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Milloy move showed Patriots who was boss

They got along the first time they met, early in 1996. The 22-year-old kid with the unforgettable name -- Lawyer -- had impressed Bill Belichick. They had sat down that day and begun watching football films. Three or four hours later they were still going.

Belichick knew then that he liked Lawyer Milloy. It was the way he never lost his focus when they were talking about football. It was the sense that he could watch these films for an additional three or four hours and still want to play afterward.

"I didn't think he had any weak points," Belichick says. "He was one of the most impressive guys I ever talked to. The guy hadn't watched film since his last college game back in November. And he knew everything, `Here's what this call is, this is why I'm doing this. See that formation? Here are the adjustments. Now he's going in motion, we're checking this, I got him, he's got him . . .' It was like he watched film yesterday."

They put on another film and it was more of the same. Belichick was an assistant coach with the Patriots then. He knew Milloy, a safety from the University of Washington, could help them. "After what I saw, I thought, `This guy is smart. He's not going to have a problem handling anything.' And he liked football. He was into it. It wasn't work for him. Let's face it: He does have a little bit of an attitude. But in the end, you can certainly work with the guy."

The Patriots drafted him in the second round that year. As his position coach, Belichick used to lobby Bill Parcells to start him over Terry Ray. He was ready. They worked together for just one season. After that, Belichick and Parcells were off to New York. And Milloy was left standing in Foxboro, wondering what happened to the Patriots' kingdom that was predicted to come. It didn't. The team went from very good to good, good to mediocre. It was bad enough to have a coaching vacancy in 2000, a vacancy that Belichick filled. When the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI, two people rushed to Belichick: his daughter, Amanda, and Milloy: "I thought that was appropriate," the coach says.

Even during the good times -- when the Patriots were champs -- Belichick could always see Milloy's flaws, as a player and as a leader. He really was a leader. And he really wasn't. He brought some of his teammates together. He alienated them. He brought them together again. You just had to understand him. He was full of energy and emotion, a man who spoke it nearly as quickly as he saw it. He wasn't about internalizing his thoughts. He was a glance away from going off, always ready to deliver a lick -- verbal or physical.

"A negative leader sometimes," reads the Patriots' 2001 team evaluation report. This was after Milloy had helped the team win the Super Bowl. There was also this: "Good production, durable, tough . . . Over-aggressive, doesn't wrap up, inconsistent leadership, selfish."

There was enough for everyone, depending on your personality and what you were willing to accept. If you didn't mind someone playing his music at his volume near your locker, you liked him. If you did, you had a problem. If you didn't mind a joke at your expense every now and then, you laughed with him. If you couldn't handle it, you shied away. If you were an employee who wished one of the rank-and-file had the guts to take on management, you adored him. He would say anything to anybody. If you were a designer of fashionable clothing and wanted someone to look good in your clothes, you recruited him. His style was balanced between classic and hip. He had a big heart and a great smile. He was comfortable among the fans and clubs of Boston.

It gave him and his friend, Ty Law, immense pride that they weren't sidelined with "soft" injuries. They'd make fun of teammates who would be at practice riding stationary bikes as they put in the real work. Milloy didn't miss any games or many assignments.

He played baseball in high school and college, and he had that quality that a lot great pitchers have. Even when they don't have their best stuff, they make you believe in what's there. And that's what feeds the greatness. Milloy was like that. He made you believe. He was confident and energetic, waving his arms to the crowd. He always had a little more energy than you did, even without his stuff.

In 2002, he was without it.

He was 29, he made the Pro Bowl -- without playing like a Pro Bowler -- and in the unfair world of NFL economics, he was essentially in his contract year with the Patriots. It is an NFL truism known by all: You don't want to have an average year when you're just south or north of 30 years old. Milloy had an average year. He knew he and Belichick had a lot in common when it came to football, but they couldn't have been more opposite when it came to emotions. The coach observed first and spoke later, if at all. He could go off just like Milloy, but he could also be measured. He was always an economist.

As much as he liked Milloy personally -- he was one of the people who sometimes enjoyed the attitude -- he didn't like the way the numbers sat on the salary cap. He wasn't thrilled with the '02 production, either, but he could accept it if it were next to a cap number different from $4.5 million. Belichick had thought about it the entire offseason. Once, during a draft meeting, scout Tom Dimitroff made a comment about the big plays he'd seen Milloy make in '02. "I'd like you to come up with some examples," the coach said. "I can't think of any."

Belichick thought about it in March when the Patriots signed former Chargers safety Rodney Harrison, and he continued to think about it in April when safety Tebucky Jones was dealt to the Saints. He wanted the team to negotiate with Milloy's agent, Carl Poston. If they could work out a deal that would give Milloy around $3 million per season, that would be OK.

It was not going to be all right with Milloy. It was a pay cut and he wasn't interested. On August 19th, when the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to the Bears for nose tackle Ted Washington, it was still an issue. There was almost no chance of the disagreement ending well. New England was halfway through its preseason and three days away from exhibition game number three. Most of Milloy's teammates knew about his contract struggles -- he wasn't known for his restraint. They all figured that this season would be his last in New England. They were right: Two weeks later, Tuesday, September 2nd, per his and his agent Poston's request, he was released. The Patriots had been preparing to do it if a deal couldn't be struck, so they weren't blindsided. Still, now they'd have to explain the loss to the team.

