FOXBOROUGH -- The car was unreliable, pocked with rust, perilously close to qualifying as a lost cause.
Ty Warren planned to resurrect it. He pinned his hopes on that car, a late-model Malibu with too many miles and too little tread left on its weary tires. If he could get it running, he would be able to transport himself to and from his job, to school, to practice, back home. He could also carve out his own tiny slice of independence, to provide an occasional escape from a suffocating load of responsibilities.
Sam Smith, Warren's high school defensive line coach, listened to Warren discuss his plans to devote his energy -- and his limited funds -- into making that Chrysler his own.
It was exactly what his coach didn't want to hear.
"I told him, 'Ty, let me be your car. If you need a ride, I'll take you,' " Smith said. "I didn't want him pouring everything he had into something with no future.
"I tell Ty he made a $60,000 decision that day."
You must fast-forward five years to understand Smith's meaning. You must jump ahead to when Warren had graduated from Bryan (Texas) High School and was no longer under Smith's eye. His coach had been true to his word. He picked up Warren every morning before school, drove him to tutoring classes to improve his SAT scores, carted him home from practices and games and the jobs that often left the kid so exhausted he could barely lift his arms to carry his books into the house.
Smith badgered Warren to prepare his college applications, to maintain his football conditioning, to try a little harder, a little longer, until the young boy was a young man, off to Texas A&M on a football scholarship, then later, off to the NFL as a first-round draft choice of the Patriots.
On a warm summer afternoon in 2003, Smith was mowing his lawn when a gleaming black Hummer rolled lazily down his street. The darkened driver's side window opened slowly to reveal his former pupil, Ty Warren, sitting proudly behind the wheel of a $60,000 exclamation point.
"If Ty had decided to stick with that old Malibu, he never would have made it out of high school," Smith said. "He would have been satisfied with what he had.
"It was so important for him to realize there was more."
"I had no choice," said Warren, "unless I wanted to wear the same shirt to school every single day and eat macaroni and cheese every night."
He spent most of his high school years on the verge of exhaustion. With no father around and a mother overwhelmed trying to raise her young family alone, Warren grew up in a hurry. By the time he finished classes, football practice, punching the clock for minimum wage, and homework, and fell into bed, it was after midnight.
"Sometimes, it was hard to balance it all," Warren said. "Sometimes I wondered if it was ever going to end. But every time I thought I had it bad, I talked to someone who had it worse. Much worse."
He loved his hometown but knew there was trouble beckoning on every street corner. The crime and the drugs had swallowed up so many of his friends. They were athletically gifted, like he was, but they took shortcuts to get their cash. The shortcuts took them places Ty Warren didn't want to go.
When he was young, Warren spent his after-school hours at the Boys and Girls Club. He made friends with a girl, Kesha, and she told Ty he could do anything.
He wanted to play football. His mother, Annette, didn't like the sport because it was too violent, and he had been sneaking out of his house since the second grade so he could attend practice. By the sixth grade, his mother discovered his new pastime was splattering running backs into the green Texas grass.
Warren developed into an extremely strong, extremely agile lineman. In his first sophomore scrimmage against the varsity, the offense ran a sweep toward the senior tight end. Warren knocked the ball carrier 10 yards back.
"It was stunning," Smith said. "He destroyed him."
Smith could see how difficult it was for Warren and his family to make ends meet. He fretted about this quiet boy in the back of his car, who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. He asked what he could do to help; Warren merely smiled and told him he'd find a way.
By then, Warren had moved in with his maternal grandfather, who told him the Lord would reward him someday for his sacrifices.
"Everyone was concerned," Smith said, "but we couldn't give him a dime without breaking the rules. It was hard. But, like I used to tell Ty, 'You can be poor for a little while in order to be rich the rest of your life.' "
By the time the Patriots selected Warren in the 2003 draft, he had married Kesha, and they had a daughter. In their senior year at Texas A&M, the couple held down jobs, went to school, and cared for their child on a student's budget.
"We look back now and say, 'How did we make it?' " Warren said. "We went without. But we were happy."
He was confident their lives were about to improve immeasurably. He reported to the Patriots brimming with confidence, in part because New England played a 3-4 defense, the same one he had excelled in at Texas A&M. How different could it be?
"I was kind of naive," Warren conceded.
"I got up thinking I had done pretty well," Warren said, "until Bill [Belichick] walked up to me and said, 'That's wrong.' "
Warren was confused. Wasn't the object to stop the ball? He had become so adept at stuffing the run in college that the coaches didn't even send in instructions by his senior year. They just let him freelance.
"A lot of the time, they just said, 'Do your thing,' " Warren said.
It took one day of double sessions for Warren to conclude that "do your thing" wasn't going to cut it in Foxborough.
"Bill told me what I was supposed to do," Warren said. "I kept my mouth shut and listened hard. But in my mind I was saying, 'What the hell is going on?' "
The system was complex. Each player was responsible for understanding their teammates' duties as well as their own. Those duties varied greatly depending on the scenarios the coaches presented. It wasn't as simple as one dominant player dragging down a running back.
