by Christopher Price
Both wear No. 55. Both went to USC, and call the West Coast home. Both took up residence in the same corner locker at Gillette Stadium. And during their time as Patriots, both quickly became important pieces in Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme.
But Willie McGinest and Junior Seau have both taken far different routes to become leaders in the New England locker room.
In his 12 years in New England, McGinest worked the Patriots’ locker room like a beat cop. He kept a lid on trouble, letting rookies or other newcomers know when they went a little too far, especially with the media. He was an intimidating presence. “I was scared of Willie,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “Every time I looked at Willie, I was like, ‘Man, I never want to mess with Willie.’” Everyone knew who was in charge of the locker room, right up until McGinest left for Cleveland after the 2005 season.
Seau works differently. Since his arrival in August 2006, the inside linebacker been an exuberant leader, a high-energy guy given to pep talks and the power of positive thinking. (Earlier this year, Seau was strolling through the locker room singing, “Thank You For Being A Friend.”) As a result, he was voted a defensive captain just a year after being signed as a free agent.
“He’s here early, stays late,” said Head Coach Bill Belichick of Seau, who will relax by strumming a guitar in the locker room. “Every time we go in the huddle he has an energy and a presence about him that’s pretty much non-stop. I think he’s obviously one of the most respected players in the league, certainly on this team. He has a good message and people listen to him, as they should. He has a lot of experience, and comes from the heart.”
On the field, he’s gone from a situational player to an every down linebacker, and that’s translated into 76 tackles this season, fifth on the team. In addition, he had 3.5 sacks and 3 interceptions (the latter being a career-high). Off the field, Belichick and the Patriots have managed to bottle that enthusiasm — they had Seau address the team before Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Jaguars.
“He’s a fiery guy, passionate about playing the game, and he always has a few passionate words before the game,” said tight end Kyle Brady, who said the linebacker has talked to the team before games at other times this year. “He talked a little bit about opportunity, and how this is a great opportunity for all of us.”
Seau, who will turn 39 on Saturday, is a game away from the Super Bowl, a once unthinkable premise for a veteran linebacker who briefly decided to call it a career before the start of last season, only to be talked out of retirement by the Patriots.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet. It really hasn’t,” he said after Saturday night’s 31-20 playoff win over Jacksonville. “Being part of this journey is definitely something special, but we’ll go back to work and keep plugging away. Hopefully at the end of the rainbow we can look at something that we’re proud of.
“You never can dream this. This is beyond all that. There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance and a lot of prayers that come into play.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR
1. The Chargers to open their mouths. Most every team has decided to pop off before playing the Patriots this season, and you shouldn’t expect San Diego to be the exception this week. Between Shawne Merriman and Philip Rivers, expect someone from San Diego to say something that’ll end up on the New England bulletin board before the end of the week.
2. Laurence Maroney. If the Chargers try and defend the Patriots in the same manner the Jaguars did (that is, look pass first with mostly nickel and dime coverage packages) look for another big night for New England’s No. 1 running back. He’ll likely spend much of his time running behind Stephen Neal — in his first game back in the starting lineup since Dec. 3, the right guard was the lead blocker for more than one-third of the Patriots’ running plays Saturday against Jacksonville.
3. How San Diego defends Randy Moss. Look for speedy Antonio Cromartie — a cornerback who wasn’t even starting when the two teams met for the first time back in September — to get the bulk of the work opposite Moss. Cromartie, who was used mostly in nickel coverage early in the season, ended up leading the league in picks with 10.
4. The Chargers injury report. As of this writing, Tomlinson will likely be ready to play Sunday — he told the media Monday afternoon he had suffered “just a hyperextension” of his left knee — but Rivers is still a colossal question mark, as is tight end Antonio Gates.
5. Spider monkeys. After the Week 2 contest between the Chargers and Patriots — when New England shot to a 24-0 halftime lead on the way to a 38-14 win — San Diego fullback Lorenzo Neal told the media, “They just jumped on us like a spider monkey.” Another fast start for New England this Sunday afternoon would go a long way toward putting the game away early.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Zero. By our count, the number of defensive snaps missed by outside linebackers Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas Saturday night against Jacksonville — both were on the field for all 56 of the Jaguars’ plays from scrimmage. (As for the rest of the linebackers, Junior Seau played 55 snaps, while Tedy Bruschi 39 snaps and Eric Alexander was on the field for one defensive snap.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I’m all Zen. I’m all Zen. I hope I’m Zen-like for another week. That would be a great feeling.” — Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, answering a question about his “Zen-like” focus after Saturday’s playoff victory over the Jaguars.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].