Markus Golden always knew football could be his gateway to a better life.
Even when his NFL dreams took him nearly 1,500 miles from home, the St. Louis native has remained close to his roots.
It helps that he’s on a team for which his grandmother rooted when she was younger.
After the Cardinals moved from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960, Golden’s grandmother became a Cardinals fan – and remained so even after the franchise moved to the Phoenix area in 1988.
She even got to see her grandson play in St. Louis during his rookie season when the Cardinals visited the Rams one last time at the Edward Jones Dome. Golden recorded a tackle in the Cardinals’ 27-3 victory.
“That was big and it worked out perfect,” Golden told me last week. “She loves the Cardinals, too, so that was a plus.”
Golden was a second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound outside linebacker had four sacks as a rookie before a breakout second season when he led the Cardinals, and was third in the NFL, with 12 1/2 sacks.
Though he’s on the brink of being a superstar pass rusher, Golden’s path to the NFL was not exactly traditional.
Golden was a standout running back and linebacker at Affton High School, where he ran for 2,264 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior while also making 108 tackles and 10 sacks.
The University of Missouri wanted him, but he didn’t have to grades to get in. That meant a stint at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. When he finally arrived at Mizzou, he became an All-SEC player and the first man in his family to obtain a college degree. He also never doubted he would one day make it to the NFL.
“The only thing I needed was a chance,” he told me.
The Cardinals gave him that chance, and the St. Louis connection that came with it.
When the Cardinals reached their only Super Bowl in 2008, they were led by former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who helped the Rams win their only championship in 1999.
Those Rams, who went back to the Super Bowl in 2001, were the team of Golden’s youth and the former running back had dreams of becoming the next Marshall Faulk.
He used to petition former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel to use him on offense. But Golden has found his niche on defense and began his second NFL season by recording a sack in each of the first five games.
His sack streak ended in a Week 6 win over the New York Jets, but that game was special for another reason – he got to share the field on “Monday Night Football” with lifelong friend Sheldon Richardson.
“That was big,” Golden said. “To be there on a Monday night game, it was pretty exciting.”
Richardson’s Gateway Tech team romped over Golden’s Affton squad with a 52-0 victory in a Missouri state playoff game in 2008. Golden joked that last year’s 28-3 win over the Jets eased the sting of that high school blowout loss.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Golden said. “To lose that badly, I was really embarrassed.
“But, that helped a little bit. Every time I see Sheldon, I know I’m gonna have to hear about his team whooping our butt in high school.”
Richardson was one of several former Missouri teammates to attend Golden’s free football camp on June 24 at Affton. Broncos linebacker Shane Ray and Cardinals teammate Rodney Gunter were among others to help out at the camp.
Golden also got the star treatment by the St. Louis Cardinals, throwing out the first pitch at Busch Stadium in a game last month.
“Anyone who grows up in St. Louis is a Cardinals fan, so that was pretty big,” said Golden, who threw out the first pitch for the second time in as many years. “Everybody was going crazy. It was pretty exciting.”
Golden held his camp for the second straight year and said it’s important to give back to the St. Louis community.
“I always remember being a kid, and if I could be around a pro football player and learn from them to see what they did to get to the NFL, that would help me,” Golden said. “I never could really afford that big ones that were really important to go to.
“That’s why I wanted to do a free one for the kids and bring NFL players back, let the kids have fun and be able to experience something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience.”
The Cardinals even added another St. Louis native in March when they signed quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Golden and Gabbert are two of four former Mizzou players on the Cardinals roster, but what would happen if an NFL team decided to sign every St. Louis native in the league?
“That team would be elite,” Golden said at the prospect of joining a team with Richardson, Gabbert, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams, New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead, New England Patriots defensive end Kony Ealy, Patriots defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Seattle Seahawks defensive end David Bass, Seahawks cornerback Pierre Desir, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Ravens receiver Jeremy Maclin, Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, Rams receiver Paul McRoberts, Chicago Bears tight end MyCole Pruitt, New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, and Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to go with 2017 draft picks – Falcons running back Brian Hill, Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson, Browns offensive lineman Roderick Johnson and Kansas City Chiefs receiver Jehu Chesson. There is also free-agent defensive back Jarius Byrd, who was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills.
“I believe in my St. Louis guys,” Golden said. “We’d be competing for Super Bowls every year.”
Beating the Rams, who moved back to Los Angeles following the 2015 season, would, of course, remain a priority.
“We don’t like the Rams,” he said. “Everyone I talk to tells me we have to kill the Rams, so I’ve got to do that for St. Louis.”