FOXBOROUGH — It happened on the very first play.
Logan Mankins lined up, and on the first snap, his ACL tore. But the offensive lineman who grew up in a small town on the family ranch, who had learned from a very young age that if there’s work to be done you do it, kept playing and finished the game.
That was the first time Mankins tore an ACL — in the Fresno State spring game in 2003.
The second time he tore one? Well, that was sometime during the 2011 NFL season. If Mankins knows exactly when it happened, he hasn’t revealed it. But suffice it to say he played the large majority of the year — a year in which the Patriots played into February — with one of the crucial ligaments in his right knee, one that plays a major role in stability, essentially useless.
Cowboys are renowned for their toughness.
But even to those who always have respected him for the grit he has shown time and again on the football field, playing through an injury as significant as an ACL tear put Mankins at a new level on the fortitude scale.
“I couldn’t believe it, I really couldn’t,” said Vince Wilfork, who has had many a practice battle with Mankins. “I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time when I sat down and thought, I knew he was tough, but that’s taking it to a whole other level. He has a lot of respect around here, around the league.
“To do what he did, there aren’t too many people that’s going to do what he did. And that just shows you what football means to him and this team, what it means to him.”
Mankins missed the regular-season finale last year with a sprained MCL in his left knee after being hurt the week before, playing left tackle for the first time in his NFL career.
So when news came after the Super Bowl that he’d undergone surgery to repair his ACL, the assumption was that it was in that same left knee and that it had happened in the title game.
In actuality, it was his right knee that needed the reconstruction, and Mankins had been playing through the injury for nearly the entire season, never really letting on that maybe something wasn’t right.
“It’s amazing that he didn’t even feel like that’s what it was,” Tom Brady said with a small laugh. “That’s the crazy thing, is how much pain tolerance he has, to deal with all these different injuries. It’s a physical game, guys get banged up every week, but you always know Logan’s dependability to come out there. He’s going to give you everything he’s got.”
Mankins is in his eighth season now, and before last year, he’d never sat out so much as a practice because of injury. His beard is ever-present, though his hair, tinged with gray, is much shorter now compared with the unruly mass he sported a couple of years ago.
Last week, there was a pair of well-worn tan cowboy boots sitting at his locker, a nod to his upbringing in Catheys Valley, Calif., a tiny town where Mankins grew up believing he’d be a cowboy before Fresno State came to offer him a football scholarship.
“I don’t know,” Mankins said when asked where his toughness comes from. “I just always feel if I can be out there, I should be out there playing, and as long as I’m not hurting the team, then I always feel that I should be playing.
“I’ve got a lot of tough people in my family — my dad, my grandpa, my mom. I think being in that [ranch] lifestyle, you’re raised in a tough way.”
Mankins wasn’t in constant pain; he noted that once the ACL tears, you don’t really feel it. There were some days, he allowed, when it did hurt, but never enough for him to tap out of a game, or even a practice.
Before the left knee injury, early in the 15th game of the year, Mankins hadn’t missed a single snap.
A four-time All-Pro, Mankins is one of the few players on the Patriots roster who could miss some time and not worry about losing his job. The respect coach Bill Belichick has for him is obvious.
Mankins didn’t see it that way.
“Nah. I think that’s what pushes a lot of guys — we’re all paranoid to lose our spot anyway,” he said. “Like, you can say I’m safe, but I never look at it as I’m safe, so you always want to be out there trying to do your best.”
As if being a large man whose job is to move other, often larger, men against their will wasn’t mind-boggling enough, Mankins still played at a high level despite a major injury. The only game in which he visibly struggled was the Super Bowl, and by then he was playing on two bum knees.
And in practice there wasn’t a dropoff.
“No. No! And that was the crazy thing,” Wilfork said. “He went on about his day like it’s a normal day. He practiced every day; it wasn’t like he was off. That just goes to show you, mental toughness, man.
“It’s one thing to deal with physical pain, but the mental toughness you’ve got to have to go out and fight every day knowing something is bothering you and you just want to keep going, that’s a lot of mental and physical toughness.”
Asked whether his play was affected, Mankins said, “Ah . . . I don’t think so. It probably wasn’t my greatest year, but I had a better year than most people do, so it was still pretty good.”
(That’s about the closest you’ll get to bragging from Mankins, by the way.)
The surgically repaired knee has felt better and better each week, and Mankins has felt more comfortable.
Now there are new problems: Mankins has been listed with calf and hip injuries in recent weeks, missing the game in Buffalo and cutting short his day against Denver as well. He also has sat out some practices, though he is expected to play against the Jets Sunday.
The problems could be related to his knee — Mankins might be overcompensating — but he is already anticipating that it will be a long year. It’s only six weeks into the season and there are nagging injuries to deal with.
By now, though, it’s impossible to think Mankins won’t be on the field unless he is absolutely unable. He has played through two torn ACLs and who knows what other ailments.
Cowboys, which is what Mankins is, are tough like that.