Rookie defensive backs Butler and Chung are just a bit anxious
FOXBOROUGH - While watching the NBA as a child, Darius Butler’s imagination meandered to a different place than most kids’. He didn’t want to be Michael Jordan. He wanted to beat Michael Jordan.
“You want to play against Jordan,’’ Butler said. “I definitely envisioned myself going up against the best, making some plays.’’
When Butler watched the NFL, he dreamed about defending passes from the best quarterbacks.
“It’s the same thing,’’ he said.
The quarterback he saw himself playing against was Peyton Manning.
In September 1998, Manning started his first game as an NFL rookie. Butler was 12 years old. Patrick Chung, another rookie on this year’s Patriots team, was 11.
Manning, at 33 and in his 12th season, has reached a privileged stage of his career. He is young enough to perform at the peak of his colossal talent, yet old enough to be one of the sport’s grand old men.
Against the Colts tonight, in a game that has been dissected in countless ways, the two first-year Patriot defensive backs will face a quarterback who is not only one of the greatest players in the league, but also an icon from their childhood.
“Him and Tom [Brady], [Brett] Favre, I remember all those guys growing up,’’ Chung said. “After a while, it’s like, ‘I’m going to be playing against him one day.’ It’s finally here now.’’
In recent seasons, several members of the Patriots secondary have experienced the thrill (or tension) of facing Manning for the first time. Safety Brandon Meriweather, now in his third season, was still forging a place in the defensive backfield rotation when the Patriots played the Colts in Week 9 in 2007.
“You want me to be honest?’’ Meriweather said. “I was scared as hell. I was nervous. The couple plays I did get, I was nervous. Even last year, I was nervous. This year, I’m hoping I won’t be as nervous. I’m more settled. I hope.’’
Meriweather said he did not feel so anxious because of Manning’s vast skill. Rather, he had watched Manning play so often and heard so much about him that it felt unreal to stand across the line from him.
Players who have been the attraction themselves, the hub of attention on their high school and college teams, carry into their first game against Manning what must be a peculiar feeling. They are star struck.
“A rookie would be lying if he said he didn’t,’’ second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite said. “It’s no different than showing up here in a locker room with Tom Brady and Randy Moss and guys like that. At the same time, you got a job to do. You got to get prepared the best you can.
“It does cross your mind, because he is a good quarterback, a guy that you’ve probably been watching years before you get in the life. But you’ve got to do what you can to try to get yourself ready and block out the negative distractions.’’
Butler and Chung, teammates said, have the temperament to do that. Butler, the cousin of Ravens running back Willis McGahee, said by this point in the season, the fame of the opponent no longer staggers him.
“I came on a team with Tom Brady and Randy Moss,’’ Butler said. “I kind of got over that.’’
“They’re pretty calm, cool, and collected,’’ second-year cornerback Terrence Wheatley said. “They understand that they’re going to make mistakes, and they understand what those mistakes are. Peyton is going to get his during the game. That’s just the way it works. You’ve got to be able to deal with that and move on.’’
Their nerves may steel tonight. And it may not matter. It will be the first time in their football lives that they’ll see a quarterback operate with a tempo this smooth, a release this quick, a sense of timing this perfect. They can watch endless film and still not be prepared. While practicing against Brady helps, no other quarterback is like Manning.
“I don’t think it’s star struck,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Their offense is kind of unique. The way they handle it all, you don’t see that every week. And if you haven’t played in this league, you probably haven’t seen that at all. It certainly helps to have played him once.’’
Wheatley played against Manning for the first time last year, in his rookie season. Most of his memories from that 18-15 Colts victory stem from the injury he sustained in the second quarter, but he planned on sharing his experience with Chung and Butler, hoping it would help.
Wheatley felt the Colts threw at him often because he was a rookie. Former Colts coach Tony Dungy said Manning doesn’t necessarily try to exploit first-year defensive backs, but personnel drives many of the adjustments he makes at the line.
“I’m sure they look for stuff like that,’’ Wheatley said. “It’s kind of a shock if you grew up watching a guy that you’ve got to go play against. It’s difficult because you kind of go out there almost in awe of him. But you can’t, because you’ve got a job to do. You’ve got to realize, ‘Hey, man, I grew up watching this guy. But now it’s my turn to see what I got going against him.’ ’’
Chung spent his first 10 years growing up in Jamaica, idolizing soccer players. When he moved to California, Manning was in the middle of his matinee idol days at Tennessee. As Chung became an elite defensive player in high school, he made Manning his standard.
“In any game, you think about it like, ‘That quarterback is Peyton Manning,’ ’’ Chung said. “You have to think he’s going to make all his throws.’’
Tonight, Chung and Butler won’t have to imagine any longer. They’ll walk on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and a character previously confined to their television screen will come to life. The kickoff will come, and at that moment, the nature of competition will make them equals.
“You watched great players in the NFL, and he’s definitely one of them on anybody’s list,’’ Butler said. “He’s definitely a great player. But now, we’re all on the same field.’’