FOXBOROUGH -- Barney Farrar's been around almost since the beginning, so he can't help but rush through his drawn-out, Mississippi-thick words. He was there when Larry Izzo hit a receiver so hard it propelled Rice to a 1994 upset of Texas. When Izzo's pranks left Farrar laughing and victimized all at once.
When the label "linebacker" came before "special teams."
"I've coached since '83 and I've never had one like him before or after," said Farrar, a former assistant at Clemson and Rice's outside linebackers coach during Izzo's tenure. "Seen a lot of good athletes come through, seen a lot of good guys come through. You have one guy that makes it worth all the effort and the hours you put in.
"You only dream of coaching a guy like that. You never know if you'll get the opportunity and fortunately I have."
Nine years after he left Rice without a degree or a draft slot, Izzo was named to his third Pro Bowl in the past five years, all based on his special teams play.
Even with the accolades, Izzo recalls the sinking feeling he had when Jimmy Johnson, in his first year coaching the Miami Dolphins, called out Izzo during training camp in 1996.
Izzo's sitting in a meeting. It's a film session for an exhibition game against the Chicago Bears. Johnson points out that only Dan Marino is assured a spot on the roster. Plays flash on the screen. The coach likes one, then another. He calls out Izzo's name and asks where he's from. Texas.
"I still remember it like it was yesterday," Izzo said. "I still was so paranoid that I believed, `There's still two weeks left in camp. I can still, maybe, screw this up.' "
Johnson has other plans. Tells the kid to call his parents.
He's on the team.
"Obviously it's meant everything," Izzo said. "Coming in as an undrafted free agent, it's really tough sometimes to make rosters. For Jimmy to believe in me and single me out and give me that opportunity has obviously led to my career and got me started. I'll always be grateful to him . . . To have my name even mentioned with Dan Marino as the two guys that first made his squad is pretty cool."
But this week the fourth-year special teams captain of the Patriots -- voted into the title before he'd played a game for New England -- had more on his mind.
Among the critical aspects to the Colts' 49-24 wild-card win over the Denver Broncos, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, were field position between turnovers and ball control.
"In the end, it's going to be how our football team plays against their football team," Belichick said Monday. "Their offense is a third of it, their special teams is a third of it, their defense is a third of it. And vice versa. Everybody's going to have to play a role in this game. I don't think it will be decided by any one aspect. It will be a combination of all three."
With the explosiveness of the Indianapolis offense, the Patriots would benefit from preventing long returns, a problem that put New England at the bottom of the league rankings for average punt and kickoff return yards allowed (28th in both). The Colts were eighth in the league in kickoff return average during the regular season.
As captain, Izzo can't ignore the squad's mistakes, such as Terrence McGee's 98-yard kickoff return for a Buffalo touchdown in Week 4.
"We, obviously, haven't been as happy with our overall performance throughout the year," said Izzo, who leads the Patriots with 28 special teams tackles. "We've been inconsistent at times. But all that's over with."
Since Izzo arrived in 2001, he has picked up two Super Bowl rings, two Pro Bowl invites, a degree from Rice, and a wife, Mara. In fact, Izzo managed a championship and a wedding in the span of two weeks last February, though the Patriots' title run forced an abbreviated bachelor party.
He's not really complaining. He has accepted his role, both on the field and at home (said former Rice teammate Aaron Stanley, "He's not the king of his own castle. [Mara's] definitely in control.").
Izzo still remembers the pit-of-his-stomach feeling from that meeting with Johnson. Though his Rice team produced a handful of NFL players, pro scouts rarely have the Houston campus near the top of their itineraries.
But now, when Farrar's recruiting, high school coaches often mention Izzo.
"We've got a guy like Larry Izzo," they tell him.
Farrar checks them out. He won't tell them what he's saying to himself, though.
"No," Farrar thinks, "you ain't got him."