PHILADELPHIA — New Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay doesn’t exactly come off as the bashful type — confidence and swagger drip off him, whether he’s in a conversation or shadowing an opponent’s top receiver — but when he finally had the chance to meet his idol Kobe Bryant, he was at a loss for words.
It was December 2015 — Bryant’s last season in the NBA — and the Los Angeles Lakers were in town to face the Detroit Pistons. Bryant appeared around a corner inside The Palace of Auburn Hills tunnel, walked past the throng of media and went up to the Detroit Lions‘ 2013 second-round pick. Slay was surprised Bryant knew who he was.
“[He said], ‘What’s up Slay, man? I love your game.’ He was talking about my style of play and we just chopped it up for a minute. I asked him to sign my game jersey. He signed it. We took good pictures. It was like a dream come true,” Slay said. “I didn’t have many words to say because I was still in shock mode, like, ‘I’m really meeting Kobe Bryant.'”
Right after the encounter, Slay called it the biggest thing that could happen to him outside of getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Really get to play for my favorite athlete of all time team!!! Miss ya @kobebryant ✊??
— Darius Slay (@_bigplayslay23) March 19, 2020
Slay now plays for the late Bryant’s favorite team, the Eagles, and will honor him by wearing No. 24 on Sundays. He wore 23 in Detroit.
It’s not the first time he has made the gesture. Slay insisted on wearing Bryant’s jersey number throughout middle school and high school basketball while growing up in Brunswick, Georgia, and tried to emulate him on the court. He saw Bryant play seven times, first in Atlanta when Slay was a sophomore in high school and last during Bryant’s retirement tour, collecting a number of his jerseys along the way.
Slay was drawn to many of Bryant’s defining character traits, in part because he sees some of them in himself.
“He’s a true competitor. He worked on his craft, and I believe that the work you put in is what you get out of it. Me, knowing who I am, I put in a lot of work into what I do. I like to compete, I work on my techniques, I work on my film study. I’m like that,” Slay said.
“And he made it look like a guy that wasn’t scared to ask other guys for help or information. Everybody was comparing him to [Michael] Jordan, this and that, but you could see that he would go to Jordan and ask questions. … He picked his brain and that’s the kind of guy I am. I love all the corners, and I don’t care what you do, who’s considered better, who’s the best, I am going to go ask you, ‘What did you do on this play to stop that?’ … It’s just about being willing to do anything to be good and be great.”
Slay offered a glimpse into his mentality during a conference call with Eagles reporters Thursday. He said that, while he’ll do whatever defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deems appropriate, he will often ask to travel with the opponent’s No. 1 wideout “because I want the game on me.”
Asked about the claims that he had a down season in 2019, Slay pushed back by saying he thought he had a “great year,” and that the dip in interceptions (he went from 8 in 2017 to 3 in ’18 to 2 this past season) was the result of not being targeted as much.
“Other than that, I think I played frickin’ fantastic. I’m not going to say the [ultimate] level but it was dang sure good enough to make the Pro Bowl for a third year in a row,” he said. “For fans, they’re just looking from a numbers standpoint. But from film and watching tape, coaches love me. I think a lot of coaches would love me to be on their defense, actually.”
The Eagles were eager enough to acquire Slay, 29, that they sent a third and a fifth-round pick to Detroit, then handed him a three-year, $50 million extension with $30 million guaranteed. He projects as the best cornerback Schwartz has had since taking over the defense in 2016, and should provide instant relief to a unit that was snake-bitten by the big play last season. The defensive backfield has been overhauled this offseason with the addition of Slay, the departure of Malcolm Jenkins and the move to transition cornerback Jalen Mills to safety.
Slay envisions a “very effective” secondary that is “going to try and build this chemistry, make plays together and try to have fun doing it.” His intention is to be “the best ball-hawking guy that can possibly be” and will attack that goal wearing No. 24 on his back.
“Whatever the defense needs me to do, I’ll do it,” Slay said. “I just want to do anything to help the team win.”