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Linebacker is wise beyond his youth

At 23, Patriots’ Mayo a true leader

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 31, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - The “old soul’’ owns a playful spirit. On Thursday, Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo stood behind a herd of reporters who were asking questions of teammate Gary Guyton. Mayo stretched his 6-foot-1-inch frame above the huddle and listened in. He whispered to a reporter to ask Guyton about the red-and-blue braid accenting his hairdo.

Guyton smiled as the question was asked, but avoided eye contact with Mayo. Mayo then whispered to another reporter, “Ask him why he doesn’t grow facial hair like the rest of the defense.’’

Guyton responded, “Because that guy has it all,’’ pointing at Mayo. “That guy was born with facial hair. Only guy I know that was born with facial hair.’’

When Mayo missed three games earlier this season because of a knee injury, his teammates repeatedly described how much they would miss his leadership as a captain. At 23 and only a second-year player, he has earned that respect. Mayo’s efforts on the field, the talents that helped him be named Defensive Rookie of the Year, were missed, but his presence in the locker room is equally valued.

Safety Brandon Meriweather, who is 25, said it was Mayo who taught him some of the more abstract elements of football.

“You can learn from everybody,’’ Meriweather said. “Jerod, he studies the game a lot. He’s very professional, and that’s pretty much what I learned from him - how to be more professional.’’

Mayo sports a mature look with a rugged beard, and his subtle ways have caused those who know him best to tag him as “Old Soul.’’ According to Mayo, the source of that mentality is his grandfather, Walter Johnson.

Johnson, who retired from the Air Force after 30 years, acted as a father figure for Mayo in his youth. While Mayo’s mother, Denise Mayo-Hinds, worked two jobs, Mayo and his brothers spent time with their grandfather in Virginia. Mayo was a youth counselor at Zion Prospect Baptist Church, where Johnson has been the pastor for 22 years.

Whenever Johnson had his grandchildren around, he said he encouraged certain disciplines.

“I wanted them to learn how to be responsible and how to be accountable and how to make something of themselves,’’ Johnson said in a telephone interview.

While discipline was important, fun was never missing. Mayo, the second oldest of four boys, developed a competitive relationship no matter what the event.

“When the brothers get together, they are really something to see,’’ Johnson said. “They have such a wonderful relationship.’’

And as Mayo grew older, the relationship with his grandfather developed. They passed time by playing cards, but they were never on the same team. If Mayo saw a chance to joke with his grandfather, he didn’t let the moment pass.

“I was his favorite target,’’ Johnson said. “He and I would go back and forth, but he’s pretty quick, pretty witty . . . He enjoys life. I think that’s the important thing.’’

Those elements of Mayo’s personality have not left him. He played three years at Tennessee and was selected 10th overall by the Patriots last year. He picked up many of his professional traits from watching linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi his rookie season.

The success achieved in Mayo’s rookie campaign didn’t leave him satisfied. He couldn’t wait for a chance to build on last season, but the first game of his second season would present him with another challenge.

Mayo limped off the field in the season opener against Buffalo with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, and he wanted to return sooner than the 6-to-8-week estimates.

“I stayed in the weight room and kept training, trying to rush it and get back out there,’’ Mayo said. “We’ve been through a lot throughout the offseason and training camp. We’re kind of like a family and that camaraderie is there among us.’’

While Mayo was out, Guyton wore the helmet with the communication device, relaying plays to his teammates. Meanwhile, Mayo worked to make his way back. He attended meetings, while keeping up with his rehab responsibilities. Mayo was in his own race to return to the field.

“I came back early because first and foremost, the training staff did an excellent job with the rehab and stuff like that, and you know, I wanted to get out there with my guys, especially with all the time I put in in the offseason,’’ Mayo said. “I didn’t want that to go to waste, so I tried to get back out there.’’

Mayo returned Oct. 11 against Denver. He forced a fumble in the first quarter that led to a field goal and made six tackles in the 20-17 overtime loss. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork said after the game that Mayo is one of the team’s leaders and everyone was happy to see him back on the field.

The bye week comes at an ideal time for players like Mayo, who could use the rest.

“I’m getting better each and every day,’’ he said. “One day I might wake up and it feels good, the next day it might not, but I’m getting better every day.’’

When Mayo was out, there were questions surrounding the defense, especially after the unit lost familiar faces to free agency, trades, and retirements. But that did not weigh on Mayo.

“We still have a lot of guys who have experience in the NFL who can lead this team, and I think they do an excellent job,’’ Mayo said.

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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