Belichick arrived at the meeting later than usual. He was uncomfortable. He got around to saying that Milloy had been cut, and that it was a tough decision. He mentioned how Milloy had given a lot to the organization and that his physical and emotional contributions had made the Lombardi Trophy on the second floor a reality. He gave them the news of the day, waited a few beats, and then started talking about the game they had to play. The players were stunned.

"Guys were outraged," former Patriots guard Damien Woody said. "The coaches knew it was a volatile situation. Our practices were always loud with the coaches saying a lot of tings. But it wasn't like that the week Lawyer was released. It was quiet. It was that way for an entire week."

What a lot of people would miss later in analyzing the release was that it wasn't all about the departure of Milloy for the players. It wasn't about trite perception, that they were somehow losing heart and soul. They had too much breadth for one player to represent heart and soul. They'd get over the loss. The thing that was so disturbing about the move is that it swung so close to all of them: If Milloy could be cut, following the trade of Drew Beldsoe the year before, who among them couldn't be released?

There was nothing novel about the thought, of course. Players often talk about the business aspects of the league, but they are players. They are always taken aback by the shivers of corporate America, shivers that people in other businesses receive from CEOs and COOs. The company is not doing what we expect, we're laying off 300 employees. Effective immediately. Just like that.

It was tough to be conscious of that coldness and play professional football. That's why every player says it's a business without thinking about it, especially as they give up their bodies while going across the middle. You can only devote yourself to one or the other: Pure businessmen will never go over the middle, and pure players will never reduce things to business.

This was not over. They were hurting. They would get together and prove how tough and professional they were, even if outsiders wouldn't see the results until much later. After the release, there was a defensive meeting -- without Belichick present -- and players and coaches talked about their feelings.

A few of the veterans stood up and said this was a good lesson for the rookies. Their message to the yound players was consistent: "Save your money and take care of yourselves. As you just saw, this can be taken away very quickly." When they were able to sort out the next issue -- and when they were able to expertly deconstruct it -- they knew they could still be champions.

There was a lot of searching to overcome during an average game week, an extraordinary amount to overcome when a player such as Milloy is cut, and a nearly impossible amount to overcome when your first game is against the player who just left. The Patriots were traveling to Buffalo, where the Bills had a new safety named Milloy. He didn't have much time to practice -- a couple of days -- but he still started on Sunday. He was introduced last, wearing his familiar No. 36 jersey. He was back to being his energetic self, and he was sparked by the Super Bowl expectations of fans in western New York.

To those who didn't know, it still appeared that the Patriots were torn apart by the Milloy release. They weren't. They were hurt, though, and healing, and now they went straight from the recovery room to violent contact. They didn't have the focus they needed, all the way around, and that sent a couple of false messages throughout the NFL: that the Patriots were a troubled and divided team; and that Buffalo was the best team in the division, on the verge of playing for a championship.

They both looked their parts.

The Bills won decisively, 31-0. The screen passes that had been part of the Patriots' offensive package looked like something out of the 1950s against new Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes. He was too fast for the screens and too wise to them as well. Drew Bledsoe had no problem with the Cover 5 defense that used to include Milloy at the back of it. Tom Brady threw four interceptions. And the leading man, the star of the story, was superb. He made more big plays in Game 1 than he had all of the previous season. He had five tackles, a sack, and an artfully defended pass that he was able to tap to new teammate Nate Clements for an interception.

The severity of the loss accelerated the recovery for the Patriots. There would be a linebackers meeting where Larry Izzo would stand up and shout, "Let's get our [expletive] together." Tedy Bruschi, already a passionate player, would elevate his leadership. Brady, Harrison, Troy Brown, Ted Washington . . . They all took over. Not many people realized that Buffalo may have peaked that day while New England, at least, had some clarity from the loss.

"I wouldn't wish this situation that I went through on anybody that plays any kind of sport ever in my life," Milloy told reporters after the game. "Because it was really messed up. But because of the Lord, because of the way my mother raised me, and because of who I am as a person, as a man . . . I was able to not only get through it, but I was able to conquer it. I came out on top." . . .
The meeting in Foxboro following the release of Milloy had been about one thing: professionalism. As a group, the Patriots were not whiners. Belichick was not going to lose the team because they were the team and they were not going to allow themselves to be lost. They wanted to win just as much as he did and, after the first wave of commentaries passed, they knew that the coach and his staff were going to give them a chance every week. They didn't have to love him; they just had to respect him. Michael Holley will be signing copies of his book today at 2 p.m. at Willow Books in Acton.

Book excerpts
About the author
Michael Holley, co-host of "I, Max" on Fox Sports, is a former sports columnist for The Boston Globe.
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( Image provided by Mary Simmons of Harper Collins)
"Patriot Reign" is available on Amazon.com.

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