Big Blue United

There's Always This Year

As I stood there, I remember not being able to feel a single thing. Well, nerves. I felt the nerves. That’s kind of unavoidable when you have that many people focusing on you.

That’s never been what I’m about — getting attention. I’m someone who prides himself on just keeping his head down and putting in the work. But on a stage like this, with that many people watching, you can’t just blend in.

I remember that it was really loud, but that the crowd’s cheers were kind of muffled — all I could hear were my own racing thoughts, the biggest one being, Don’t screw this up, man.

I looked to my right, searching for the only person whose strength could get me through the next few minutes. A guy who has been at the top of this business for years — decades even. A guy who’s been on this stage so many times before and always handled it with ease.

Conan O’Brien.

So, the first thing you need to know about Conan is that he’s absolutely huge. Like not just a huge celebrity or huge personality — like the guy is a really big human. And that’s coming from me, an NFL player.

The other thing you should know about him is that he’s just as funny — maybe even funnier — off camera as he is on it. After winning the Super Bowl in Houston last February, I was flown out to L.A. to appear on his show. I was kind of nervous — like I said, I’m not someone who really seeks out attention. But Conan loosened me up by cracking jokes backstage, and once we actually got started, it all felt pretty natural.

It was a pretty unbelievable way to cap off what was probably the best week of my life. Not just because I won a Super Bowl and appeared on a talk show and all that, but also because, for the first time since I started playing football, I had the spotlight solely on me.

That’s something that had never happened before.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard the term running back by committee before.

I’ve been a member of crowded backfields for as long as I’ve been playing football. It began in eighth grade, when I was on the same team with this kid named Gareef Glashen. He must have run like a 4.2 or 4.3 forty-yard-dash. Well, probably not, but at that age it felt like it. Just the fastest kid alive. I thought I was pretty good, but I couldn’t say I was better than him.

I started at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale at the same time as another kid on the football team who ended up becoming one of my best friends. He also happened to play running back and his name was Gio.

Yeah, the one who plays for the Bengals, that Gio. Giovani Bernard.

He’s still one of my best friends to this day, and in high school I think we were almost like brothers who pushed each other constantly to not be outdone by the other. We would line up in the backfield at the same time and both got a lot of experience catching passes back then. I don’t think at the time we ever dreamed we’d both end up in the NFL doing the same thing. I mean, you don’t really think that far ahead when you aren’t even the clear-cut starter on your own team. But I think playing with someone as talented as Gio helped me learn how to put my ego aside. If I got down because Gio had a better game or got more carries, I probably would never have become the player I am today. I learned right away that you can’t be envious of a teammate’s success, because that’s unproductive. I let Gio’s success inspire me to do better, and, eventually, we both ended up getting where we needed to be.

That mentality of putting the team ahead of myself became very useful for me at Wisconsin, where there was no shortage of great running backs to share the backfield with. I don’t know if I attract talent or what, but while I was in Madison I played with Montee Ball, John Clay and Melvin Gordon. It’s not often that that many guys at the same position at the same school all end up in the NFL. But that’s where the bar was set for us. I was surrounded by a lot of talent. Even though I was named the Big Ten freshman of the year, I ended up getting fewer carries my sophomore year because Montee was so electric that season. I’ll admit it was a little discouraging, but, instead of quitting, I pushed myself to get on the field in other ways, even trying to block punts on special teams. I just wanted to help us win.

What I never fully realized back then was how great all of those experiences would be for me later on in my career. College players who don’t get playing time early on can sometimes get discouraged and either quit or transfer. But I’m glad I had the experience I had at Wisconsin because I ended being drafted by an organization that not only discourages selfishness, it absolutely will not tolerate it. When you play for the Patriots, there’s never any second-guessing what the goal is. There’s no questioning your role or how you’re used. You take direction, you practice and you execute.

That’s how you win Super Bowls.

My first training camp as a rookie with New England, we were doing practice drills with the full team and I broke through for a long run.

The crowd watching started cheering, and I was feeling pretty good because it was one of the best plays I’d made all camp. I was a little winded, but I didn’t want to miss any reps so I lined up for the next play. When the ball snapped, I started going right, then cut the ball back to my left and boom. I ran directly into a brick wall named Brandon Browner.

I could tell it was a big hit not just because of how it felt, but because immediately the crowd went from cheering to saying, Oooooooooooooh.

Yeah, that sound usually means the defense won the play.

When I finally got back to my feet, I saw Coach Belichick walking towards me. I kind of figured he was going to tell me whatever I’d messed up. But when he got to me, he said kind of casually, in his voice that never really changes tone, “So one thing you’ll learn: The bigger they are, the harder they hit.” And then he walked away.

I still laugh about that.

