch wingspan, a 4.4 40 time and the right on-field personality to produce the prototype for a versatile NFL cornerback.
In Sunday’s game against the Lions, he’ll have the quickness and frame to get out of breaks quickly against wideout Golden Tate with the length to threaten record-setting receiver Calvin Johnson. As the right cornerback in the Vikings’ scheme, Rhodes will be tasked to defend contrasting styles.
“It’s scary for others,” safety Harrison Smith said of Rhodes’ versatility. “I love to be the safety back there with a guy like that. It makes my job easier. You don’t see a lot of guys like that.”
Rhodes, tied for third in the NFL with 17 passes defended, has the potential to be a cornerback who moves around the field to shut down an opponent’s best receiver. That would be crucial for the Vikings in a division with Jordy Nelson of the Packers, the Bears’ tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and Johnson.
“It’s hard to match up on Calvin because he’s so big and so fast, but I think Xavier is one of those guys that can run, has good feet, good ball skills and has got the size, so he’s a good matchup,” Smith said. “That’s something we’ll see on Sunday, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Xavier.”
Over the past four games, Rhodes has given up only seven receptions for 54 yards and an opposing quarterback rating of 22.2, topped only by Richard Sherman of the Seahawks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rhodes started playing football at age 11 and said he was an angry player who excelled quickly, unleashing an on-field style that hasn’t changed.
“That’s why I’m always aggressive — I’ve never lost it after that,” Rhodes said. “It’s been my play ever since.”
At Miami Norland High, Rhodes was a two-way force, leading the team in rushing and receiving as a senior and earning Miami Herald’s All-Dade County honors on both offense and defense.
“I’ve never seen a guy fall so hard playing football; even when he’s tackling, his body was just so physical,” said Rhodes’ high school coach, Nigel Dunn. “He was just so much more dominant than all the other guys that came and played for us.”
But it was initially a challenge for Rhodes to let go of his aggression off the field. If he was approached with a conflict, even from someone in authority, Rhodes handled it the same way he jams wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“There were some spots he was in that you’re just like, ‘Wow, how is this kid going to make it?’ ” Dunn said. “When we first saw him, we were like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s not that the neighborhood was bad, but there were some situations that put him at a disadvantage.”
Seeing football as his strong point, Rhodes realized errant off-the-field behavior wouldn’t help him. He said he took a dramatic step in the right direction as a junior when he entered a relationship that kept him off the streets and away from the negative influences. He became a highly recruited player and committed to Florida State, as a wide receiver, as a senior.
Shortly thereafter, he found out he and his girlfriend were going to become parents.
“I was afraid,” Rhodes said. “I was on my way to college, and I didn’t know if I would go to college still or drop out.”
Justin was born Nov. 24, 2009, near the end of Rhodes’ freshman season for the Seminoles. Football had created structure in his life, however, and after having no relationship with his own father, Rhodes wanted to be the best father he could be to Justin, who is now 5.
“I have an opportunity to give him the life I never had, so I want to give him that,” Rhodes said. “But I just also have to be a great father. I can’t buy happiness, so I just have to be in his life.”
By the time he got to college, Rhodes had a goal of playing in the NFL. But there was one hitch. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who is now head coach of the defending national champions, suggested moving him from wide receiver to cornerback.
Rhodes was furious, to the point of considering a transfer.
“That’ll take a lot out of you because you think, ‘Oh man, the ‘league’ is out of my picture,’ ” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said his confidence was shot, but he didn’t want to get embarrassed on the field. He worked hard on his technique with former Florida State corner Terrell Buckley, the fifth overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft who was serving as a graduate assistant.
“When [Buckley] first saw Xavier, physically he was like, ‘Man, this kid. If we can get him to actually cross over to DB, this guy will be a first-rounder easily,’ ” said Torriano Brooks, Rhodes’ high school wide receivers coach.
Buckley proved to be right. Rhodes made an immediate impact as a redshirt freshman, collecting a number of ACC accolades before leaving after his junior season as one of the top corners in the 2013 NFL draft. He was selected 25th overall by the Vikings.
“That’s good. I’m glad [Fisher] did [switch him],” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer chuckled.
It would be premature to call Rhodes a lockdown corner, a rarity in the NFL, but he’s headed in the right direction. Zimmer, who still views Rhodes as a rookie because it’s his first year in Zimmer’s system, has been impressed with the cornerback’s technique over the past five weeks.
“The corners that don’t worry about getting beat, they just feel like everything is in slow motion,” Zimmer said. “To me, that’s kind of what it looks like right now. He doesn’t ever panic.”
Rhodes says he feels he has overcome a lot on his way to a secure spot in the NFL. He feels uncomfortable talking about what has molded him as the person and player donning No. 29 on Sunday at Ford Field, but admits a hotheaded child has become a more mature individual. And most important, a good father. Justin stays with Johnson and Shack during the season, and Rhodes takes him in the offseason. By all accounts, he lives for his son, who was at the Vikings’ game against Carolina two weeks ago.
“I’m very grateful for the things I’ve been through in my past because I probably wouldn’t be here to this day,” Rhodes said. “I’d probably still be going through a learning curve right now if I didn’t. I’m happy it was done early.”