Vrabel calls it a career

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / July 12, 2011

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Mike Vrabel, the versatile, tough, smart linebacker and sometime tight end who came to personify the “Patriot Way’’ during New England’s three Super Bowl winning years, announced his retirement yesterday after 14 NFL seasons.

There had been several reports over the weekend that he would hang up his shoulder pads to begin his coaching career at his alma mater, Ohio State. He has joined the Buckeyes staff and will work with the linebackers under new coach, and Vrabel’s former roommate in Columbus, Luke Fickell.

“I am extremely appreciative of the teammates, coaches, and great fans who surrounded me during my NFL career, and am honored to have been a part of three tremendous organizations in the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, and Kansas City Chiefs,’’ Vrabel said in a statement. “I am especially grateful to Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, who not only gave me an opportunity to play for a team that won three Super Bowl championships and won an NFL record 21 games in a row, they also taught me invaluable lessons on creating the ultimate team approach.’’

Signed by the Patriots as a free agent in 2001 after beginning his career with the Steelers, who had drafted him in 1997 but with whom he struggled to earn playing time with a deep linebacker group ahead of him, Vrabel quickly established himself with New England. In his first season, he played in all 16 games and made the first 12 starts of his career. And almost as quickly, he became part of team lore: in Super Bowl XXXVI, he pestered Rams quarterback Kurt Warner into rushing a pass, which Ty Law intercepted and returned for the first touchdown in the Patriots’ 20-17 win.

During his eight seasons with the Patriots, Vrabel played both outside linebacker and inside, stepping in when others couldn’t get the job done next to Tedy Bruschi. But he was most comfortable outside: in 2007, allowed to get after quarterbacks, he recorded 12 1/2 sacks and earned his lone Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.

“During his Patriots career, there was no player more respected for his football intellect and revered for his leadership by his teammates than Mike,’’ Belichick said in a statement released by Ohio State. “He was elected a team captain by his peers and is a player who I think everyone knew was destined to become a coach after his NFL playing career was over.

“Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player. I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.’’

Vrabel’s days in New England came to an abrupt and surprising end when he was traded with Matt Cassel to the Chiefs in 2009. There were rumblings Vrabel had been shipped out of town because he was the team’s player representative during a time of growing labor unrest, and also because he openly criticized Patriot Place, the shopping plaza owner Robert Kraft built in the shadow of Gillette Stadium.

Earlier this year, Vrabel told the Globe he believes his involvement with the NFL Players Association did not have a negative effect on his relationship with Kraft, and if there are any hard feelings on Kraft’s side, it was hard to tell in the statement he gave to Ohio State.

“Mike Vrabel was a key contributor to the most successful era in Patriots’ franchise history and I will forever be grateful,’’ Kraft said. “His performance . . . helped us win three championships in four years. During his Patriots career, there was no player more respected for his football intellect and revered for his leadership than Mike.’’

Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who was drafted by the team in 2006 and was a Vrabel teammate for three years, feels Vrabel is eminently suited for his new role.

“Everybody’s drawn to him. When he talks, everybody listens,’’ said Gostkowski after a kicking camp at Merrimack College in North Andover. “He’s very smart and a very funny guy and obviously a great player. A good guy, that if you earn the respect of a guy like that . . . they’re the best guys that you can know. It was sad to see him go when he did, but to see him get the opportunity to coach at his alma mater is pretty cool.’’

Gostkowski said Vrabel knew the answer to every question Belichick asked, “and he was always the guy who was telling people where to go and what to do, and a lot of coaching is getting people to listen to you, and people definitely listen when Vrabel talks.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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