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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Safety needs to turn the corner

Brandon Meriweather (19) was a central figure in last fall's Miami-Florida International brawl. (COURTESY OF WBZ-TV)

FOXBOROUGH -- The newest Patriot, free safety Brandon Meriweather, is physical, intelligent, and versatile -- three traits Bill Belichick covets.

He was also involved in a bizarre shooting incident and a disgusting college football brawl, the kind of "character" issues that owner Robert Kraft abhors.

Yet New England used the 24th pick in yesterday's NFL draft to select Miami's Meriweather anyway.

This much we know about Meriweather: His cover skills are impressive, he can deliver a nasty hit for someone his size (5 feet 10 1/2 inches, 195 pounds), and can thrive in either man-to-man or nickel packages. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in college football, as a junior. His nickname is "Killer B" because of his emotional, ferocious style, and he was a vocal leader for the Hurricanes.

Yet, New England's top pick arrives with some notable baggage. The first has to do with an incident last summer when Meriweather and teammate Willie Cooper, who were preparing for their morning workout, noticed a "suspicious" car parked outside the on-campus home they shared. According to reports, when they went to investigate, a man hiding alongside the house popped up and shot Cooper in the buttocks. Meriweather then took a pistol out of his pants and fired three shots.

According to the police report, he did not hit the assailant. Because Meriweather had a permit to carry the gun and police determined he was defending himself, no charges were filed.

Note to young Mr. Meriweather: If you see a suspicious car parked outside your new home in New England, please resist from stuffing a gun down your pants. Try calling the police instead. Our local law enforcement officials -- not to mention your neighbors -- will appreciate it.

Meriweather acknowledged in a conference call yesterday it was a "dumb decision to have a gun."

"I should have known better than to even have a gun," he said. "But I'm trying to get over it and help build a football team."

Asked why he had a gun, Meriweather answered, "Next question."

If this incident was the only smudge on an otherwise spotless résumé, Meriweather would have escaped further scrutiny. Everyone has the right to defend himself.

But there is more.

Remember the hideous Miami-Florida International brawl last Oct. 14? It was an ugly outbreak of violence following an extra point in the third quarter that proved to be an embarrassment to both programs. Meriweather was hardly an innocent bystander in the melee. He was the one who stomped on an unidentified FIU player in the pile, kept wrangling with additional players who were upright, then stomped at least twice more on FIU freshman Artis Warthen, who was down on the ground with his back to Meriweather.

Hmmm. Makes you wonder if Kraft was in the men's room at the time of this selection. As recently as the owners meetings in March, he was repeating his mantra that character counts in the Patriots organization.

"I think since we've bought the team we've shown what kind of people . . . we actually cut a player [Christian Peter] a number of years ago who was drafted who didn't fit the profile of what we want," Kraft told the Globe's Mike Reiss.

"I don't think the general public wants to see overindulged athletes getting a lot of money who don't respect the responsibility and privilege they have."

Efforts to reach Kraft for a comment on Meriweather were unsuccessful last night. Meriweather said he did not speak with the owner before he was selected but had a brief conversation with him after he was drafted.

"We understand each other," Meriweather said. "He told me how long he was watching me play and I told him how long I was watching his team play."

Belichick said yesterday he met with Meriweather in Miami and was satisfied the safety's role in the October brawl was not what defined him.

"He ran over there and he made a bad decision," Belichick said. "I don't think that's who he is . . . it happened. He made a mistake. We're confident in the player we drafted. I think all of us in this room have made mistakes -- at least I have."

Meriweather said his role in the brawl was a case of "my emotions [getting] the best of me."

"I made a bad decision, one I shouldn't have," he said. He quickly added it was "something that won't ever happen again."

Clearly, the Patriots are banking on the notion that Meriweather is a talented yet immature kid who will learn to walk the straight and narrow under the watchful eyes of veterans Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel.

We all know how it works: If Meriweather adheres to an aggressive weight program that you just know Patriots strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik is devising as we speak, and if he exhibits the ability to impact a secondary that could use an infusion of young, energetic swagger, then his past will be of little or no interest to a thirsty fan base that has every reason to believe its team is poised to make another Super Bowl run.

Still, it has to make you wonder if the Patriots have implemented a shift in philosophy. They have stressed the need for exemplary character from the players who make up their championship football nucleus, and have repeatedly trumpeted their belief that that part of the equation is every bit as critical as what transpires on the football field.

And, yet, New England made news yesterday not just by selecting Meriweather, but also being connected to talks with the Oakland Raiders about acquiring bad boy Randy Moss.

What, Terrell Owens's line was busy?

Maybe the veterans do yield enough clout to exert the necessary peer pressure. Corey Dillon came to New England with a checkered past, but he left without any negative additions to his résumé.

I suppose if Seymour was looming over me at my locker and told me to stay out of trouble -- or else -- I might listen, too.

But New England is taking a chance here. The Patriots have staked their reputation on doing things the right way and now they are leaving themselves open to some serious second-guessing if Meriweather happens to drive the wrong way down Route 95 some night and ends up at the Foxy Lady.

Everybody deserves a second chance. Meriweather, who was listed at the NFL Combine with a vertical leap of 35 inches and a 40-yard dash time of 4.47, will get his second chance here, under the white-hot spotlight.

He has drawn comparisons to another former Miami safety, Ed Reed, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the exact same spot in the '02 draft and turned into a Pro Bowler.

Meriweather hopes to live out his dream of becoming a pro football star here, in New England. He also said he no longer owns a gun.

Good start, kid.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail is macmullan@globe.com.

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