HAMPTON, Va. - To play inside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 defense you have to be willing to get your hands dirty, fending off blocks and sifting through the trash, as they say in pigskin parlance.
That's nothing new for first-round draft pick Jerod Mayo. The Hampton native, who was taken with the 10th overall pick last Saturday, has been doing dirty work, at the behest of his grandfather, since he was 7 years old.
A retired Air Force chief master sergeant, Walter Johnson renovates rental homes for profit, and when he needed help with a fixer-upper, he didn't have to look far for a maintenance crew. He had one in his grandsons, Shermont, Jerod, Deron, and Derek Mayo. If there was a wall to be painted, a lawn to be cut, a driveway to be dug up, a shed to be cleared out, the Mayo brothers were the men for the job, even if they weren't men yet.
"When my dad came over and said, 'Are you ready?' you better be ready to go, and you knew you were going to work hard, and you knew you were going to get the job done," said Mayo's mother, Denise Mayo-Hinds. "They've done everything from landscaping, painting, demolishing, dry-wall work, hauling trash."
The worst were the sheds. You never knew what you were going to find in there - a broken-down refrigerator, a swarm of bugs, or an irritated snake. But you didn't dare quit on the sergeant.
"I used to take them with me because I wanted them to know what work really meant," said Johnson, a 30-year military man known in the family simply as "Grandfather."
Mayo, who will officially meet the media today in Foxborough, Mass., seems tailor-made for the Patriots, and not just because of his 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound build and 4.58 speed. The son of the daughter of a military man, discipline, structure, commitment, and accountability, all tenets of the Patriots Way, have been a way of life for Mayo. Now he's a member of another operation run with military precision. Just as Jerry Rice's bricklaying with his father helped him become a great receiver, Mayo's home handiwork paved his path to the NFL.
The second oldest of four boys, Mayo has all the markings of a middle-class upbringing, but looks can be deceiving. Before Mayo, 22, spent his high school years in a beautiful, brown brick, two-story home with a two-car garage on a cul de sac in Hampton, he lived with his mother and stepfather, Wilson Hinds, in a cramped ranch home at 1713 Rozzelle Road.
A single mother until she met Hinds at church, Mayo-Hinds, who works as a civil servant at Langley Air Force Base, was determined to keep her kids busy and out of trouble. So, even though disposable income was minimal, she signed them up for every sport she could, stressing that they couldn't think about touching a ball until they had completed their schoolwork.
"No matter how tired she was she always made sure that those boys had some activity or something to do," said Mayo's grandmother, Rosa Johnson.
It worked. While Mayo is headed to the NFL, his younger brother Deron, 20, is a rover for Hofstra University. His youngest brother, Derek, 18, a high school senior, will play at the University of Richmond. And his oldest brother, Shermont, 26, is a disaster recovery technician.
"Denise, she was a sergeant, too, and when she said something they knew she meant it," said Johnson, who was stationed at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., from 1969-78. "She held it high that she wouldn't let them quit. I think the other thing was being able to get up every morning and seeing your mother go to work. She worked when she wasn't feeling good, and she worked when she was feeling good. I know she gave the boys the best that she could."
Leading by exampleThat meant that when Jerod's football-playing friends started transferring from Kecoughtan to one of the city's three other high schools - Hampton, Phoebus, or Bethel - all of which had better football programs, Mayo's mother and his stepfather, a former Marine who works as a systems analyst in the Marine Forces Command in nearby Norfolk, refused.
"Be a leader, not a follower," Hinds implored Mayo.
Kecoughtan was regarded as the best academic high school in the city. Nicknamed the Mighty Warriors, they were anything but in football. Before Tommy Austin, Mayo's high school coach, arrived, he said Kecoughtan had won seven games in the previous three years. Austin's first year, Mayo's sophomore season, the team went 2-9.
While the other high schools in the area have produced famous athletic alums - Bethel has NBA guard Allen Iverson and Hampton produced NFL wide receiver Ronald Curry, and not too far away in Newport News came a player from Warwick High by the name of Michael Vick - ask who Kecoughtan has churned out and the answer is simple: Jerod Mayo.
