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Branded unjustly?

Meriweather's supporters insist the Patriots' No. 1 pick has gotten a bad rap despite transgressions -- and that the ex-Miami star will silence critics

Brandon Meriweather's stellar career at the University of Miami was overshadowed by one flagrant incident. Brandon Meriweather's stellar career at the University of Miami was overshadowed by one flagrant incident. (DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES)

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- When Brandon Meriweather, his index finger pointed skyward, delivered the good news to Mary Bridges on draft day, her first notion was that New England was the perfect team to rehabilitate her adopted son's sullied reputation.

"That was my first thought -- if he got Bill Belichick to believe he's not a thug, then the rest of the country is going to have to believe him," said Bridges, sitting at the kitchen table of the Apopka home she shares with her husband, Tim, and their two biological children. "The Patriots do have a reputation for not taking those type of guys."

The dreadlocked University of Miami defensive back, who was selected by the Patriots with the 24th pick in the first round of last month's draft, was branded a character concern after his senior season was marred by a preseason gun incident and an on-field melee in a game against Florida International during which he stomped on opposing players.

Those who know Meriweather admitted he has made some bad decisions, but were adamant he is not a bad seed. They pointed out that those rushing to judge Meriweather don't know him. They don't even know his name -- William Brandon Meriweather.

"Brandon is not a rough kid," said Miami coach Randy Shannon, who was the defensive coordinator under Larry Coker during Meriweather's stint with the Hurricanes. "Don't let that hairdo fool you. That's just a front. He's just a soft-spoken kid that loves to play football and takes a lot of things to heart. He doesn't like to be perceived as one way because it really hurts him, because he knows he's not that way. If you say, 'Brandon, you're not a good person. You have bad character,' Brandon is going to prove you wrong."

That's what the Patriots hope, because Meriweather's fit as a football player isn't in question. He finished his career at Miami, which has produced Pro Bowl safeties Sean Taylor and Ed Reed, as the school's all-time leader among safeties in solo tackles with 182. He displayed position flexibility, playing free safety, strong safety, nickel back, and the left and right cornerback spots. When Miami played Georgia Tech, Meriweather was assigned to cover Calvin Johnson, the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. (Johnson had five catches for 68 yards and a score.)

"The whole league knew he could play," said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who added that Meriweather was off the board for some NFL teams. "Even the teams that said, 'We can't pick him,' they knew he could play, that was a non-issue. It was the other stuff."

Defensive situation
Meriweather, 23, started living with the Bridgeses, an interracial couple, when he was 11 years old, after befriending their son, coincidentally named Brandon, in Pop Warner. Meriweather's biological mother, Gabrielle (Meriweather) Roundtree, gave birth to him when she was 13. She turned over legal guardianship to Tim, a human resources director, and Mary, the assistant principal of Ocoee (Fla.) High School, when Meriweather was in high school. He calls Tim, who is African-American, "Pops" and blond-haired Mary "Mom."

"We didn't treat him any different than we treated our own Brandon," said Tim. "When we bought Brandon school clothes, we bought Brandon school clothes. When we got Brandon a cellphone, we got Brandon a cellphone. When we gave Brandon a car, we gave Brandon a car. There was never any point where he felt like we treated him any different than our own [kids]."

So they are pained by the perception that Meriweather is a thug. "He may have made bad choices, but there's never been a thug mentality," said Mary.

The gun incident has been well publicized. What may be a revelation is that the home in which he and his teammates had been living had been burglarized during the 2005 season while they were away. A laptop was stolen and later recovered. "I'm pretty sure a lot of adults, if their home was broken into, they would try to defend themselves," said Miami defensive backs coach Tim Walton.

That's what Meriweather's friends and family said he was doing on the morning of July 21, 2006, when, according to a South Miami Police report, he fired three shots at an unidentified assailant who had shot teammate and roommate Willie Cooper in the buttocks. Meriweather, who, according to the Bridgeses, had stayed at his girlfriend's place, came home at 6:30 a.m. to pick Cooper up for an offseason workout. After hearing a noise, the two went outside and the shooting ensued. Meriweather's gun was legally registered, and he faced no charges.

