HOUSTON -- On May 2, 2003, the first day of a two-day minicamp at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots signed 15 undrafted rookies, among them Penn State free safety Shawn Mayer. The mass signing came days after the Patriots had exercised 10 draft choices. And over the next two weeks, New England would sign four more undrafted rookies. Mayer making the team was a long shot, to say the least.
So you could say Mayer made the most of his opportunity. If the Patriots defeat the Panthers in three days in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Mayer, a member of four of New England's special teams and perhaps the most unheralded of the team's celebrated rookie class, will be able to say with pride that his 16 special-teams tackles in 11 games (including postseason) helped the Patriots win their second world championship in three seasons.
Mayer earned it. All the Patriots gave him was a chance. They kept him through training camp, released him Aug. 31, re-signed him to the practice squad the next day, waived him Nov. 7, brought him back to the practice squad three days later, and, finally, added him to the active roster Nov. 22.
"He's not the most talented guy," special teams coach Brad Seely said, "but he's a guy that knows what his limitations are and plays to his strengths. He's not flashy. You don't hear much about him, but he just does his job."
"That's kind of my background," Mayer said. "At Penn State, I had back surgery and I had knee surgery. I've just been overcoming obstacles my whole life. Growing up, it was the same deal. Money situations. We weren't the wealthiest family. My dad got fired, stuff like that. We had our times with no electricity, no heat, and no water.
"I don't care how I got here, but I'm here now. [Football] is my whole life. You don't complain about it. You just work and work, and that's all you can do. That's all I know how to do."
The Patriots' scouting department evidently knows how to spot good, young players. Mayer is one of eight rookies on New England's active roster, and 14 on the team (including practice squad). We've seen and appreciated the immediate contributions of second-round picks Eugene Wilson, a starter at safety, and Bethel Johnson, the AFC's leading kickoff returner, fourth-round choice and nickel back Asante Samuel, and fifth-round pick Dan Koppen, the team's starting center. But what has to be the real joy of this class of rookies from the Patriots' perspective is its depth.
Tully Banta-Cain nearly started in the same boat as Mayer. The former Cal defensive end turned outside linebacker was drafted in the seventh round, with the 239th overall pick. Banta-Cain tore a groin muscle lifting weights after spring rookie camp. He said it took him 10 weeks to recover from surgery. The Patriots activated him from the physically-unable-to-perform list Oct. 18. He's played in 10 of the next 12 games, including postseason, and performed well (10 special-teams tackles) for a player who hadn't played special teams since his first year at Berkeley.
"A couple of games ago [against Tennessee in the Divisional round] we didn't have Tully, and you could tell the difference," said Seely.
Said Banta-Cain, "I think I've earned my keep -- to an extent. I think I've made a mark. You've seen my name flash across the screen making a tackle. The coaches, them putting me out there says it all. That's a testament to that, me staying out there, because we've got other guys."
It's discovering guys such as Mayer and Banta-Cain that give personnel departments the most pride. Diamonds in the rough, they call them.
"For what the expectation is, for a guy who's a seventh-round pick in Tully, and Shawn Mayer, who's flown completely under the radar screen, I think those guys have done a great job," vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli said. "They've worked really hard to make sure they make a contribution."
Without question, the jewels of the draft thus far seem to be Wilson (17 starts, four interceptions), Johnson (28.2 yards per kickoff return), Samuel (two picks), and Koppen (17 starts). The beauty of this collection of first-year players is they've had a year -- a Super Bowl year, no less -- to gain a bit more polish. Here's a concept you don't hear about very often with regard to young players in the age of the salary cap: development. While Wilson and Co. have learned on the job, New England's other 10 rookies got what amounts to a year of graduate education. Mayer can take tips from Rodney Harrison, Banta-Cain from Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, and Roman Phifer. "The biggest thing I've learned is how to prepare for the game," Banta-Cain said. "All those guys prepare well."
Patriots fans were expecting to see more than the little they did this year of first-round pick Ty Warren. He started every game in October, but since Ted Washington returned from a broken leg Nov. 16, Warren's playing time has seen a dramatic decrease. He's been active for every game, though he finished the regular season with only 33 tackles and one sack.
While Warren failed to make an immediate impact, his rookie campaign was a success. He learned not by making mistakes, but by observing teammates Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, Richard Seymour, and Washington. "He has a great upside," Pleasant said. "I think he's realizing that he has to sit back and play his role and learn. I think he realizes that his time is going to come. He's not pouting or feeling depressed about not playing a lot. He's accepting his role, knowing that eventually he'll be out there."
"He's going to be a good player," defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Romeo Crennel said. "He just hasn't played as much as some people think he should be playing. But he's a hard-working kid, he's conscientious, and he has some talent. I think you'll see Ty step forward."
Have you taken a step back and looked at the big picture? The Patriots have four rookies -- free agents Chas Gessner, Ethan Kelley, Tom Provost, and Jamil Soriano -- on the practice squad. Those players must have some potential, or else, the way he values his roster spots, Belichick wouldn't keep them around.
The Patriots also have a young quarterback, sixth-round pick Kliff Kingsbury, on injured reserve (wink, wink). Who's to say that in two or three years he isn't Tom Brady's backup, or the next Matt Hasselbeck, yielding the Patriots a first-round pick?
Kingsbury has spent the year -- "a redshirt season," he calls it -- doing his best impersonation of a sponge. He's in every meeting, at every practice, watching, learning.
"Getting to watch Tom on a day-to-day basis has been huge for me," Kingsbury said. "He's the ultimate professional, always on top of his game, so it's been a great experience. I throw a little bit, but basically I'm just working out and working on the mental aspect of it. In college, you don't have that much time in a week to study film and meet and things like that. Now, you're meeting all day every day. My football knowledge has gone off the charts from where it was."
Brady was a sixth-round pick who threw three passes his first year. "Tom was in my shoes before he made it big," Kingsbury said. "That's inspiration."
The Patriots coaches have effective ways of inspiring the rookies to achieve. The rookies often are required to arrive at team meetings 45 minutes early. Defensive backs coach Eric Mangini administers exams for Samuel, Wilson, and Mayer. "The goal is getting them to understand what it takes to be successful in the NFL," Mangini said, "because they have no idea. How Asante did it at Central Florida -- and this isn't a knock on Central Florida -- but that's not our program. That's not good enough."
And, finally, there's cult hero Dan Klecko, the team's other fourth-round selection. The defensive lineman/fullback/linebacker has learned to play several positions on both sides of the ball. Coming from Temple, he's learned what it feels like to win. And like the rest of his rookie class, he's learned what it takes to win.
"I think they do such a good job around here of teaching the rookies," said Klecko, already one of the team's more popular players. "We have earlier meetings. Earlier in the season, me and Tully had to come in and learn extra linebacker stuff with Coach [Rob] Ryan. They do such a good job just bringing you along and trying to teach you everything, to where it's not really by fire. They really have you prepared.
"Personally, I think the best way to learn is by getting out there and playing. But I do think [watching] has helped my development. If they call on us a little bit more next year, then we'll have that experience."
And perhaps, in the meantime, a Super Bowl ring.