Jerod Mayo has earned Pro Bowl and Rookie of the Year honors. He's led the NFL in tackles and secured the approval of football's most finicky and poorly dressed coach.
What he hadn't enjoyed before this season was playoff success.
Mayo, an outside linebacker from Kecoughtan High, captains a New England Patriots defense tasked with slowing New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Sunday's season finale.
"I've played it over and over in my head," Mayo said in interviews transcribed on the NFL's official media website. "So many times. I've even thought about it when I was a kid, and dreaming about the Super Bowl. And now it's finally here."
This is New England's sixth Super Bowl under Robert Kraft's ownership, but Mayo's first. The Patriots drafted him No. 10 overall in 2008 out of Tennessee, shortly after the Giants upset them in the Super Bowl to deny coach Bill Belichick's team an undefeated season.
Mayo was named the NFL's top defensive rookie that season, but with quarterback Tom Brady sidelined by a knee injury, New England missed the playoffs. Brady led the Patriots back to postseason in 2009 and '10, but they failed to advance, losing home games to the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.
A 13-3 record this regular season gave New England home field throughout the AFC playoffs, and the Patriots responded with victories over the Denver Broncos and Ravens. Mayo had a combined 17 tackles in those wins.
"We have a young team," Mayo said, "a young, hungry team. And hopefully it shows on Sunday."
Indeed, Mayo and immovable lineman Vince Wilfork are the only defensive starters who remain from 2008. Long gone are the sage veterans who showed the rookie Mayo the Patriots' way, guys such as Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
"I learned a lot from Bruschi not only on the field, but off the field as well," Mayo said. "He's a huge figure in the Boston area, in the New England area, in the community and he's a great player. I learned a lot about studying film from him. All the things that he's done, it's hard to even think about matching what he's done for the community. …
"I was fortunate enough … to come in with Bruschi, Junior (Seau) was here, Rosevelt Colvin. All those guys really took me under their wing. I really didn't have to do too much. I just had to be a sponge and learn as much as I could from those guys, and they taught me a lot."
Mayo was an ace student. Playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, he in short order became a team captain. He led the NFL with 193 tackles in 2010 and made his first Pro Bowl.
This season Mayo's tackles decreased by half, to 95. Couple of reasons: He missed two games with a knee injury and moved to an outside linebacker spot in a 4-3 alignment.
"He's worked hard on his blitzing, his man coverage, his tackling, his pass defense, run defense," Belichick told the Boston Herald. "He works hard at everything."
The Patriots ranked 31st among 32 NFL teams in yards allowed during the regular season (411.1 per game) but were a respectable 15th in scoring defense (21.4 points per game).
They've been even better in the playoffs, limiting the Broncos to 10 points, the Ravens to 20. Though it must be noted that Denver and Baltimore are offensively challenged.
"I think that it's just having the same group of guys out there as the past couple of weeks," said Mayo, who has first two NFL interceptions this season. "We're finally coming together and getting guys healthy. …
"This will be the first time that we've had the same group of guys for three weeks in a row since I can remember."
Belichick calls Mayo "the quarterback" of the defense, and with that comes leadership responsibility.
"I didn't come in here trying to be a leader or anything like that," Mayo said. "I just try to lead by example and go to work every day, bring my hard hat. I'm a blue collar kind of guy, so I just like to put in the hours and put in the work and hopefully guys follow. …
"We always talk about team. We don't do individual introductions or anything like that. We run out as a team and we feel like we're a family. I think that's what leads to our success."
Super Bowl reporters asked Mayo which linebackers he looks up to, and he immediately mentioned the Ravens' Ray Lewis and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro Derrick Brooks. Both own a championship ring.
If Mayo does Sunday, he'll join Henry Jordan (Warwick High, Green Bay Packers), Shaun Gayle (Bethel, Chicago Bears), Lawrence Taylor (Lafayette, Giants) and Antoine Bethea (Denbigh, Indianapolis Colts) as Peninsula District alums to start for a Super Bowl champion.
He'd also help bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy to New England.
"This is everything I expected," Mayo said. "Great owner, great coaches, great teammates, and no selfish players on this team, and I like it like that."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP