FOXBOROUGH -- Sadly, there are some holes not even Richard Seymour can plug.
The Patriots' three-time All-Pro is, in the opinion of many in the National Football League, the best defensive lineman in pro football. While the Colts' Dwight Freeney or the Giants' Michael Strahan might try to argue, certainly the class Seymour is in is a very small one because he is the most versatile and unselfish defensive lineman in football. He is also one of the most unusual because long ago he made a decision that sets him apart.
It is a willingness to sacrifice personal glory, and the numbers that go with it, for a higher calling; for he is, above all else, about winning. He has achieved much of it since first arriving unhappily in a land far from home five years ago.
''This was the last place I wanted to come," Seymour said of the day he learned he was moving from his relaxed Southern roots in South Carolina and Georgia to arguably the rudest place on earth. ''I wanted to stay down South or go to the West Coast. I didn't want to come to this area. I didn't want to be in the cold. Things are a lot different up here. Everyone's in a hurry. Everyone blows their horn. That took some getting used to, but the way things have gone shows you things work out for the best if you have faith."
Yet, not all things work out that way. Some things are a tragedy beyond understanding. Some things you can only accept with a deep and abiding faith. Thanks to his family, his friends, and a faith born from his Southern upbringing, the day Richard Seymour needed it most, it was there for him. That day, April 25, 2004, was the day his father, the man closest to him, became the second half of a murder-suicide no one would have predicted nor could understand. Only faith got him through that shock. Only faith and family have kept him going.
It has been 19 months since that dark night, but the hole Richard Seymour Sr. left behind in his son's heart has not been plugged. Instead, he has done what he could with those sad cards.
He's soldiered on. He's played his game. He's lived his life, which now includes a wife and three children, all under age 3. But he has not forgotten the man. Or the phone calls.
''I always used to call my dad before every game and after every game," Seymour, his eyes staring straight ahead with a dark light shining through them, recalled in a soft voice this week. ''He always felt he was my coach. He'd say, 'Richard, you could have done better,' or 'Richard, you need to hold your gap.' But every now and then he'd say, 'Richard, you played today.' That always made me feel great, talking to him about something we both loved. I miss those conversations. Playing football [again] made it harder to get over. It always reminded me what we'd lost. It's hard even now, but my wife and my mom were the two main people who kept me strong when I felt like lying down, you know?"
Lying down is not something you connect with Richard Seymour. Not on the job. Not in life. Not anywhere. And so he did not give in to such feelings. He did not lie down despite a pain so deep it is beyond understanding unless you have felt it yourself. Instead, he stood up, and when he could not, he let the people closest to him prop him up. What he did not do was question the backbone of his life. He did not question his faith. Not once.
''I never really questioned God," Seymour said. ''Obviously, I thought what if this didn't happen, but I didn't question it. I just felt hurt. I was too hurt to be angry. I was numb. A lot of the time I didn't think of anything. I didn't think of good. I didn't think of bad. Not in a million years would I have thought -- would anyone have thought -- something like that would happen. It wasn't in his character. It came out of left field. Facing that was constantly a struggle. It even is now. There hasn't been a day went by since that I haven't thought of my dad.
''But I have a wife and three young children. One day, I know I'll leave here, too. So I think of all the good times with my dad and me. I think about what would he want me to do? Become a bum? Not care about life? Not take care of my family? No, he wouldn't. Through all of that, it's really brought me around spiritually. Something good comes out of every situation if you look hard enough."
He played stoutly and stoically in the midst of a two-gap defense that, he says, ''is really designed for the linebackers." (It's a defense where linemen are there most often to take on blockers and control two-gaps, thus allowing those linebackers to run free and make plays.)
They've done that in New England as well as it can be done and Seymour has been the most important reason, often occupying two men -- and sometimes three -- as he tries to destroy the offense in front of him before those linebackers get to make a play. Yet, for all his personal and team success, the defense he plays is never going to make him stand above the rest. Not unless you have a sharp eye and watch closely all that he does.
If you don't, you look at his 23 1/2 career sacks and see that Strahan had 21 1/2 in a single season and shake your head. Seymour does not shake his head nor spend much time peeking over the fence into Strahan's yard. He does, instead, what his father taught him. He does his job as well as he can, confident that if he does that, the rest will take care of itself.