What I learned pretty quickly after joining the Patriots was that the games are almost like a reward. During the actual games we’re all just flying around and having fun. We go into every game knowing that the team we’re playing against is going to try to give us their best shot. And there’s no doubt that they practiced extra hard the week before to make sure they do. But as a team we never go into a game believing that the other team had a tougher week of practice that we did. That’s because Coach Belichick demands the best out of you, and challenges you to give your best. It’s honestly not for everyone. But if you want to be great, that’s pretty much all you can ask for from a coach.

Both from a mental and physical standpoint, the way we prepare is so challenging that there’s really nothing that can happen during the itself game that will make us panic. Even a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl.

Like I said, in the past few months I’ve been asked about that game a lot. People want to know whether there was some sort of dramatic moment or speech that inspired our comeback. The truth is, during the course of the game itself, there weren’t a lot of moments when I was really thinking about the fact that I was playing in the Super Bowl. Nobody on the team really had wide eyes. There was just focus.

There was no magic behind why we ended up coming back. Definitely some great plays from great players, but nothing we hadn’t practiced or prepared for. Even when we were down, we all knew we had the opportunity to win the football game. Not because of luck, but because we felt like we were in control of the game based on our time of possession, even though we were behind on points. We knew the turnovers were killing us, but we aren’t a team that usually turns the ball over, so that would be easy to fix. Also, we knew we had Tom Brady and having Tom Brady on your team means that you’re always in the game.

We knew we had Tom Brady and having Tom Brady on your team means that you’re always in the game.

When we went into overtime and won the coin flip, I think that’s when we all knew we had this thing. All the tough practices, the intense meetings, the crushing hits — all of those little moments added up to this big one. I don’t think a single person who’d been through it all doubted we were ready for it.

Going into that game, based on our preparations, I had the sense I might have a big role, but obviously I didn’t think that meant 14 catches or anything. I didn’t get to play in the game when we went to the Super Bowl my rookie year, so this time around all I really hoped for was to make a meaningful contribution to the game.

That entire final drive, there was no pep talk or anything from Tom in the huddle. We didn’t need that. The entire offense knew we just needed to follow his lead and we were going to take it down the field . From a player perspective, everything we do comes from Tom. When I first began with the Patriots, it was honestly almost weird being in the same locker room as him. You’re accustomed to looking at him as an icon rather than a teammate. But he has a way of moving past that with everyone really quickly. He takes the time to really get to know all of us, especially the guys on the offense. That disarms you in a way, and when you see how selfless he is and how much he’s focused on winning, of course you’re inspired to operate the same way.

That entire drive in overtime, even though it was this humongous moment, there was never a time when it didn’t seem like we were in control. And when our offense is in the zone like that, it’s so fun being on the field with him because everything just clicks so seamlessly. The ball is there when it needs to get there, not before or after. If you’re in the right spot and stick out your hands, that’s a catch. I know there are a number of ways we could have won that game, but I’m always going to feel very humbled that I got the honor of putting us across the goal line for the last time to make us champions.

I think the most interesting thing is that when we finally did win, even though it was the sole focus of all of our preparation that year, for me it felt kind of…. fake. Like I was in another dimension or something. I had all of these reporters circling around wanting to interview me. That’s not something that’s ever really happened before. That’s not how it works when you’re part of a committee. But on that day, after that game, the attention was on me and it felt weird as much as anything else.

In the days immediately following the Super Bowl, I got more attention than I’d ever received in my entire career combined up until that moment. It wasn’t just going on Conan, but also talking to reporters, going on radio shows, even just walking on the street in Boston and having people recognize me and freak out. It was all very different. Not in a bad way. I guess it just really hit me that my performance in that one game — one of hundreds of football games I’ve played in my life — is going to be something some people will remember me by.

I can see how those who aren’t prepared for the spotlight can get overwhelmed by it. I guess that’s why I’m glad my entire life had prepared me for my moment.

No matter who you are, it’s tough to win games in this league. But that’s especially true when you’re the defending champs and everybody is trying to take you down. 

Coach Belichick tends to have a short memory when it comes to victories, but he always remembers the stuff we can improve. That’s really the goal that pushes the organization forward, even more than playoff victories and Super Bowls. We want to try to achieve perfection every time we take the field, no matter who we’re playing — even if it’s against our own team in practice. And when that’s your goal, the work never ends.

Still, it’s pretty sweet to win a Super Bowl.

You know it’s kind of funny, after we won last year, I had so many people mobbing me to get interviews that by the time I actually made it back to the locker room all my teammates had left the stadium to go celebrate somewhere else. It was honestly kind of a bummer to walk in there expecting a party and not see anyone. I think that’s the only thing about the whole experience I might have changed. I really wish I could have celebrated right there with my teammates in the locker room after we won that game we worked so hard together to get to.

Well, I guess there’s always this year.

Read the rest of the article on Players Tribune