Austin said that at times watching Mayo play was like "watching a man play with little boys." That's not surprising since Mayo's daily routine during football season consisted of blasting James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" from his bathroom.
Kecoughtan went 10-3 during Mayo's junior year and expectations were high for his senior season (2003), but the team got off to a 1-2 start. Mayo, a heavily recruited linebacker, went to Austin and asked to play running back. The year before he had been the blocking fullback for an all-state tailback who had graduated and gone on to Villanova.
"He was playing some fullback and some tailback, but we weren't playing him much and not giving him the ball much," said Austin. "It wasn't a thing about, 'Give me the damn ball!' It was, 'Coach, whatever it takes to win.' That tells you what kind of unselfish kid he was."
Mayo, who was named Virginia Peninsula Defensive Player of the Year, rushed for 1,245 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, and Kecoughtan won six of its final seven.
Mayo was not only unselfish, he was exceedingly loyal. According to Austin, Mayo eliminated one out-of-state team from his recruiting list because the head coach wouldn't come and meet with Austin, as the head coaches for all the other schools recruiting him had.
"He said it was disrespectful," said Austin, who left Kecoughtan after the 2005 season.
Ringing endorsementsMayo ended up signing with the University of Tennessee. He made his mark at Tennessee, a school that has a strong history at linebacker under defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Chavis, who is also the Volunteers' associate head coach. Since 1999, Chavis has had 11 linebackers, including Mayo, drafted into the NFL.
Chavis said that Mayo, who led the Southeastern Conference with 140 tackles last season, earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors and helping propel the Volunteers to the SEC championship game, certainly ranks among the best linebackers he's ever had at Tennessee, a group that includes five-time Pro Bowl selection Al Wilson, formerly of the Denver Broncos.
"I would say that he's been as good in every aspect as I can imagine anybody we've had in terms of learning the scheme, understanding what we're doing, working in the offseason," said Chavis, who switched Mayo from a 4-3 outside linebacker to middle linebacker last season.
"He has exceptional ability. I would put him from an ability standpoint in that range with anybody we've had. But he's a student of the game. When you tell him he has something to work on, he wants to know it, and he'll work on it immediately."
The only thing that slowed down Mayo at Tennessee was a pair of knee injuries. In 2005, he had surgery to repair a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. In 2006, he started 11 of 12 games, finishing third on the team with 83 tackles, despite a balky left knee that required arthroscopic surgery.
Chavis said that from a character standpoint, Mayo is as good as anyone he's coached.
Off the field, Mayo, who graduated with his degree in sports management (with a minor in business) in 3 1/2 years, is a choir boy - literally. He sang in the choir at the Zion Prospect Baptist Church in Yorktown, where his grandfather is the pastor, until he left for college.
The closest Mayo has come to trouble is when he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity at Tennessee in 2005. Mayo was misidentified as the Tennessee football player who struck another student during an incident involving football players and fraternity members in April of that year. He was charged with aggravated assault. Mayo maintained his innocence, and the charges were dropped when another Tennessee player stepped forward and admitted he was the guilty party.
"He was devastated when that [false charge] happened," said Chavis. "It really wasn't a big deal, but for him it was a big deal because he wears his name with a lot of pride."
When you grow up in Mayo's family you really don't have any other choice. Hinds said he's told all the boys a million times that all you have in this world is your name and your integrity.
And your work ethic.
Last Saturday, when Mayo fielded the congratulatory call from the Patriots he was taking a break from doing yard work with his mother. After the draft, Mayo told his mother that now they could hire someone to do the yard.
"Why would I hire someone when I can do it myself or have you boys do it?" she replied, using a familiar family refrain.
Mayo's work is never done, and when it comes to the NFL it's just beginning.
"Work never hurts you. That's what I wanted them to understand," said Johnson. "If you have a good work ethic you can go a long ways."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.