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Gritty Vrabel enjoys facing tough challenge

FOXBOROUGH -- The wily veteran sat in front of his locker yesterday, his stiff back making it difficult to bend over. He'd just come from the trainer's room.

If linebacker Mike Vrabel wanted to, he could have talked about the excruciating pain he's felt in recent weeks, costing him time on the practice field and making it that much tougher to carry out the task on game day. He also could have touched on his other ailments, and how they make it more difficult to attack the challenge facing the Patriots Sunday, namely shutting down remarkable Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's most valuable player.

But he won't go there. Using injuries as a crutch is a no-no for any football player, and Vrabel is a throwback type anyway, as tough as they come.

Yet he was willing to go somewhere else, and it shed light on why he keeps sacrificing his banged-up body, taking a pounding in a ruthless, physical game.

"First of all, you really have to enjoy playing football," Vrabel said. "If you just like it, sooner or later, professionally, you know you're not going to be able to handle the wear and tear, being banged up and coming back from injuries. But if you love it, and you really, truly, enjoy playing, then I think it makes it a little easier. And this is the time guys live for."

Last Sunday against the Jets, the 31-year-old Vrabel played in his 14th career playoff game, registering eight tackles and breaking up one pass. Afterward, he hurried to the trainer's room, forgoing a meeting with reporters as it was clear he was in pain.

"After the game was a tough time," he said yesterday. "I don't think anybody feels good, and I certainly haven't lately. You'd like to feel 100 percent, but you're not going to. You deal with it and go on. Nobody is complaining."

It is that type of approach that has earned Vrabel, a defensive captain, respect not only among his teammates but also the coaching staff.

"Mike is a pretty tough kid, physically and mentally," coach Bill Belichick said. "He's a hard-nosed football player. He's always been like that. College. Pittsburgh. Here. He's an old-school type of kid."

Belichick then explained how he defines mental toughness as "eliminating all distractions and focusing on your job. Bumps and bruises are a part of that."

Vrabel's teammates believe he's mastered that.

"A lot of times during the season you have to play through injuries and a lot of people can't do that," said Eric Alexander, a top backup to Vrabel. "But he's one of the guys, year in and year out, who has proven he's a tough guy who can mentally and physically overcome some bumps and bruises he may be facing. No matter what's going on with him, he'll be on the field."

Indeed, Vrabel has missed only three games in his six seasons with the Patriots, the result of a broken right arm in 2003. This season marked the fifth time in six years he's played in all 16 regular-season games, although that's not to say it was with a clean bill of health.

"He's an extremely tough football player and he's battled through things in other games that people probably weren't aware of," said fellow linebacker Larry Izzo. "He's one tough guy."

Vrabel is officially listed as probable for Sunday's game, and he once again missed parts of practice yesterday as he manages his back injury. Nose tackle Mike Wright, for one, figures Vrabel must be pretty banged up if he's not going wire to wire in practice.

"He's not a guy to sit out of anything," Wright said. "He's there as much as possible. A true competitor."

If toughness is one of Vrabel's top assets, versatility isn't far behind. For the second straight year, the 6-foot-4-inch, 261-pound Vrabel has made a switch from outside to inside linebacker during the season. Last year, the move came early, in the sixth game. This year, it came late, after starter Junior Seau broke his arm Nov. 26 against the Bears.

To the layman, the change might not seem significant, but the positions are truly different worlds. Vrabel's most natural position is outside, where he can rush the passer and set the edge in the running game, forcing plays to the inside. Inside, he plays more in space, dropping into deeper pass coverage while also taking on offensive linemen in the running game.

It's a switch that few players have effectively made under Belichick, with Clay Matthews (Browns) and Carl Banks (Giants) among the notables who were versatile, smart, and athletic enough to do so. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi had been so impressed with Vrabel's adjustment last year that he believed he was deserving of the team's defensive most valuable player award.

This year, Vrabel was credited by the coaching staff with 101 regular-season tackles, third most on the team. The figure takes on added significance when considering that Vrabel has been nagged by a long list of injuries, including a concussion he sustained Dec. 3.

Yet, he'd have none of the injury talk yesterday.

"This is what everyone does this time of the year, nobody is 100 percent," he said. "If they are, they either didn't play a lot or they didn't play very hard."

That, of course, has never been an issue for Vrabel.

Bad back and all, he continues to exhibit his trademark toughness.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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