This feature on cornerback Duane Starks appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun during preseason training camp in July 2002.

High Stakes for Starks

By Ed Odeven

Duane Starks loves challenges, and that’s what he will encounter this season — a series of obstacles.

His most visible challenge will be giving the Arizona Cardinals a swift, pesky, pass-deflecting, receiver-frustrating presence at cornerback, something the team has sorely needed since they lost their secondary leader before the 2001 season when All-Pro Aeneas Williams was traded to the St. Louis Rams.

Signed to a five-year contract in March, Starks is someone the Arizona Cardinals’ brain trust is counting on to provide the kind of leadership and big-play showmanship that made Williams a fan favorite and a well-respected presence in the locker room.

Starks welcomes the challenge.

“My job is to come out and do what I do best, which is basically cover a guy, make tackles and make plays,” Starks said Saturday, the opening day of the Cardinals’ 2002 training camp at NAU. “Interceptions are a bonus as well, and that is something this team really needs.”

It’s no secret: There are high expectations for Starks in 2002.

“I think he’ll make a big impact,” Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said. “He’s a veteran guy. He’s a quality individual. He’s a consummate professional. He’s very, very serious about his business. Plus, he’s got a World Championship ring, and that means a lot to me. He’s been on a team that came from nothing to a World Championship.

“What I’m trying to build here is a young football team you can assimilate and get going and to have a guy that has been there and was in it, that did it and you can see what it takes. I like that.

“He’s got quickness and he’s got speed and he’s got a great break on the ball. He’s one of the premier corners in the league.”

Even so, Starks said he’s not pressuring himself to be the next Aeneas Williams.

“I’m not filling (that) void,” said Starks, the 10th overall pick in a 1998 draft featured seven defensive backs selected in the first round. “I’m filling in with what I can do. I’m not Aeneas Williams. I don’t think like him. I may play like him, but I don’t think like him. It’s basically me coming in and filling my job.

“I don’t want to be placed in the shoes of Aeneas Williams. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve got to be like Aeneas. D. Starks can only do what D. Starks can do.”

And that’ll mean battling some of the league’s elite receivers on a regular basis this season. The NFL’s new four-team, eight division realignment puts the Cardinals in the same division as St. Louis, which features Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and San Francisco, which boasts the talented tandem of Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes.

For the 28-year-old Starks, proving his mettle against the league’s top receivers is purely motivational.

“I believe going against those guys is the only way I’m going to get to go to the Pro Bowl,” he said. “I’ve tried. I’ve had great seasons throughout my four years in Baltimore — 24 interceptions in four years and I still haven’t made the Pro Bowl not even as an alternate.

“So I guess what I’m up against are receivers that are considered the best in the league and if I do my job, then maybe they’ll consider me for the Pro Bowl.”

A Confident Swagger

Playing for one of, if not the greatest defense ever, as some say, Starks excelled in a pivotal role for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, helping the team win Super XXXV with a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants.

Starks snatched three interceptions during the Ravens’ playoff run, including a 49-yard pickoff that was returned for a score in the Super Bowl.

Not one of the league’s taller defenders, the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Starks possesses one of the league’s hardest work ethics and, maybe, the highest self-assurance of any player. It’s something, he said, he developed after hearing people, year after year, doubt whether he was big enough to be a quality defensive back. The naysayers repeated those words when he was in high school, in college and when he joined the Ravens.

“I notice that I’m not going to get any bigger, so I have the heart of a giant,” said Starks, a University of Miami standout who first spent two years at Holmes (Miss.) Junior College.

“The thing is I’ve always come out on top regardless of who I’ve faced or what people said. There’s never been a problem where they said D. Starks got beat because he was too small. It’s never been that, and over four years I’ve proven that my size doesn’t make a difference. I tackle, I hit, I cause fumbles and I make big plays.”

Starks sees similarities between this year’s Cards, coming off a 7-9 record, and the Ravens of three years ago.

“We went 8-8 and came back the next year and won the Super Bowl,” he said, recalling Baltimore’s turnaround from 1999 to 2000.

“(With Arizona), what I saw, besides the contract and everything else, was that it’s a young team, a growing team and a hungry team. And when you get those three combinations together, you’ve got a team that is (headed in the right direction).”

For the wide-eyed rookies, Starks is also making a good impression, i.e., setting a good example of how to play this game.

Just ask rookie linebacker Charles Burton.

“I see a leadership role from him first of all,” said Burton, who attended Syracuse University. “He sets good examples for everybody. When he’s on the field he’s all business and he goes 100 percent every play, and I think that rubs off on all the players, too.

“He’s a champion and that’s what you want to be — champions. That’s who you want to learn from. He’s one of the guys that we could learn a lot of lessons from.”