A.J. Klein, Dalvin Cook

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, left, runs from New Orleans Saints linebacker A.J. Klein (53) during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone) ORG XMIT: MNCN110

Jim Mone

A.J. Klein's heart is written in ink on his left arm. 

"Faith" and "Family" are inscribed in script, flanking a pair of hands pressed together in prayer beneath a cross, beams shining out from every side.

Psalms 37:4 is inscribed on the inside of the same bicep. "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart," curled in the same cursive script around a heart wrapped within a crown of thorns. 

"My faith is the most important thing to me," Klein said. "I was raised in a Catholic household and a Catholic family. My parents taught me the values of humility and character, obviously faith, and never to stray from your beliefs."

For Klein, faith and family are inextricably intertwined, the bedrock beneath his football career.  

But the foundation was shaken last September.

"Last year was not a good year for me; I'll be completely honest," Klein said. "I don’t want to say I was struggling on the football field, but last year was the most I’ve struggled with off-the-field issues, whether it be my emotions or all that stuff."

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The first thing Paul Rhoads remembers about A.J. Klein is his family. 

When Rhoads, now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas, was hired as Iowa State's head coach in 2009, his first priority in recruiting was to make sure Klein signed with the Cyclones.

Klein, a three-star recruit after starring on two state title teams for Kimberly (Wisconsin) High, had been lightly recruited to start, but Gene Chizik's decision to depart Ames for Auburn had sparked a renewed bout of interest from sharks, Iowa included, circling around the Wisconsin native.

"The first trip I took was to see him," Rhoads said. "We had a phenomenal steak dinner."

Klein's parents, Len and Jean, struck Rhoads as humble, hard-working people, and the tight-knit family of six they had built became a constant presence at Iowa State. Len and Jean made it to nearly every one of their son's games, certainly every one in Ames, a six-hour drive from the Klein's family home in Appleton, Wis. 

Even after their son was drafted by the Carolina Panthers, the Kleins continued to keep coming to as many games as possible, bringing as many of their family as possible. Klein texts his mother for a Bible verse before every game; Jean always comes up with a new one. 

“I think it’s just the Midwestern family values, and it sounds cliché, but it’s the truth," Klein said. "We share everything with everybody, and sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing, but it definitely makes you close-knit."

Then the family bond was tested by something beyond its control.

Two years into Klein's NFL career, Len was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid cancer, a rare form of the disease that develops in the salivary glands. Len's cancer began in his jaw line and spread to his lymph nodes, prompting doctors to remove the areas afflicted by the disease and put Len on a regimen of radiation. While he fought the disease, the family still made the trip out to San Francisco to watch Klein play in Super Bowl 50.

The initial treatments worked. For a while, Len was cancer-free. 

Then it popped up again, this time in his lungs.

"I could hear his voice, and his voice never changed," Klein said. "But every time I’d see him, he’d look a little different, so it was really tough."

Len died September 28 last year, four days before the Panthers were scheduled to play the Atlanta Falcons. Klein flew home in time to be with his father before he died, then returned to his team in time to play 12 snaps on defense and 28 snaps on special teams in a loss. 

"Football was kind of my escape to get away from it, but — and a lot of people can relate to it — when you're going through something like a parent or a family member or a friend going through cancer, it’s not easy," Klein said. 

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Klein is the consummate football player, a linebacker who inspires the kind of praise that seems corny to the cynical but matters deeply to the rest of the men in the locker room. 

A phenom who played on a high school team that went 37-1, Klein chose to join an Iowa State team that was coming off of a two-win season and hadn't reached a bowl game in three seasons. 

Klein, who grew up watching the Big 12 when Oklahoma and Texas were both national powers, saw in Iowa State a chance to prove himself against some of the best teams in the country. 

He ended up helping the Cyclones prove their own place in the Big 12 under Rhoads. In Klein's four seasons in Ames, Iowa State reached three bowl games, a distinction few Cyclones teams can claim. The program has made only 12 bowl appearances in its entire history. 

"Change the culture is an overused phrase for somebody taking over a program, but you are truly trying to instill the personality of your program," Rhoads said. "He was there at the very beginning and bought into that, and made sure other players bought in as well."

Klein, who racked up 361 tackles, three sacks, five interceptions and two All-Big 12 nods in his time at Iowa State, embodied the smart, selfless approach Rhoads wanted to instill. 

