A Maine cog in Patriot secondary

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove can pinpoint the exact time and place when he realized Brandon McGowan was capable of making the quantum leap from Division 1-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) to the National Football League.

“Mississippi State, no question,’’ said Cosgrove, recalling the Black Bears’ 9-7 victory five years ago in Starkville, Miss. “He really played a phenomenal game. We blitzed him off the edge. That’s the reason why we won the game. It was a time he really electrified us with his performance.’’

McGowan’s numbers that day bear that out. Now a safety with the Patriots, then a senior rover in Maine’s 4-4 defense, McGowan had a game-high 12 tackles (nine unassisted, two for losses) and 1 1/2 sacks, as the Black Bears held Mississippi State scoreless for the final three quarters and scored a late touchdown for the upset.

“He was the best player on the field that day,’’ Cosgrove said.

But McGowan realized much earlier that he could play at the next level.

“Actually, it was my freshman year,’’ said McGowan, who went largely unnoticed by Division 1-A recruiters after he suffered a knee injury that cut his senior season at Lincoln High in Jersey City to four games. “I had a coach named Torrian Gray and he played with the Minnesota Vikings for a few years. After my freshman year, he told me that if I kept working hard and kept playing the way I was playing, and studied a little tape, he thought I would be able to play at the next level.

“When he told me that, I just began working even harder, trying to stay on that right path and make it to the NFL.’’

McGowan’s work ethic, his relentless style of play, and his determination to overcome any obstacle helped him endure a painstaking path to Foxborough. It was pockmarked by one painful injury (ankle, last Sept. 19) after another (Achilles’ tendon, Nov. 6, 2006) and another (knee, Jan. 10, 2006) that landed him on injured reserve three times during his four seasons with the Chicago Bears, who signed him as a rookie free agent in 2005. He signed with the Patriots in May.

“I think the thing that’s kept him from getting more notoriety in the league has been his injuries,’’ Cosgrove said. “He had an ACL in high school and he had one with us. He played with it through the Appalachian State playoff game in 2002. He wouldn’t come out of the game. He kept playing. It was one of those Willis Reed things.

“He had an Achilles’ and ACL in the NFL, but he came back from all of it. He’s just amazing. He’s so determined and so focused.’’

That was evident in last Sunday’s victory over the Falcons, as McGowan made his second start at free safety and had four tackles (two unassisted), a quarterback hurry, a pair of special teams tackles, and a forced fumble on a jarring hit on Michael Turner in the second quarter that resulted in a James Sanders recovery and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.

He also contributed to Tony Gonzalez being held to just one catch for 16 yards by playing tight coverage on the Pro Bowl tight end.

“I thought the hit he had, the fumble that he caused, was really a pretty good play,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “I’m not sure there are a lot of players that would have made that play, would have been able to get the hit that he did with the impact that he had on it. He knocked the ball loose and that was a huge play in the game.’’

McGowan said it was a function of his self-described reckless approach to the game.

“I really don’t care about my body and I’ll [expose] my body to some messed-up positions just to make a play,’’ he said.

So was that the case against Turner? “A little bit,’’ McGowan said. “But knowing that he’s a strong runner and that he breaks tackles, I just knew that meeting him in the hole was the best thing. I didn’t want to wait. I just wanted to attack.’’

It’s a mind-set McGowan seems to share with his former Maine teammates, seven of whom are now listed on NFL active rosters, including linebackers Stephen Cooper of the Chargers and Lofa Tatupu of the Seahawks. McGowan played with both in 2001 and 2002, years in which Maine made the playoffs.

“You wouldn’t think that a place like Maine would be producing that, but part of it is that there are good players out there,’’ said Cosgrove. “We’ve been fortunate that some of them have been overlooked and ended up here.’’

While McGowan always wondered what it would have been like had he played at a major program, the game he had against Mississippi State confirmed that, at any level, football is football.

“Actually, it boosted my level of confidence knowing that I could play against Mississippi State, which is a 1-A school,’’ he said. “Going in and beating them guys, it let you know that 1-AA has some good players and good schools. You’ve just got to find them.’’

So was he glad his path to the NFL took him on a scenic route through Orono, Maine?

“Of course, I’m happy, because I met a bunch of great guys in Maine, had some great times in Maine, so I wouldn’t take anything back,’’ McGowan said. “I’m happy with the way my career went - or is going.’’

In Foxborough, McGowan said, “I feel like a new person.’’

He confirmed as much to Cosgrove when they met in June for an alumni golf outing.

“He loves football. He practices and plays hard all the time,’’ Cosgrove said. “There was never any doubt he had great instincts for the game. When you’d walk down the hallways here, he was all business.

“One of the great things he said to me this summer when I saw him, he told me how impressed he was with the Patriots, because it was all business. And that’s what he loves most about the place.’’

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