"I gambled to make that play," Warren said. "I succeeded, but the other nine times that I would have gambled and lost, it would have been a 15-yard gain for the other team. It took a couple of yellings from Bill for me to get it."
Richard Seymour noted the frustration on the rookie's face. He spent time talking with him about the adjustments he would have to make to survive.
"Coming to a defense like this, you have to put a lot of your personal aspirations on the back burner," Seymour explained. "Ty was a confident young man who was trying to show what he could do, but the coach really didn't care about that. He wanted someone to fit into the system.
"It leaves you kind of between a rock and a hard place. You want to prove yourself, be productive. But, as you get older, you realize it isn't so much about the numbers you put up, but what you can do for the continuity of the overall team."
Be patient, Seymour advised him. But Patriots fans weren't interested in waiting to see the fruits of a 13th overall pick. Belichick insisted the kid would be "just fine," but few believed him. Warren was proclaimed a bust by the public.
The whispers started that Warren hadn't worked hard enough in his senior season at A&M, that he was merely coming to the NFL to sit back and collect a paycheck. Those allegations stung then, and they sting now.
What the doubters didn't know was that Warren was forced to occasionally miss team meetings so he could pick up his little brother from school. While his teammates were in the weight room, he was attending a teacher conference for his sister.
"Ty had a lot on his plate at a very young age," said Buddy Wyatt, his line coach at A&M. "I think it's one of the reasons he didn't perform quite as well in college as he probably could have.
"He always had so many people pulling at him from so many different directions. I don't know how he did it. He was the most mature kid I've ever coached."
By choosing Texas A&M, Warren would continue playing football in his hometown of Bryan. The campus was in the affluent part of town, near restaurants and shops his family couldn't afford and had never seen.
"I had never been to any of those stores," he said. "They were 2 miles away, but they might as well have been on the moon."
He experienced the same kind of culture shock when he arrived in New England. Was it always so cold? And why was everyone in such a hurry?
"Everyone was rushing around the grocery store like they were on some kind of shopping spree on a game show," he said.
The passion with which the region embraced -- and sometimes rejected -- its athletes also was something Warren hadn't experienced, yet he was able to deal with the negative vibes of his rookie year. Veteran Anthony Pleasant wondered how someone so young had gained so much wisdom.
"The fans in New England have expectations," Pleasant said. "And if you don't live up to them, watch out. They can really get to you. But Ty wasn't very concerned about what people thought. He was secure in his own ability."
Still, his rookie year was a long one. Kesha was with him, and that helped, but they were far from home, in an area of the country that was foreign to them. He found himself growing closer to Seymour. Both were family-oriented, spiritual men. Each was helping younger siblings make it through life. Seymour's father had died and left behind a young daughter. Warren's grandfather succumbed to cancer while he was at A&M, so even more responsibilities had fallen to Kesha and him.
Football was a welcome respite. He learned the nuances of the NFL and improved week to week. As Warren stepped off the team bus following the Super Bowl victory in Houston in 2004, Belichick stopped him.
"He said, 'See you next season. You get ready,' " Warren said. "Bill doesn't say a whole lot. I knew in between the lines he was telling me, 'I'm counting on you.' "
"He was the hardest-working guy on the team," Seymour said.
The changes he made were not only physical. Warren studied the playbook, watched film, immersed himself in the way the Patriots played football.
"His knowledge of the game improved tremendously," Wyatt said. "I used to talk to him about coverages, but he didn't listen. After a couple of years in New England, he was rattling off all these schemes. I said, 'Man, you're finally paying attention.' "
The year after Warren was drafted, the line added another highly touted rookie, Vince Wilfork, who experienced similar pangs of self-doubt as he tried to grasp just what it was his new employer wanted him to do.
"People were saying this defense wasn't a good fit for me," Wilfork said. "Ty told me, 'Don't pay attention.' You'll sit back and have the last laugh.' "
He was right. Warren and Wilfork have developed into mainstays alongside Seymour. They are one of the most cohesive defensive lines in football. They are a tight-knit group, content to fly under the radar and battle each other for bragging rights in bowling, fishing, and, of course, the weight room. Warren is playing so well that he might even garner Pro Bowl consideration.
Kesha and Ty Warren have started a foundation called First and Goal, which, among other things, purchases coats for kids -- kids from the Boys and Girls Club just like them who could use a hand in pursuing their dreams.
They have furnished their old club in Bryan with game tables and all-star jerseys for the kids.
Although Smith is retired from teaching, he still coaches the freshman team at Bryan, and he has told his players many times not to settle for a broken-down Chrysler when a gleaming new Hummer is within your grasp.
Ty Warren makes guest appearances at Smith's practices and tells the kids he never would have made it without the help of his coach.
Smith tells the players all about all those days he chauffeured Ty Warren around town.
"I tell them he wasn't the first kid I drove home," Smith said, "but he was the first one who listened."
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.