Jordan Stanton could have played anywhere. Coming off a sensational senior season at Robinson Secondary, the raw defensive lineman just beginning to flourish was getting offers from Division I schools far and wide.
Virginia Tech wanted him. Virginia needed him. Boston College flew him up to campus and lavished him with praise. Maryland wanted him so badly they started offering midweek visits.
Soon enough, Stanton walked into Robinson coach Mark Bendorf’s office with a final decision: He was going to commit to James Madison University.
Then Stanton said something that still resonates with Bendorf today.
“They took a chance on me before I was proven,” he affirmed, “and I’m going to reward their confidence in me and loyalty to me.”
The rationale made sense. James Madison was the only school to extend the developing Robinson prospect a scholarship offer after a junior season that flashed more potential than polish. Stanton respected the Dukes’ generosity, and he knew the smaller program presented him an opportunity to get more playing time.
Still, Bendorf instantly knew the decision was a unique one. In a what’s-in-it-for-me culture in which recruits frequently cast aside prior commitments in favor of sleeker suitors — an act Bendorf likens to dating while you’re engaged — Stanton was staying true to the one place that offered him little in the way of glamour.
Today Stanton finds himself in a similar situation on a much bigger stage. The undrafted rookie free agent signed by the New York Giants in May is adjusting to a higher level of football in an unfamiliar setting, striving to reward a team that took a chance on him while others looked away.
“I’m just going out on the field trying to learn and get better,” Stanton said. “It’s been great. I love these guys, and I love this organization.”
In Stanton the Giants saw an FCS All-American who recorded 56 tackles and eight sacks on his way to the Charles Haley Defensive MVP honor in his senior year at James Madison. More importantly, they saw a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end with a pass rush nearly as polished as his attitude.
That attitude launched Stanton’s meteoric rise from a 16-year-old who had never played organized sports to a 23-year-old playing in his first NFL game. The teenager approached Bendorf in the winter of his sophomore year and declared his desire to join the football team, asking what he needed to do to make that happen. Robinson’s longtime coach told the kid to join their offseason strength and conditioning program in preparation for spring practice.
“He had a tremendous work ethic, and he was a team-first guy,” Bendorf said. “From the beginning he didn’t care where he was on the depth chart. In terms of what position he played, he just kept telling us, ‘Put me where you feel I’m best.’”
As practice finished up that spring, Bendorf and company had no idea where to put their eager newcomer. Stanton clearly had enough natural athleticism to make the team in the fall, but his nonexistent football acumen rendered his position a question mark.
At first coaches stuck him at wide receiver, where it didn’t take long for them to realize offense wasn’t his thing. Then they tried linebacker, and eventually he settled in on the defensive line. An initial tendency to stand up on the line earned him the nickname Jordan Standin’, but by the end of a productive junior season, it was clear the novice lineman was ready to turn a corner.
Stanton redoubled his efforts to get better in the offseason, knowing he needed to make up for lost time to reach his full potential. By the end of his senior campaign, he had college coaches drooling over his improved numbers: 84 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and one blocked punt. The clumsy beginner needed just over a year to become First-Team All-Region and Second-Team All-State selections.
“I really loved the way he embraced the ability that he had rather than wasting it,” said McLean coach Shaun Blair, a former assistant at Robinson. “That was really fun to watch. He left no stones unturned in the workout program. To see the fruits of his labor come to pass and to watch him be able to live it, it’s phenomenal. It couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
On Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, Stanton got his first taste of NFL glory. He entered the Hall of Fame game against the Buffalo Bills in the third quarter and rotated in and out the rest of the contest. With just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, he exploded off the right edge and made a beeline to Thad Lewis, pinning the Buffalo quarterback to the turf and knocking the ball free in the process. The Bills recovered the fumble for a 20-yard loss, but the play effectively foiled their comeback attempt and, more importantly, raised the stock of an upstart defensive end fighting to make the Giants’ 53-man roster.
This summer the Giants signed three rookie defensive ends and picked up two veteran ends from Denver and Chicago. Currently gearing up for this Saturday’s home game against Pittsburgh, Stanton says he’s basically competing against three players for a spot on the final roster. He knows that means mastering more than his favorite position, as rookies often have to prove their worth on special teams to make the cut.
“You can’t be one-dimensional,” said Stanton, who’s been working with the Giants’ kickoff and punt teams in practice. “You have to be able to work the special teams and work your position as well, and that’s what I want to show these coaches is that I can do more than one thing.”
Stanton received further motivation from a New York defensive end with a slightly bigger name on Sunday. Michael Strahan, who spent his entire 15-year career with the Giants, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame on Saturday, and he circled the team up for a pre-game pep talk on the field Sunday.
“Hearing his stories and how he went through his whole experience was great,” said Stanton, who grew up rooting for the Dallas Cowboys. “Just seeing what a positive vibe he has toward everything and how he constructed himself as an athlete and a player and an individual — it carried him so far.”
As the pressure escalates toward New York’s Sept. 8 opener against the Lions, Stanton knows that positive outlook will navigate him as far as his skills can take him. It’s the same approach that elevated him at Robinson: Show me what you need me to do, and I’ll be happy to do it.
“That’s the main thing I’m trying to do: learn and have fun,” Stanton said. “That’s the game. Football is fun.”