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The imperfect season of Richard Seymour

He wasn't going to let a debilitating knee injury beat him

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Staff / January 11, 2008

NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH - It's so quiet now.

Richard Seymour leans back in his oversized leather armchair, one that would swallow up a man of average stature, yet barely accommodates this 6-foot-6-inch, 310-pounder, whose explosive strength and quickness earned him the moniker as the best defensive lineman in the NFL after just two years.

It is Saturday, one week before the Patriots play the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC playoffs, and Seymour's wife, Tanya, and their four small children have already migrated to South Carolina for the winter. Their spacious home a few miles south of Gillette Stadium seems desolate without them.

Seymour has stayed behind because he still has work to do - completing a season he concedes has been "one of the most difficult of my career."

There has been considerable buzz surrounding the Patriots during this historic 2007 run, but praise for Seymour has been muted. For the first time since his rookie year, he was not invited to the Pro Bowl or selected as an All-Pro. He was not voted a defensive captain by his teammates, and submitted a career-low 30 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks after missing the first seven games recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Injuries are a verboten subject in Foxborough, so he refrained from boring his teammates with his struggles to return to form. Instead, Seymour has leaned on Tanya, his high school sweetheart, and, he suspects, "I've probably worn her down with it." He yearns to ask his father for advice, but Richard Seymour Sr. has been gone three years now, a sudden, shocking silence that still haunts his son.

"I wish he was here," Seymour said. "I've imagined talking with him about all of this. I know what he would say. He would tell me, 'Richard, you've got to get healthy before you do anything.' "

The truth? Richard Seymour hasn't been healthy for more than two years. Even though he didn't have surgery on his damaged left knee until last spring, Seymour revealed in a lengthy interview that, for the past 2 1/2 years, he has been reduced to "just showing up, week to week, trying to perform with God-given ability, without any conditioning at all."

His teammates acknowledge there is no more arduous process than playing hurt in the NFL.

"The sad thing is when we go out and fight through it and play at 60 percent, we're judged as if we're 100 percent," said Junior Seau. "It can be trying. People start doubting you. You have to find a way to maintain your confidence, your belief in what you can do. It takes a strong person to persevere through all that."

Said Seymour, "People don't know what we feel, what we go through. They want to ask, 'Well, is he working as hard as he always has?' You can't when you have injuries. You physically can't.

"I understand the need to push and fight through pain. I've done it, with my bad elbow [injured in a game against Buffalo Oct. 22, 2006].

"But your legs - it's different. It's like driving down the street with a doughnut wheel on your car. You can only go so fast."

Blocking the pain

Seymour injured his knee Oct. 2, 2005, while blocking on a goal line play for Corey Dillon in a 41-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers. He was inactive for the next four games, but came back to finish with 69 tackles and four sacks, mostly against double teams. He was an All-Pro for the third consecutive year and didn't even consider offseason surgery. Rest, and proper conditioning, he surmised, would eradicate the pain.

He was wrong.

In the 2006 season opener against Buffalo, as Seymour tried to burst through the line, the searing pain in his knee caused him to buckle.

"I looked back at the film and I was limping - and that was the first game of the year," Seymour said. "I remember saying to myself, 'Man, it's going to be a long season.'

"I don't know how many times I said in my mind last year, 'I shouldn't be out there.' But, just as I was about to give in, there was this little piece of me saying, 'I can do a little bit.'

"I could play. I just couldn't be explosive. I couldn't be me."

He hoped offseason surgery would set him right. It was not a major procedure - "just to take care of the cartilage in my knee that needed to be cleaned up," Seymour said. He fully expected to suit up to begin the 2007 season, but during his rehabilitation in South Carolina last summer with his longtime strength and conditioning coach, Ken Taylor, it became apparent his problems were not dissipating any time soon.

"He was struggling," Taylor confirmed. "We modified the leg press. We couldn't do any leg extensions at all. We worked the hamstrings, did some walking lunges, but I didn't like the angle the knee was at when he did those, so we stopped. Richard loves to work. He couldn't. It was frustrating for him, and frustrating for me, too."

Seymour reported to training camp and continued his rehab under the watchful eye of Joe Van Allen, the Patriots' assistant trainer/rehabilitation coordinator. Allen tried to help him build up his quads, but when Seymour did the exercises, the pain in his knee flared. More rest was prescribed. More time passed.

"It was a Catch-22," Seymour said. "I needed to strengthen my quads to build up my knee, but my knee hurt every time I tried to strengthen the quads."

Seymour began the year on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, leading to speculation he had contracted a staph infection or suffered a more serious injury, such as a torn ACL. Seymour said neither was true, but as the weeks dragged on, he fretted his season would be lost.

"It's extremely difficult to succeed when you don't have that major conditioning foundation to draw from," he said.

Taylor, or KT, as Seymour calls him, has been Seymour's strength and conditioning coach since he was 16 years old. He said he knows his client's body almost as well as he knows his own.

"I'm sure Richard wouldn't say this, and the Patriots would probably rather not hear it, but those goal line situations they put him in on offense were what started all this.

