JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Go figure. Mike Vrabel, the Patriots linebacker who stunned millions of viewers last year by switching to tight end and catching the final touchdown in New England's Super Bowl victory over Carolina, was a no-show when President Bush honored the champions in May at the White House. Then he was absent in June when the Patriots received their $20,000 Super Bowl rings.
Vrabel had better things to do. Seven years after his original freshman class graduated from Ohio State, Vrabel was plowing through a biochemistry course on campus while his teammates huddled in the Rose Garden with the commander in chief. And while the Patriots were slipping rings on their fingers in June at owner Robert Kraft's home in Chestnut Hill, Vrabel was collecting his bachelor's degree at age 29 as part of the largest graduating class (7,225) in Ohio State history.
It turns out his diploma just might mean more to him than the Super Bowl touchdown ball he whisked home to Ohio. And his academic comeback could mean even more if it were to start a trend among NFL players. Estimates of the percentage of pro football players who fail to complete college have ranged from 50 to 70 percent.
"We talked about this last night at dinner," Vrabel said yesterday as the Patriots spent their first full day in Jacksonville preparing for Sunday's Super Bowl. "I think there is a big concern about guys when they get done [playing]. What do you do? What is it that is going to drive you like this game drives us? And where are we going to be able to find that after we're done."
As the team dined Sunday night, several Patriots linemen expressed regret over the deaths of players such as former Pittsburgh linemen Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk. Webster passed away in 2002 at age 50 and Strzelczyk died last year at 36. Both led difficult lives after their playing careers.
Vrabel indicated the Patriots considered Webster and Strzelczyk representative of a number of former NFL players who "really have nothing and don't know where to turn," perhaps due in part to a lack of formal preparation for life after football.
"It's a concern," Vrabel said. "I think the NFL addresses it, but I think the PA [Players Association] and the league need to take a hard look at it."
Though Vrabel might relish a rush back to the classroom by his NFL colleagues, he completed college largely for personal enrichment rather than to start a movement. A father of two boys, he hopes to coach one day, with Ohio State high on his wish list.
"It's tough to recruit kids to come play for you and talk to their parents and say, `I'm going to make sure your son goes to class and I'm going to make sure he graduates,' when you don't have a degree yourself," he said. "For my kids also, it was important just to get it done."
Not that anyone has considered Vrabel slow-witted. One of the leagues' most ingenious coaches, Bill Belichick, has praised Vrabel's intelligence and has trusted the 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound veteran to cameo as a tight end in addition to shifting occasionally from his primary role as a linebacker to serve as a nose tackle or defensive end (his position at Ohio State). And Vrabel has thrived, especially on the big stage, making key plays to help the Patriots win their first Super Bowl in 2002 and capture the championship again last year.
In the 2002 title game, it was Vrabel who pressured St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner to throw an interception that Ty Law returned 47 yards for a touchdown, giving the Patriots an early 7-0 lead. Last year, in addition to catching the 1-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter ("I was scared to death," Vrabel recalled of the situation), he recorded a pair of sacks in the Super Bowl after leading the team in sacks (9.5) during the regular season.
Vrabel helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl this year by finishing second on the team in sacks (5.5), fourth in tackles (59 solo), and catching two more touchdown passes as a tight end in goal line situations. In the playoffs, he sacked Peyton Manning and forced a fumble as the Patriots eliminated Indianapolis. And he forced a fumble by Jerome Bettis to help the Patriots beat the Steelers for the AFC championship. Vrabel also provided the key block that allowed Rodney Harrison to return an errant pass by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger 87 yards for a touchdown.
For his deeds on the field, Vrabel drew some attention last year when he returned to the classroom. He needed to complete only biochemistry to earn his degree in exercise science, but he had waited so long to tackle the subject partly because he considered it the hardest he would face. Good thing his classmates were cooperative.
"You're in there with a bunch of nursing students," he said. "There were like 12 girls and me, which wasn't bad, don't get me wrong. I didn't have to take a whole lot of notes."
Vrabel made a few friends among his classmates while he achieved a personal milestone and set an example for his colleagues.
"They watch and I get letters from everybody from the class," he said, "so it was cool."
He said the Patriots had yet to work on plays this week that might call for him to reprise his special role as a tight end. But he said the team will be as prepared and motivated as possible Sunday to defend its championship. And should the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four years, Vrabel this time expects to be available to visit the White House and collect another ring.