Which it has.
''I heard a comment one time from Warren Sapp talking about when he played the 3-4," Seymour recalled. ''He didn't feel like he was being utilized right. He said playing that defense for him was like watching paint dry. I took that to heart because sometimes I felt the same way, but my dad said, 'No matter what defense you play, you can be successful.' If I consider myself a player, I feel I can go out and make plays. I don't say that in an arrogant way or a cocky way. I just mean it in a confident way.
''The 3-4 [Bill Belichick's favored alignment] is a linebacker defense. It's set up that way. We take on the guards and tackles and hold them off. I'm fine with that because we've been winning. It hasn't been anything to be upset about. Of course, I feel I can play across the front in a three-technique or a five-technique, but I feel I'll do my job no matter what. What's important to me is if it's the fourth quarter and we're getting blown out or we're winning that I feel I left everything out on the field.
''I'm blessed to play in the National Football League. I feel I can play on any defense, but a lot of people can look at a situation and say the grass is greener on the other side. I always felt if I water my grass, it'll be green, too."
Which brings us to last spring and early summer, when Seymour had to take a hard and unusual stance in New England to keep his grass green. While many veterans have taken short money to play here, or simply left for bigger deals elsewhere like Damien Woody did in going to Detroit, Seymour did neither. He withheld his services until he felt he was being properly paid for all he had accomplished since coming from Georgia as the team's No. 1 draft choice in 2001.
He held out, but not with the cacophony that usually surrounds such things. No loudmouthed agents talking about how mistreated he had been. No pounding of his chest. No public discussions about ''respect" or ''feeding his family." He simply informed Belichick and the Patriots he would not be back until he was properly taken care of.
When he missed minicamp, it caused a stir, but management loyalists still believed he would buckle, especially after he showed up at the team's ring ceremony at owner Bob Kraft's home. They didn't see the iron in a man who believes fair is fair. They didn't understand how, through faith in himself and higher things, he could separate the two events. They didn't get who Richard Seymour was.
So when he didn't arrive for training camp, there was shock and nonsensical talk in the media and on talk radio that ''they won the Super Bowl without him," implying the team did not need him as much as he thought. The chief beneficiary of that was his backup, Jarvis Green, whom the Patriots overpaid to protect themselves. Seymour didn't buckle even then. He didn't say a word. He stayed home until he felt things were fair. Then he came back and went to work without a harsh word.
Seymour got an additional $1.5 million for this season out of the Patriots, something few players have been able to do, but he lorded it over no one. Usually a player in such a circumstance has to extend his contract another year, giving up free agency for a time, to get that sort of raise. Seymour gave his team back nothing but his services and what they knew he was -- a great player and a better man.
''The Patriots knew I was underpaid," Seymour said. ''I knew I was underpaid. My dad was a business guy first and foremost. He always told me, 'You have your own mind, so think!'
''We can laugh and joke, but at the end of the day is business taken care of? I'm a nice guy. I'll give you the shirt off my back. But business is business. I'm a guy of principle. Nothing more to talk about."
Not even about having been one of the few Patriot employees in the Belichick-Scott Pioli Era to come out on top in such a circumstance.
''It was hard and it wasn't hard [to hold out]," he said. ''Football is the game I love to play. My teammates are very important to me. These guys will be my friends for life after all we've been through. But when I go to the negotiating table, I go as an individual. I learned since I came here that we're all replaceable. I don't care what you say. I'm big on what happens and I've seen activity take place here that no one can deny. A guy is next to you one day and gone the next. It's a business.
''Drew [Bledsoe], Lawyer [Milloy], Damien Woody, who I think was the best lineman I ever played against. All gone. When Lawyer left, it was very shocking. Two, three days before the season. You learn what it is.
''But I didn't take any pride in what happened last summer. I just look at it and say the two sides came to a business decision. On my part and on the organization's part. There's no pride involved. I think pride ruins you before long if you get caught up in it.
''The best-case scenario I was hoping for was a long-term deal. If I could write my own script, I'd want to retire a Patriot, but, obviously, I don't hold the cards to make that decision. I like Mr. Kraft. He's a really good guy. He's been good to my family. I'd do anything possible to make it happen, but hometown discount? I don't know what that is.
''When I first came to New England, the most beneficial thing for me was I was around some good veteran guys. Genuinely good guys. I still talk to Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton. Willie [McGinest] was a big influence on me. Anthony would talk to me about not getting caught up in the hype. He taught me it's not about what car you drive and what are we going to do tonight. Those are the wrong things to focus on. I already knew that, deep down, I wasn't that type person. I wasn't raised like that. But don't get me wrong. Money is not what drives me, but if I'm the best, I want to get paid like the best."
That's why when his good friend Jonas Jennings, a college teammate who plays offensive line for the Buffalo Bills, was knocked unconscious in a game against the Patriots, Seymour kneeled next to his friend until he knew he was all right. He stood with him, an opponent, not caring what anyone might think.
''When I go out on the football field, if it's my brother I'm going against, I want to win, but I'm not there to injure the guy," Seymour said, recalling the incident. ''It's a tough, physical game. A hard game, I guess. But there's a whole lot of things more important. When someone is down on the field, the physical state of the guy is more important.
''Jonas is my friend. He was hurt. I could care less what someone else thought. I've been criticized before. I think, as a man, it's a strength to show compassion."
Earlier this year, Seymour showed that in a way few men might. While waiting to go on the Dale & Holley radio show on WEEI, he heard a conversation among morning show talking heads John Dennis, Gerry Callahan, and Jon Meterparel in which one of them made an unkind remark about the victims of Hurricane Katrina who had been sent to live in temporary housing at Camp Edwards. When it came time for Seymour to speak about football, he first spoke his mind about what he'd heard.
He spoke of how some things are not funny. How one man's tragedy should not be the butt of other men's jokes. He talked most of all of how this ''is a time for all of us to humble ourselves and realize it could be any of us." The hosts were lost for words. Seymour was not. He had found the right words for the situation. His father wasn't there to hear those words but he would have been proud of them. Proud but not prideful. Just like his son.
''I've always been the type of guy who when I'd see a kid being picked on, I'd be the one who would want to befriend him," Seymour said. ''God just put that in me. Even if somebody is talking bad about somebody else, I try not to listen. My family was big on integrity and honor. My mom always used to say, 'What kind of person are you when nobody's looking? You may think nobody's looking but God is always watching.' I try to walk in that."
Seymour has walked that walk. He has grown up in a hard and strange place far from his roots. He has learned to love people with accents he'd never heard before and attitudes that sometimes are unfathomable. He has become one of the greatest players in the greatest league on earth and yet has not been swept up by it.
Most of all, he has survived tragedy and triumph. He has been forced by occupation to move away from his roots but he has not grown far from them. He is still Richard Seymour, still his father's son.
''When I play football, what keeps me going is the constant feeling of wanting to be the best," Seymour said when asked how he can spend hours each week watching videotape of one opponent after another, year after year. ''In this league, there are too many good players to get too big on yourself. The way things can change, the way a team like ours can go from 5-11 to the Super Bowl in one year, you just don't know who's going to be good. It always comes down to how you play. It's about the attitude you bring."
The one Seymour brought from South Carolina to the University of Georgia and then to the Patriots. It's a way to play winning football but it's bigger than that. It's a way to live a winning life.
''The biggest thing to me is when other coaches and players let you know they know who they really have to concentrate on," Seymour said of the recognition without numbers he has received the past four years. ''But when they talk about me back home or at Georgia, what means the most to me is that it's not just about what I've done on the football field. I have more respect for what some people have said about me there because it's about a bigger picture."
The picture he never lost sight of, even when the days were dark and the nights so much darker that not even the stadium lights could make them bright again for a while. A long while.
''My dad and I talked about things of substance," Seymour said. ''Things that are real. We talked about who would be there for you if you weren't on top anymore. He'd say, 'It's about your choices, Richard, because one bad choice can affect you the rest of your life.' I know he'd want me to do my best now. I'm fortunate and blessed he instilled those right values in me."
So are the New England Patriots and so is everyone else who runs into him any time but for three hours in the fall on a Sunday afternoon.