"He wouldn't change nothing he did," said Cooper. "You can avoid the whole thing maybe if you turn back time, but in the heat of the battle, he or I wouldn't change nothing. It's unfortunate that it happened to Brandon, to us."

Provocation factor
The third-quarter melee between Miami and FIU Oct. 14 had already spiraled out of control when Meriweather, the 'Canes captain, came rushing in and started introducing his cleats to FIU players.

A no-nonsense coach, Shannon said the bottom line is that Meriweather knew better, but revealed he had actually exercised restraint prior to the free-for-all.

On the black plasma television hanging in his office, Shannon showed a reporter three plays on the coaches' tape from that game. The first showed Miami safety Kenny Phillips being hit in the back twice after the whistle and a player pulling Phillips back as he attempted to retaliate. It's Meriweather. The second play showed an FIU receiver delivering an open-handed shot to Meriweather's head, followed by a roundhouse right that missed, in the second quarter. The third play, which occurred moments before the brawl, showed the same receiver delivering another head shot to Meriweather, who turned to a nearby official in exasperation. No flag.

"I'm not taking up for him, but don't let the perception get you confused for what it really is," said Shannon.

Meriweather was one of 31 players on both sides who received disciplinary action stemming from the brawl, including two FIU players who were dismissed from the team. Meriweather was suspended for one game and offered a self-penned written apology. Mary and Tim said dealing with the aftermath of his actions was a learning experience for Meriweather.

"I think it did teach him that you're going to have to deal with the consequences if you make a bad decision," said Mary. "I think that is the most important thing."

The consequences were that he had to repeatedly explain himself to NFL teams and convince them he wasn't an incorrigible character problem.

"The one thing he said was that once he got into interviews with coaches and GMs, that's when he could show his real character," said Cooper. "They say you can't tell if someone is telling the truth until you look in their eye. He said he wanted to get across that wasn't him and he was very sincere."

Davis said scouts and personnel people in the league told him that Meriweather did a "terrific job" of explaining the FIU incident.

Hitting his stride
Meriweather didn't have to sway teams that he could play.

Before his senior year, he spent time with Reed, the Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro who was his recruiting host, breaking down film. Shannon, who also coached Reed, said comparisons between the two are not off base.

"Both of them have great ball skills, great feet, competitors," said Shannon. "Edward may be a better return guy with the ball in his hands. I think Brandon will get to that next level because he studies film like Edward studies film, so he's going to have the ability to do those things. Edward is a better blitzer; Brandon is a better nickel guy and a slot guy."

Shannon said Meriweather was one of the hardest hitters he's ever been around. His sophomore year, Meriweather was teased mercilessly after he was trampled by West Virginia's Quincy Wilson on national television. Meriweather put an end to the ribbing when he drilled tight end Kellen Winslow in practice.

"Kellen was a big talker and a big 'get-you' guy," said Shannon. "He was good at running people over in practice, but Brandon happened to have caught him and that was that. Nobody talked to him about it anymore."

Meriweather's nicknames at Miami were "Hit-Stick" and "B-Ware." But in light of his transgressions, the latter has taken on a new and unfortunate meaning and is the reason that when he is formally introduced today in Foxborough by the Patriots, who have limited his media availability to this point, he will be forced to play a different type of defense.

Meriweather has already convinced the people who count -- NFL decision-makers -- he won't be a menace to society or to their teams. When the Patriots were on the phone to tell him they were going to select him, the Philadelphia Eagles, who picked 26th, were buzzing in on the other line.

Coker said that in the six seasons he was the coach at Miami, Belichick and Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli came by each season to evaluate players and they never picked a player who was high-maintenance or high-risk. He said they still haven't.

"Whether he's good enough to play for the Patriots, that's up to them, but the character issue won't be a problem," said Coker. "Knowing the kid like I do, they haven't changed their philosophy at all."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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