Out of all the big plays Klein made at Iowa State, the one that sticks out for his former head coach is an interception against Texas Tech, a pick of an errant checkdown in the final minutes of a win over the Red Raiders.

When Klein caught the ball, he had a chance to break the school record for interceptions returned for touchdowns. All he had in front of him was open field. 

Klein slid to the ground instead, allowing Iowa State to salt away the win.

"I remember, in the practice prior to that game, maybe two weeks prior, I’d picked off a ball and started to return it, and I think one of the O-linemen punched it out," Klein said. "Wally Burnham screamed and screamed right in my face, and I didn’t hear the end of it for the rest of the week and the rest of the season, so when that opportunity came back, I made sure to get my ass on the ground."

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A different test of selflessness awaited Klein in Carolina. 

When the Panthers selected Klein in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, he joined a Carolina defense that already had Luke Kuechly, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, and Thomas Davis, a future two-time Pro Bowler at the position. 

Always the focal point of the Iowa State defense, Klein had to play a complementary role.

"It was not necessarily frustrating, because you cannot be frustrated when you are playing behind two all-pros," Klein said. "Do I think that I could’ve played? Yes. Did that time help me develop as a player? Most definitely."

Klein's teammates in Carolina could see the talent right away. Kuechly saw the potential almost immediately.

"He kind of just came in and did everything the right way," Kuechly said. "When you come in as a young guy, you always look for guys to be friends with. A.J. came in my second year, and I was lucky to have him around.”

In another era, when teams spent most of their snaps in their base defenses to play run-dominant offenses, Klein could have been the third member of the league's best linebacking corps, but the proliferation of the passing game has made the nickel defense the "base" for just about every team in the NFL.

"He came in and he was ready to play," Kuechly said. "It was only a matter of time before A.J. had an opportunity to play elsewhere and get a chance to start, play a lot and play all three downs and all the snaps in the game. We were lucky to have him for four years."

A 2015 injury to his friend gave Klein a chance to show the rest of the NFL what he could do in an expanded role.

Forced into the starting lineup by Kuechly's concussion, Klein made 29 tackles and an interception in four starts; he handled himself well in another relief stint for Kuechly a year ago.

"We knew we couldn’t keep him," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He’s just too good of a football player not to be an every-down player."

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The New Orleans Saints confirmed Rivera's suspicions on the opening day of free agency.

New Orleans signed Klein to a three-year, $15 million deal to end the revolving door the Saints have had in the middle of their defense the past three seasons. 

Klein established himself as a leader almost immediately. Radiating an internal intensity, Klein asserted himself as a vocal presence on the practice field, earning enough respect that the Saints voted him a team captain before he'd ever played a down in the regular season.

"He's a guy who's confident in his abilities, a student of the game," fellow linebacker Manti Te'o said.

Klein, who has 13 tackles, a pass defended, a fumble forced and two near-interceptions in the first two games, is once again the leader of a unit trying to erase its recent run of mediocrity. The New Orleans defense has struggled through the first two games, but the Saints are happy with Klein, one of the few bright spots so far. 

"It’s definitely been a change, but I think it’s also been a refreshing change at the same time," Klein said. "Being able to have the opportunity to be a starter and being voted a captain, it’s a huge honor, being put that in the leadership role, I’m trying to fully embrace it."

Klein has also embraced the Saints' community. Shortly before the start of the season, he pledged $50 for every tackle he makes to Team Gleason, the organization former Saint Steve Gleason created to help those afflicted with ALS. 

Few people know better than Klein how much his career in football, and the attention it brings, can help in tragedy. Klein's social media accounts are full of Bible verses and family outings, but during his father's fight with cancer, Klein found out how much his career could bring people together in times of need. 

"Cancer sucks," Klein said."It’s one of those things where, it’s the community, because of how many people are affected by cancer every single year, and it was amazing to see the support of people that have already gone through it. And I’ve had other people, people that play in the NFL community, that reached out, said, 'Hey, I lost my dad ... I lost my mom.' It’s never easy. To have that support was awesome."

Klein still misses his father, but the words tattooed on his left arm are still strong.

Opening the season in Minnesota meant his family had a relatively short drive for his first game in a Saints uniform; the close-knit group is still there, in the stands, supporting him and his new team. 

"Having him pass away in the middle of the season was obviously, a tragic loss, but to me, it was also a blessing at the same time," Klein said. "I knew his suffering was over. He was now in heaven, and that was enough for me to be comforted."

Now in a new city, taking on a new role, Klein's foundation remains as strong as ever. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.