HOUSTON -- The first time Ida Law saw her 8-pound, 7-ounce grandson, she was given a glimpse of the future. She saw it so clearly, in fact, she had to tell somebody.
"Look at him," Ida said to her daughter, Diane. "He's already a little linebacker."
This was Western Pennsylvania, 1974. Steady work at a steel mill could put money in your pocket, and going to see the Pittsburgh Steelers was reason to spend it. Those were great days for both local industries -- steel and pro football -- so being associated with one usually meant something good.
Forget about the difference between cornerbacks and linebackers; Ida was correct. She was certainly staring at a football player, a player to be raised in the region that produced Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana. Nearly 30 years after Ty Law's grandmother told the world what her grandson would become, one of Law's college roommates had this to say after thinking about his friend's football life:
"Some guys were born to do what they do. I truly believe Ty was made for this."
Deollo Anderson made that comment earlier this week, based on his observations from 1992 to the present. He didn't get a chance to see the Ty Law from Wykes Street in Aliquippa, Pa. He didn't get a chance to see the little things Law did in the 1970s and '80s, little things that let people know he had a football player's instincts and a comedian's timing.
All the kids in the neighborhood knew Law was fast. Sometimes he would walk toward home and chant the name of Bullet, a dog that used to chase the kids. As soon as Bullet would charge, Law would run, seeing if he could make it to his grandparents' front porch before the dog made it to his backside.
Law always won that race.
There were several times when one of the local men would gather the children together and give them a challenge. The man would offer $1 to the child who could outrun Law all the way around the block. He knew it would never be a fair race, so the man would allow the other children a 15-second headstart and see if that helped.
"Ty always beat us," said Byron Washington, Law's best friend from across the street. "I don't ever remember him losing one of those races."
There may have been someone who was faster, in a vacuum. But there wasn't anyone his age who was faster and more competitive. In football, that meant the Little Quips had two major offensive plays.
"Ty left and Ty right," Washington said with a laugh.
Law was good and had been that way as long as anyone could remember. He played baseball, basketball, football, and any other sport you said he couldn't play. He fished with his grandfather, who was "Paps" to all the kids on Wykes. He was a break dancer who would put a piece of linoleum or cardboard in the street and spin.
He took advantage of Western Pennsylvania's hills to train, even when he didn't have a training partner. He ran up and down the hills, and when he finished he would backpedal up and down.
Sometimes he sat in his classes at Aliquippa High and wrote in the textbooks. He was practicing his autograph for the pros. He knew he would get there someday, and he and Washington talked about it all the time. Washington loved football as much as Law, but he could see that the kid wearing No. 20 for the Quips was gifted, driven, and seemingly selected to be great at something.
"Let me put it to you this way," said Washington. "He's the type of person who will not let you beat him. If you play tennis, he'll say he'll beat you at tennis. If it's swimming, he's going to outswim you. If it's running, he's going to outrun you."
It's not tennis, swimming, or road racing now. It's pro football, a place where Law always expected he would be. There was never a moment when he lacked confidence -- maybe that's why he still believes he can be a productive receiver.
(He practiced at receiver before the Patriots played the Texans Nov. 23, but the team decided not to put him in the game.)
There was never a moment when he backed away from something he believed in or bit his tongue when there was something that needed to be said -- maybe that's why he stays away from deep analysis of the Patriots' release of his friend Lawyer Milloy.
"He's honest as hell," Anderson said. "He won't sugarcoat a thing."
For Ty Law, the stage can never be too big nor the ante too excessive. The last time he was in a big game, he had three interceptions. The last time he was in a Super Bowl, he picked off a Kurt Warner pass and returned it for a touchdown. This weekend is another Super Bowl, the third of his career. He believes that he's supposed to be here.
It's as if Ida Law spoke and an 8-pound, 7-ounce boy understood every word.
During summers in the '80s, Wykes Street would get a visit from another future pro. Anthony Dorsett would be in town to visit his grandmother at one end of the street. Law lived at his grandparents' house at the other end.
Dorsett and Law are cousins.
They didn't get a chance to play on any teams together -- "I had moved away before that could happen," Dorsett said -- but they remained close. They were both fans of the team Dorsett's father, Tony, played for: the Dallas Cowboys.
If Anthony didn't realize in the '80s that his cousin was a born football player, he knows it now.
"Ty and Charles Woodson are the top corners in football, hands down," Dorsett said. "Can you name anyone else?"
"Man, please," Dorsett said. "Bailey talks about himself more than anyone else does. You can't be great just because you say you are."
"I've watched him play," he replied. "Not many people can do what Ty does."
