KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A group of six Patriots has played together since 1996, no small feat in the era of NFL free agency and constant personnel change.
Adam Vinatieri (undrafted free agent, '96), Troy Brown ('93 draft), Tedy Bruschi ('96 draft), Ted Johnson ('95 draft), Willie McGinest ('94 draft), and Ty Law ('95 draft) have been together since '96 when Bill Parcells was in charge. All but the injured Law will be in action tonight against the Kansas City Chiefs.
They have played in three Super Bowls, winning two. They are 85-52 in the regular season since '96. They have worked under three coaches, played in two home stadiums, and been a part of a team that won a record 21 straight games.
"We're kind of like the last of the Mohicans, you know?" McGinest said. "This team looks completely different from when I first got here, but to see a few core guys still here is really good for our team. There's some continuity there for all of us and I think that's really important.
"We're all cool together. I remember we took a picture together after the last Super Bowl of the guys who have been together. But it's not just football that makes us friends. It's deeper than football, and it always will be." "We've been around for so long that we know each other on and off the field, but more importantly for our team we know each other on the field," Bruschi said. "You just don't see it too often, guys in the same place and [having] as much success as we have. The six of us have a lot more history together. We know how we're going to react to certain situations."Nobody knows how much longer they will be together, and when they have seen contemporaries depart, they feel empty. Nobody took Drew Bledsoe's departure any harder than Brown or Johnson. Last year they all said their goodbyes to Lawyer Milloy.
"You know how I reacted when Lawyer left," Bruschi said. "It's hard on me because I'm a guy who truly believes in loyalty and who believes that guys should be able to play together their entire careers. I've seen too many friends leave, all the way back to Chris Slade and Lawyer. Spoke to Slade last week. [I] keep in touch with Andy [Katzenmoyer].
"For me, I'm a true family man at home. And to me, this is my second family. If they do have to part ways, I like to see it in a happy way where you retire. To see people leave because they're disgruntled, that bothers me. Hopefully, it'll work out differently for the guys who have been together for my nine years here."
Bruschi has done his part to keep the team together by negotiating his own contracts the last two times and probably taking less money to stay. Johnson turned down a chance to go to Green Bay for more money. McGinest has restructured his contract many times to fit under the salary cap. Brown always has taken less money than he probably deserved. Law and Vinatieri are about to reach a crossroads: whether to extend their time in New England or maximize their earning potential elsewhere.
"If I ran a company, I would want each and every one of those guys working for me," Johnson said. "They all have staying power. They are the epitome of what a professional is supposed to be. I love all of them."
It's been mostly ups, but there have been a few downs, too.
Vinatieri may make the Hall of Fame as one of the biggest money kickers of all time, but in 1999 he missed two normally makable field goals here at Arrowhead Stadium and one in Buffalo that might have made the Patriots 10-6 instead of 8-8. Johnson had a rift with Bill Belichick early in the '02 season when Belichick reduced his playing time, going AWOL for a couple of days.
McGinest survived serious injury problems to re-emerge as a strong player. Brown recently has fallen a bit on the depth chart at wide receiver and has had to play some defense this season at age 33.
"In football, it's hard to stay together," Vinatieri said. "That's the tough thing. It's a young man's sport and it's a tough sport that can take players away for health reasons. But we've been so lucky here to have had guys achieve things together for so long."
Johnson said of the players' relationships, "Sometimes it's just unspoken what we mean to each other. When you're reminded of it, it's pretty neat. What's been nice to see is how we've all kind of grown up together and watched each other grow as people off the field."
Brown has been in New England the longest, and he knows one thing about his experience with these players: "I'll never forget them."