Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pro Bowl nod? Vrabel 'gets it'

By Jackie MacMullan

December 23, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - It's akin to waking up on Christmas morning and discovering the present you've always dreamed of - but never dared to ask for - is under the tree.

It makes you want to check the tag twice to make sure it's really for you.

For Mike Vrabel, that "gift" is his first Pro Bowl invitation in his 11-season career. Yet to call it a gift is a misnomer. Nobody gave him anything - least of all the opportunity to amass the gaudy résumé that attracts the attention of Pro Bowl voters. This linebacker has no sack dance, no catchy nickname, no flashy endorsements. Any publicist worth his salt would find a clever way to highlight Vrabel's 10 catches for 10 touchdowns - that is, if he had a publicist.

If you knew Vrabel, you'd realize how absurd that notion truly is. (For you inquiring minds, he doesn't have a chef, a chauffeur, or a nanny, either.)

When the Patriots take the field today against the Miami Dolphins to continue to put the final touches on their pursuit of perfection, No. 50 is clear on why he has been chosen to play among the league's elite.

"It's because our team is winning," he said. "You look at the team with the best records, and they have the most guys going."

Vrabel didn't spend much time handicapping his Pro Bowl chances through the years. He had far more important things to do (like verbally sparring with his coach, cracking on the rookies, disrupting team meetings with his wise-guy asides) and, besides, he had been an integral part of the Patriots defense long enough to understand the landscape.

The rewards of New England's complex schemes, which require intelligence, adaptability, and, above all, selflessness, are all shared. No one defender is featured or promoted. They are interchangeable parts with interchangeable roles. That's how a high-profile player like Adalius Thomas can come to New England and watch his defensive statistics drop precipitously, even as he's doing the job required of him.

"When you come to this team," explained linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "what you have to get used to is that whatever is best for the team, you are going to be asked to do it."

Nobody has typified that mantra more than Vrabel, who, because of injuries, has gone inside to play linebacker, then back outside, then in again, and out again this season. While versatility is one of Vrabel's most valuable assets, it is also his biggest curse when it comes to individual recognition.

He professes not to care, and, in the manner of his day-to-day life, he probably doesn't. Yet everyone likes to be acknowledged for their contributions. Because Vrabel moved around so much, it was a logical assumption he might never gain the proper respect nationally that he has within his own locker room.

"Last year they asked me whether I wanted to be listed as an inside or an outside linebacker [on the Pro Bowl ballot]," Vrabel said. "I told them, 'I don't know. What difference does it make?' "

"People forget the sacrifices he's made for this team over the past few years," said Bruschi. "I've said it a bunch of times: If Vrabel was left in one place for one season, he'd be in Hawaii."

He will be - finally. Vrabel has recorded 69 tackles this season and leads the team in sacks (10) and forced fumbles (5).

The other first-time New England Pro Bowl honorees (Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork) are in their 20s, the prime of their careers. Vrabel will be 33 in August. He remains thankful for each and every season he remains healthy enough to strap on his pads and deliver hits.

And yet, as another year passed without that Pro Bowl pineapple attached to the bio, Vrabel became accustomed to the idea he forever would fall into that category of the "underrated former third-round draft pick." You know, admired, yet never officially anointed.

"You start to wonder if [the Pro Bowl invitation] is ever going to happen," said Bruschi, who received his first (and only) Pro Bowl invitation in 2004, his ninth year in the league.

On Friday, Vrabel was teased about his reserved reaction to his personal accomplishment.

"I think I can say I'm proud of myself, proud of my team," Vrabel said. "I've tried to do more and say less, to let my play speak for itself."

Richard Seymour was only 23 the first time he was tapped for the Pro Bowl. It was one of five times he's been chosen, yet the initial phone call always will be memorable, he said.

"At that moment, I thought of all the hard work I had put in over the years," Seymour said. "I thought of all those days in high school when I was doing extra running when no one was looking, the same kind of stuff you know Vrabel has done.

"Mike and I came in together to this team. I've seen the work he's put in over the years, always bringing his lunch pail every day. It's a long overdue honor for him."

Bruschi, who is Vrabel's closest friend on the team, had to learn about his teammate's achievement the way everyone else did. Vrabel didn't call to share the news.

"He's low-key like that," Bruschi said. "I doubt he called anybody."

The linebacker said he notified his wife, his parents, and a couple of buddies from the old days, but then he put the new honor on the shelf, next to the hype about going undefeated and winning another Super Bowl. All those milestones are to be admired later, when his career is over.

"Hey, I was excited," Vrabel said, "but we still have a game to win. Life goes on. The kids still had to be picked up by 3 p.m."

He shared this Pro Bowl "present" with his sons, but they are too young to understand its significance. No matter. The best part about the gift of a Pro Bowl pineapple is it lasts forever.

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