What Law does is play man or zone coverage. He plays the run well and covers well. He can be physical at the line, surprising people who have never played against him.
"I don't know if a lot of players understand how strong he is," said Steve King, who played with Law at the University of Michigan. "If he gets his hands on you, he can totally disrupt you at the line."
Making himself more dangerous, Law has added a new level of preparation to his game. He said recently that he relied on his instincts and talent as a young corner. "And after the game," he said, "I would say to myself, `Why am I so tired? Damn, I'm tired.' "
He learned that the combination of instincts and preparation could make his job easier. The nation saw that against the Colts in the AFC Championship game. He knew what was coming on his first interception, so he told safety Rodney Harrison about it. During the play, he pointed to Harrison, "reminding him to take the corner post route." Harrison covered it and Law brought in a one-handed interception.
"I'm not surprised by any of it," said King, an academic adviser in Northwestern's athletic department. "I've seen him do this his entire career.
"I always feel like he's going to make a play in a big game. I remember watching [Super Bowl XXXVI] with a bunch of people who aren't Patriots fans. I like to do that. So I was sitting there watching it when he got the pick. I knew he was going to do it. When he ran to the end zone, I said, `Now, pat it down.' And he did."
Patting it down is part of Law's end zone dance. His family and friends know him that well. They can almost intuit when he's going to make a play and predict what he's going to do after he makes it.
Dorsett watched the play against the Rams, too. He watched his cousin break on the ball and return it for the score. He thought Law should have been the game's MVP, not Tom Brady. Then again, Dorsett still has debates with Law -- they talk two to three times a week -- about the route the Patriots took to their 2001 title.
"Unfortunately, because of that call, we [the Raiders] didn't have a chance to move on," he said of the Tuck Rule game in Foxborough. "We argue about it all the time. He says, `A rule is a rule.' But let's be honest. You saw what happened."
Dressed for success
This trip to the Super Bowl is as indisputable as Law's place among the best in the game. The man who likes challenges will have a new one. If he is matched up with Carolina's Steve Smith, he will have to be concerned about speed. If he draws Muhsin Muhammad, he will find himself dealing with one of the most unusual receivers in the league.
Muhammad blocks as if he wants to be a pulling guard or right tackle. Sometimes when the Panthers put him in motion, they do it so he can get a good angle -- for a block.
Those who have studied Law will tell you this is just one more challenge to add to his considerable file.
As a freshman at Michigan, he made an impression in an early scrimmage. He was facing Derrick Alexander, who eventually became one of Bill Belichick's first-round picks in Cleveland. Alexander tried to fool him on a fade route and Law intercepted the ball. On another play, Law intercepted again.
He had caught everyone's attention. He never redshirted at Michigan.
"We all came in thinking we were top dogs," King said. "But Ty was special."
He was also funny.
Once, during a public speaking class, he decided to give his talk on safe sex. By the end of his lecture, he had everyone -- the professor included -- laughing. And he had come away with the highest grade.
When he and Anderson learned they would be roommates, they talked on the phone. Soon after they met in person, Law went to work on Anderson, making fun of his tight pants. A meticulous dresser -- chances are he's been inside a mall near you -- he used to tell Anderson and King how sharp he looked at his high school prom.
"And then we saw the picture," Anderson said.
"You've got to ask him about it," King said.
Apparently, Law wore a peach, satin suit to his prom ("I say it's pink," King said). "It looks terrible," Anderson, a supervisor at Ford, said. "We blazed to him to no end on that, but he thought it was the sweetest thing. To this day, he'll tell you how good it looks. That's Ty."
While at Michigan, Law stayed true to the football prophecy he heard as an infant. He didn't like watching football games on television. He didn't like playing video games. He was obsessive about taking naps so he wouldn't be worn down. He liked his clothes, his hiphop and R&B, and his kung fu movies.
He didn't like anything that got in the way of football.
"He's always been a good athlete," Diane Law said. "I think he got it from me -- I was such a tomboy growing up."
Diane said she usually doesn't attend games because the view isn't always great and she doesn't have the luxury of instant replay. She was in New Orleans Feb. 3, 2002, though.
"One of the most fun times of my life," she said. And then, showing that her son also gets his sense of humor from her, she added, "If you go to jail in New Orleans, you must have killed someone. Because everything else seems to be legal."
Diane Law will be in Reliant Stadium Sunday evening, and so will Byron Washington. After the game, Law will take his childhood friend to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. The plan is for them to talk about Super Bowls, just like they did as kids.
"Ty wants to win and he wants to remain a Patriot," Washington said. "I think he can see himself in the Hall of Fame."
It's a logical ending for someone who was given a football blessing at birth.