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FOXBOROUGH — Not to say he was tempted or lured by too many things unsavory, but Steve Gregory didn’t need to look very far to make sure he made the right decisions more often than not. His father, also Steve, was a New York City police officer. His stepmother, as well.
Growing up on Staten Island, Gregory took great pride in his parents’ profession. Both are retired now, able to enjoy watching as Gregory plies his trade as a safety for the Patriots after he spent six seasons with the Chargers.
Undrafted out of Syracuse, Gregory has carved out a respectable NFL career, first as a special teams player for the Chargers, then as a starting safety. Now he’ll look to do the same with the Patriots, using the foundation and the work ethic first laid at home.
“They kept me in line, you know, they knew how much trouble there was out there in the street, so my father really buckled down and made sure I did well in school, got my education, stayed focused. He’s a big credit to where I’m at today,” Gregory said Thursday after the Patriots practiced behind Gillette Stadium. “There were times when my father was out working nights, my stepmother was out working, and you just don’t know, you hear all these stories of things that happen to cops out there on the job, and it’s a dangerous profession, but it’s something they took pride in, and I was proud of.”
Gregory, who wears No. 28, might help give the Patriots something they sorely lacked a year ago: stability in the secondary. A revolving door a season ago that included offensive players lining up on defense and players in new positions because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the safety spot should be helped by Gregory’s presence.
The Patriots were impressed enough that they signed him to a three-year contract on March 16. He’s been at safety so far in training camp, but can play multiple spots — he even spent a year at Syracuse as a receiver — like many of his teammates.
“Versatile player. Maybe a little bit undersized just from a height, weight, speed standpoint for the safety position, but was real fast, aggressive, very instinctive player, matched up well,” said Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel. “Steve has done a nice job. He was able to do a number of different things in San Diego’s defense. I think some of the things that we’re doing are a little bit different, just systematically, but he’s indoctrinated himself into our system well. He’s done a nice job to this point.”
Gregory started 13 games for the Chargers last season, making 67 tackles and returning his only interception for a 26-yard touchdown, against Buffalo. He’s hoping to make a similar impact with his new team.
“The plan is to be a big-play guy, right? That’s everybody’s goal, you want to go out and make plays and help your team win, in whatever way, shape, or form that is. That’s the kind of guy I am,” Gregory said.
It takes about five seconds to pinpoint Gregory’s New York accent, and not much longer to sense how quickly he’s fallen in lockstep with his new employer (“working hard” and “trying to get better” were phrases oft-repeated).
Having the chance to return to the East Coast — he won’t acknowledge even growing up to being a Jets fan, smartly — and play for the Patriots brings him to a club he knew plenty about, despite working so far away.
“Just a first-class organization, you knew their reputation of winning, and any time someone’s winning you associate that with hard work,” Gregory said. “I can see that when we’re out here.”
Some might wonder at the fact Gregory is still — even? — in the NFL. Despite a standout college career, he went undrafted, then signed with the Chargers a few weeks after the 2006 draft.
Now in his seventh season, Gregory has shown enough skill through the years to stick. Others might be surprised. He’s not.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself,” Gregory said. “I believed I was a guy that could have been drafted, I believed in my talents, my abilities, had a good career at Syracuse, and I was on a path to go out and prove that I belong in this league.”
Describing his strengths as “smart, quick, a guy that can understand what the offense is doing, and get there before the ball does, I guess,” Gregory benefited from signing before the Patriots’ offseason program started, so he’s participated in the full complement of workouts and practices. He’s been getting reps alongside Patrick Chung as the starting safeties.
“Obviously, there’s a new scheme and new things to learn and I’m in the process of doing that, but it’s going smoothly,” Gregory said. “Patrick is helping me out, coaches, everybody. We really have a good working atmosphere with each other.
“There’s always high expectations here, but right now our expectation is to be better than we were yesterday. That’s the focus.”