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String of injuries hasn't displaced McGinest as a Patriots cornerstone

FOXBOROUGH -- Do not lock arms with Willie McGinest and attempt a stroll down a meandering nostalgic path. Do not rhapsodize about his remarkable season, in the face of skeptics who were certain he was getting too old for this. Please, do not dwell on what might have happened, or what could have been. If it's photographs and memories you are after, trust me, you've chosen the wrong football jersey.

Concentrate on the present, which in this case is today's AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.. That's always preferable with this fiercely proud man, who was just named to his second Pro Bowl eight seasons after he made his first. There could have been more -- probably should have been -- but there was a string of nagging obstacles that impeded his progress: bad hamstring, bad neck, then the knee, the other knee, the ankle, back, and groin. The groin was a real killer. That injury dogged McGinest for most of the 1998 season, causing him to miss seven games and hobble through quite a few more. When McGinest is healthy, he is one of the most fearsome players in football. But when he's not, he's like anyone else: vulnerable, limited, frustrated.

Whatever you do, do not bring up injuries to him. Bad, bad idea. His mood darkens when the subject is broached. He can't understand why it's even a topic. Don't you realize that if you play the game of football properly, occasionally your body will pay the price?

"It's a violent sport," McGinest said. "People get hurt all the time. I'm just one of those people. But people make it seem like I'm different somehow. Why does everyone focus on my injuries?"

Perhaps because they are the only things that have been able to stop Willie McGinest. When he came to New England in 1994, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, he was penciled in as the next Lawrence Taylor -- or, at the very least, the next Junior Seau or Andre Tippett. He was tall, lean, aggressive, nasty, athletic, and versatile. He had worn the vaunted No. 55 at Southern Cal and lived up to the honor. They called him "Wild Dog" in college, and when he reported to the Patriots and began laying punishing hits on offensive teammates in practice, nobody from the staff had to ask why.

He made the Pro Bowl in his second season, 1996, as a defensive end. He collected 9.5 sacks and even had an interception, which he returned 46 yards for a touchdown. He went to the Super Bowl. His future seemed limitless.

But the injuries began pecking away at him the following year. He struggled with a hamstring pull, an injured right knee, a sprained left knee, a sprained ankle. In '98, a nagging groin injury robbed him of his explosiveness and his confidence. It was the first -- but not the last -- time people wondered whether McGinest would thrive in the NFL the way the Patriots hoped he would.

Well, here he is. Judge for yourself. His nickname around the league is "Old Man," and the preseason forecast for him was the usual impending doom. Young linebacker Rosevelt Colvin was coming aboard, and the blueprint appeared to call for McGinest to serve in a backup role at both outside linebacker and defensive end. He would have a diminished if dignified role.

But Colvin went down with a season-ending hip injury in Week 2. Plans changed.

McGinest started 11 games at linebacker. He recorded 67 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He became indispensable -- again.

"I've never seen anyone like him," said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria. "He's as almost as big as a defensive lineman. He can handle the big guys and run with the little guys. I've never had to play against him, and I'm glad. He causes problems for guys like me."

No faking it

You might recall the angst McGinest laid on the Indianapolis Colts the last time they met. On the final play of the game, with the Colts looking at a fourth and goal from the 1 and the game hanging in the balance, McGinest burst through the line and leveled running back Edgerrin James to end it. He celebrated by streaking up the field like an Olympic sprinter.

This caused some raised eyebrows, because two plays earlier, McGinest had gone down, stayed down for a bit, then limped off the field in apparent distress. The Colts argued that McGinest was stalling for time, allowing his defense, which had no timeouts left, a breather against the relentless Colts offense.

An inquiring Indianapolis journalist posed the question to McGinest this past Wednesday. Was he really hurt?

The Old Man's eyes narrowed. Bad idea. No questions about injuries, remember?

"My knee got caught up," McGinest answered. "For the last time -- and this is the last time I am going to talk about this -- I have been a player who has been involved in injuries in the past. If you have been hurt before, that is one thing you do not ever want, to jinx yourself and pretend you are hurt. Nobody wants to be hurt.

"If I was faking, I would have come back in the very next play. It took me two plays to gather myself. If the whole game comes down to that, then that's their fault for trying to run the ball at me. Maybe they should have tried something else."

Go ahead, Indianapolis. Try something else. Try double teaming him, and watch the other linebackers run free. Try putting a receiver in the slot, or calling an audible. McGinest is ready. He may be 32 years old, 10 years removed from his celebrated rookie debut, but he's feeling good.

"I think this year Willie put aside trying to live up to being the fourth overall pick and concentrated on just being a solid football player," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "The way he jams receivers and disrupts plays is just unbelievable. He ping-pongs receivers and tight ends into each other.

"If you are willing to do that, you're not going to get a big contract or a whole bunch of stats, but you are going to help your team."

Clearly, Pro Bowl voters understood this. When Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware gave up his Pro Bowl spot to have knee surgery, McGinest was selected as his replacement. He didn't lead the team in sacks (that was Vrabel, with 9.5), nor did he lead the team in tackles (that was Rodney Harrison, with 126), but he did enough other things that aren't represented numerically -- such as jamming receivers.

"When someone does that to you, it screws your timing up," Fauria said. "For the most part, it screws the quarterback's timing up, too.

"If Willie is knocking your tight end 5 yards into the backfield, where's the running back going to go?"

When he played for the Bears, Colvin studied McGinest on film, but the Old Man was even more than he imagined in person.

"He's a vet," Colvin said. "If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word `veteran,' you'll see Willie's picture next to it. He's a guy you can depend on."

"I'm happy for Willie," said cornerback Ty Law. "It's incredible what he's done. He's always putting pressure on the quarterback or bothering the receivers. He's made my job so much easier. I think the coaching staff decided to just let him go this year. Willie's at his best when he's roaming free.

"A lot of people said he couldn't do it anymore, but he's probably led the team in game balls, and you know [Bill] Belichick doesn't give those out freely."

Back on top

The Patriots are one step from McGinest's third Super Bowl, though the last one seems a lifetime ago. McGinest battled back troubles in 2001, playing in 11 games and starting only five, the fewest of his career. His role was unclear, and that pained him more than any physical malady.

"You could see it in his face," said fellow veteran Troy Brown. "It hurt him. But he didn't quit. He hung in there. Now he's on top of his game again."

McGinest had a monster sack on St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner in the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the Rams two years ago, yet within minutes of the triumph, his future was a topic. Gossip columnists from the Boston Herald reported that McGinest was contemplating retirement.

"It was ignorant," McGinest said. "You had those two ladies from the Inside Track just throwing stuff out there, two people who know nothing about football. They had no idea what was going on with me."

Retire? No, he wasn't close to being done. McGinest returned last season and played in all 16 games. He missed two this year with nagging neck trouble, but he has been there when it mattered most -- such as fourth and goal from the 1 in Indianapolis.

"It was good we stopped them last time, but they've been on fire since then," McGinest said. "They've been scoring a lot of points, almost 40 a game. So that play really doesn't matter anymore."

McGinest dutifully paid homage to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, putting him in the same category as Hall of Famers John Elway, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino. He specifically mentioned Manning's adeptness at calling audibles, but added, "You can't play a guessing game with him all day. They give him three or four plays to choose from. At some point, you just have to believe in your defense and your system."

Whatever you do, don't ask Willie McGinest to compare the Colts offense of 2003 with the Rams offense of 2001. Don't go looking for predictions, either. And please, please refrain from asking him to share his favorite Super Bowl snapshots, or his lowest injury moments. This is not the time.

"All I'm thinking about," said the Old Man, "is right now."

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