Chips on his shoulder

Stinging memories drive Banta-Cain

Not being selected until the seventh round is something Tully Banta-Cain will never forget. Not being selected until the seventh round is something Tully Banta-Cain will never forget. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 25, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Tully Banta-Cain gathered with 40 of his family members and friends on April 26, 2003, crammed into his grandmother’s house in Berkeley, Calif., to celebrate his entrance into the NFL. Everyone, especially Banta-Cain, knew he would be drafted that day.

They ate from a catered spread while they waited and watched the draft on television. His name kept scrolling on the list of “Best Players Available,’’ and soon it would be called. Everyone would clap and scream. Balloons and confetti would drop from the ceiling.

“It was all ready to go,’’ Banta-Cain said. “And it didn’t happen.’’

Banta-Cain was not picked that day. He had to wait until the next day, until the final round, after another party had ended. At one point, he told himself he might never play football again. His mother could tell how hurt Banta-Cain was.

The feeling stayed with him for his first five years with the Patriots, when he established himself as a special teams force and yearned for something more. It intensified during his two years in San Francisco, when he went back home thinking he’d found his opportunity and instead stewed on the sideline.

Even now, the feeling motivates Banta-Cain. With two games left in his return season, Banta-Cain has proven himself a complete player and become the Patriots’ best pass rusher. His three sacks last Sunday gave him 8 1/2, most on the Patriots and 14th in the NFL. His career solidified by his best season, Banta-Cain still clings to what he felt that day.

“That fire still burns deep,’’ Banta-Cain said. “That whole draft experience was definitely devastating for me. I’ve always held it on my sleeve that, one way or another, people are going to recognize who I am.’’

On the second day of the draft in 2003, Banta-Cain said, a representative from the Detroit Lions called him and indicated they were going to select him with the second pick of the fourth round. When the draft restarted, though, the Lions took Artose Pinner, a running back from Kentucky.

When he saw the Lions pick, Banta-Cain walked out of his grandmother’s house. He didn’t understand how his college career at Cal, where he was named first-team all-Pac 10 and second-team All-America by one publication, could have allowed him slip so low. He hopped in his Jeep Cherokee and started the engine.

“Wasn’t going anywhere,’’ Banta-Cain said. “Just driving. I went into this whole thing where I’m like, you know what, I might never play football again. I was just sick.’’

Hours after he started driving, while cruising over the Bay Bridge, Banta-Cain’s cellphone rang. Bill Belichick had called. He congratulated Banta-Cain on the Patriots having drafted him in the seventh round.

“I told him, ‘You know what? You’re going to the Super Bowl,’ ’’ said Joya Banta, Banta-Cain’s mother. “We just felt like they wanted him. It was like they knew everything about him.’’

Banta-Cain believes the wait he endured to be drafted helped him. Maybe if he went in the first round, he would have been overly satisfied. Maybe if the Lions picked him, it would have affected the way he approached the game.

“It definitely brought me down to ground zero and forced me to work my way up,’’ Banta-Cain said.

But it also, he believes, attached a stigma to him.

“I mean, even now,’’ Banta-Cain said. “I make a play now, no one is going to really talk about me. ‘Oh, oh yeah, seventh round. Oh, OK. Went to San Francisco for a couple years. Oh.’

“No one really talks about it what I did in college. Meanwhile, you get a guy who may have been a first- or second-round pick, he makes a play - ‘Oh, this guy in college was this, that. That’s why they drafted him. That’s what we’ve been waiting for!’

“It’s all good, though.’’

Banta-Cain’s mind-set hadn’t changed by the offseason after 2006. He had earned a secure spot on the Patriots with his special teams play, earning more and more defensive snaps. He made 5 1/2 sacks in 2006 and emerged as a third-down pass-rushing threat. But the Patriots’ solid corps of outside linebackers, including Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel, blocked his path to the field.

“I’ve always wanted to prove I can play every down,’’ Banta-Cain said. “To be one of the best in the league . . . that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to have that pride. I really wanted to show the full gamut of what I could do as an every-down player.

“Here, I was given an opportunity in my last year of my tenure. I didn’t really get to show it throughout the full three years, just flashes here and there. I’ve always wanted to solidify myself and establish myself.’’

When he became a free agent, Banta-Cain considered remaining with the Patriots, with whom he had won two Super Bowls. He appreciated his time in New England. But the 49ers offered more money, and Banta-Cain never had earned a large salary by NFL standards.

In 2007, he left the Patriots to sign a $12.2 million contract with the 49ers. He was going home, not far from Cal-Berkeley, where he had starred as a defensive end. He would be an every-down player, a central figure on an emerging defense. Now he was the high-profile free agent, no longer the seventh-round underdog.

Within his first year, that vision crumbled. He played through injuries and had 3 1/2 sacks in his first season. Under new coach Mike Singletary, Banta-Cain lost the playing time he had gone to San Francisco to earn. After the season, the team forced him to take a pay cut.

“I was kind of looked at as like the letdown from the free agent class - a bust or whatever,’’ Banta-Cain said.

The low point came at the beginning of last season. Banta-Cain felt he redeemed his 2007 season with what he thought was a strong training camp and preseason.

And yet, he did not play for the first four games of the season. The 49ers made him inactive, not even choosing him as a special teams player. He had a new sour memory to package with his somber draft day.

“That was something that definitely didn’t sit well with me,’’ Banta-Cain said. “It wasn’t even that I wasn’t good enough to play defense. I wasn’t good enough to play special teams, which is my bread and butter. That was very insulting.

“The way I felt for those four games, being inactive and watching, I’ll be able to hold on to that the rest of my life. I think even now, being with New England, all I have to do is think back to last year.’’

Banta-Cain played the final 12 games, but he registered only a half-sack. When the 49ers cut him, the Patriots overlooked what had happened in San Francisco, Belichick said. They liked Banta-Cain when they had him, and that had not changed.

In January, Banta-Cain and Belichick met. Shortly thereafter, Banta-Cain became a Patriot again.

“And it’s worked out well,’’ Belichick said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.’’

Two seasons later than he planned, it is a good year for Banta-Cain. He is playing again with the organization where he feels at home, proving that he can start on an NFL defense.

“When he got into the league, it was like, ‘Well, I’ll just prove it all over again,’ ’’ Joya Banta said. “I think he still has that. He’s got that seventh-round chip on his shoulder.’’

Even with his success, his motivation is unchanged. He knows that Artose Pinner is no longer in the league. He still uses his painful memories to drive himself.

“Those are the two - my draft year and last year in San Francisco,’’ Banta-Cain said. “Those are the two years that I’ll always go back to if I need fire.’’

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