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Back on field, Tate wants to tear it up

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / October 29, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - The last time Brandon Tate had been on a football field, he was hobbling toward the sideline, his right knee shredded more than he realized. More than a year had passed since that day, a day he wondered whether he would ever play football again.

Last Sunday, Tate gazed around Wembley Stadium, mesmerized by the size of the place.

“That’s when the butterflies started coming,’’ he said.

They subsided only after his first play, when he was tackled on an end-around. “It felt real good, man,’’ he said.

Tate’s first NFL game counted as both a debut and a return, his welcome to the league and his first action since last fall, when he tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments on a punt return, the premature final play of his career at North Carolina.

Undeterred by Tate’s injury, the Patriots drafted him in the third round in April. He concluded his rehab and began practicing in full last week, and the Patriots activated him for Sunday’s blowout victory over Tampa Bay in London.

With Julian Edelman out indefinitely with a broken forearm, Tate and special teams ace Sam Aiken will share snaps as the third wide receiver.

“We need depth at that position, and he’s going to be called upon as a contributor even though he’s a rookie,’’ quarterback Tom Brady said. “So he’s got to keep making improvements.’’

In Tate, the Patriots may have a draft steal. At North Carolina, he set an NCAA record for combined kickoff and punt-return yards with 3,523. He played alongside Giants first-round pick Hakeem Nicks and gained 23.5 yards per catch his senior season.

In three-receiver formations, the Tar Heels chose to play Tate in the slot so they could feature him on screens and reverses. Even with him in the same offense as Nicks, coaches wanted to find ways to get Tate the ball.

“Had Brandon not gotten hurt, Brandon would have been a first-rounder, in my opinion,’’ said UNC wide receivers coach Charlie Williams. “He was tearing it up - tearing it up - early in the season.’’

Williams came to North Carolina in 2006, after Tate’s freshman season. Tate had played mostly special teams, but Williams believed he could contribute as a wide receiver.

Tate ran precise routes, and Williams said his athleticism allows him to beat any kind of coverage. His speed takes away the advantage of a cornerback playing off of him - “he can close a cushion in a New York second,’’ Williams said.

Tate, at 6 feet 1 inch and 195 pounds, is not a physical wideout, but he can dance around press coverage because of nimble feet.

“When he got injured last year, he might have been, conceivably, the most exciting, electrifying player in college football,’’ said North Carolina coach Butch Davis. “Losing him was a major, major blow.’’

On Oct. 11, 2008, Tate was leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in return yards after five games. Playing against Notre Dame that day, he saw a chance to show his ability before a broad audience. In the first quarter, Tate drifted back to field his first punt of the day. He backpedaled inside his own 10-yard line.

“I should have let the ball go,’’ he said. “But I was trying to make a play.’’

The punt nestled into his arms, and Tate sprinted upfield. He juked as a Notre Dame tackler dived at him. He saw a helmet drive into his knee before he crumpled to the field. He felt pain, but he limped off the field without help.

Trainers examined him on a sideline medical table. When they told him they were taking him to the locker room, Tate knew it was bad. Before the game was over, he learned he had torn two ligaments.

“In his mind,’’ Williams said, “he thought there was a chance that his career was over.’’

Tate underwent surgery four days later. Doctors assured him he could play again. Tate worried that he might not regain his full speed or cut the way he once did. He dreamed of playing in the NFL, and the injury didn’t alter his goal.

“It wasn’t going to be devastating for him,’’ Davis said. “Most wide receivers, they’re not necessarily known as weight room warriors. Brandon was always a good lifter.’’

Tate “attacked’’ his rehab, Williams said. Still far away from full strength, he attended the NFL combine to prove how far he had come. His once-falling draft stock, which may also have been affected by a positive test for marijuana, settled somewhere between the second and fourth rounds.

Surrounded by his family in Burlington, N.C., Tate watched the NFL draft and waited for his name to be called. He felt a mix of joy and relief when the Patriots selected him. He thought to himself, “It’s time to go to work.’’

Tate continued his rehab with the Patriots. He awoke at 6 a.m. every day - and a lot of those days he didn’t want to - so he could arrive at the Patriots facility by 6:45. When the doctors finally cleared him, he was ready.

His knee feels sorer after practices now, but Tate feels the same when he is on the field as he did in college. He still has not watched film of the injury, and he does not want to.

“It was a tough day for me,’’ Tate said. “I prayed about it. And now I’m here, living out my dream.’’

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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