"When Richard was the lead blocker, he had Corey Dillon literally plowing into the back of his knee on five or six occasions. It might have been effective, but it caused problems with Richard's knee.

"Richard is the biggest, fastest, most agile defender in the league. He doesn't need to be running the football or being the lead blocker for a running back."

'I want to be the best ever'

In 1995, Richard Sr. brought his shy, clumsy teenage son to meet with Taylor with the goal of toning his body to play college football. At the time, the boy was 275 pounds and had never lifted a weight.

Taylor took him over to one of his weight platforms and instructed him to try a power clean, an Olympic lift in which the athlete hoists a barbell from a platform or the floor to the top of the chest in one motion.

"It determines athleticism immediately," Taylor said. "I showed Richard how to do it once. The first time he tried it, he did it perfectly. In my 30 years of doing this, I'd never seen anything like it."

Seymour said he can't wait to return to South Carolina this spring and begin interval sprint training and a new weight program to make his left knee even stronger.

He is 28 years old, and he is certain his best years are ahead of him - as soon as his knee heals.

"I honestly believe in my heart, I have yet to reach my potential," Seymour said. "I want to be the best ever - but I feel like I'm a long way away from that right now."

Seymour speaks in low, soothing tones, hardly resembling the ferocious lineman wearing the No. 93 jersey who revels in knocking quarterbacks into the turf.

"People always say, 'Richard, you're a really nice guy, how do you go out and play football that way?' " Seymour said. "I won't say there's a good Richard and a bad Richard, but I've got a switch, and when it clicks on, I'm somebody else."

He has always been an independent thinker, the only player in the Belichick era who held out for a new contract - and received it. Teammates say while he is both loyal and humble, he will not parrot the company line. When Deion Branch was shipped out of town following his holdout, many Patriots refused comment. Not Seymour, who freely expressed his remorse over the departure of a friend. And, while players have been instructed not to discuss their injuries in any detail with the media, Seymour sees no harm in explaining his current condition.

"It can be tough to be your own man [on this team]," said cornerback Asante Samuel, who knows a thing or two about that. "But if you play at a high level, and back it up, then it's going to work out.

"I respect [Richard]. He's a great person, a Christian guy who goes about his business quietly. He doesn't want to cause no problems, but he's always going to stand up for what he believes in."

Those principles, Seymour said, came from his father, who devoted his life to providing his son with all the things he did not have. When Richard Sr. and his girlfriend died in 2004 from what police termed a murder-suicide, his son was devastated. No lucrative contract or string of Pro Bowls has eased that pain.

"I'm a man who does not put football first in my life," Seymour said. "It's something I love to do, and something I take very, very seriously. I wouldn't want another job - well, maybe one with a little less pounding.

"But for me, relationships with my loved ones has to come first.

"At the end of the day, if all you have is Super Bowl rings and Super Bowl trophies, what good is that if you've lost your family, your wife, your kids? If your life is a mess, always in controversy, how can you enjoy it? The game isn't worth that. The game isn't worth my family."

A welcome presence

When Seymour's grandfather died in December 2003, Seymour missed multiple days to attend the funeral and mourn with his relatives. Coach Bill Belichick, who wanted him back sooner, removed him from the starting lineup the following week against Jacksonville. It wounded Seymour deeply at the time, although, he says now, he has a better understanding of Belichick's point of view.

"I don't regret anything I've done," Seymour said. "You never want conflict. But sometimes conflict is inevitable.

"Now I don't want that to be confused as being disrespectful. I've always respected the authority figures in my life, including my coaches.

"I may see a way I want to do something and I understand when you have a team, everybody can't do their own thing. I'm willing to put my own agenda aside to do what's best for the team."

In fact, Seymour said, he will come back to New England early this summer to train with his teammates, even though KT has a full load of workouts planned. Seymour said the Patriots have never indicated to him they were unhappy with his decision to do the bulk of his offseason conditioning in South Carolina, where both he and Tanya were raised.

"Coach Belichick has always been understanding about it," Seymour said. "I have a young family. He knows that. He knows I'm working as hard as I possibly can."

His teammates know, too. Even though he hasn't been at full strength, his presence has been a welcome addition - both on and off the field.

"I talk to him every day," said lineman Santonio Thomas. "About everything - not just football."

Seymour is grateful to Van Allen, who has spent countless hours helping him repair his knee, including breaking up some of the scar tissue that was a residue of the surgery. His snaps have been reduced, he said, because he's been unable to maintain the conditioning required to play a full game.

"But I'm so much better than I was at the start of the season," he said.

So is Seymour finally 100 percent?

"No, I'm not," he admitted. "But who really is at this point?"

He leans back in his leather chair. The house seems so empty, yet his family's absence has enabled him to focus on the task of corralling the talents of Fred Taylor, Maurice Drew-Jones, and David Garrard.

The whispers that No. 93's best days are behind him persist, yet the gentle lineman who wears the jersey does not hear them.

It may be quiet now, but, Richard Seymour promises, he isn't done making noise.

Jackie MacMullan can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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