Proving Myself

Everyone remembers Malcolm Butler’s interception to win the Super Bowl this past year, but I’ll never forget the play right before it.

Jermaine Kearse had just made that circus catch, putting the Seahawks at the five-yard line with 1st-and-goal. We know Marshawn is going to run the ball, so we throw in a bigger package. I get on the field, and I know what’s coming. Everyone knows what’s coming. The fans are going crazy. You see people setting up ropes around the field so that nobody can jump out from the stands when the game ends. It’s coming down to the last couple of plays.

I’m lined up, the ball gets snapped to Marshawn, and he comes right my way. There’s a gap right there, and he’s running through it. Hightower hits him, and Marshawn starts to stumble right towards the end zone. I shed my block and dive over to him — right as he’s trying to stretch the ball over the goal line. There’s a collision. The dust settles. And I’m laying there staring at the ball. Stopped at the one-yard line.

The rest is history.

At the beginning of last season, never in a million years would I have imagined myself making a goal-line stop in the Super Bowl. But that’s just the nature of this game — your number can be called at any time. It’s on you to be ready.

I got drafted by the Tennessee Titans back in 2011, and my first couple of seasons with them were pretty good years. At the end of my second season, though, I developed this tendonitis injury. It started in my right knee. The offseason came around, and I had some trainers look at it. They said there was nothing wrong. But by the time training camp rolled around, my knee was just getting worse and worse.

All of a sudden, I start to get the same pain in my left knee. I had been overcompensating and putting too much pressure on my left knee, so it ended up getting the same injury. I got some MRIs, but they kept telling me nothing was wrong — just to keep icing. So I stayed out there. Didn’t miss a practice. Didn’t miss a day of training camp. And didn’t miss a game the whole season.

The thing with pain that strong is that it’s all you can concentrate on. It’s all you can think about. They say pain is just mental, but football at this level requires a clear and active mind at all times. With this injury, my mental state was nowhere near where it could have been. Going into the game every week, I’d have agonizing pain in both of my knees. My productivity went way down, and I had about half the tackles and sacks I had the year before.

I found out right after the season ended that I had tears in both of my patellar tendons.

I got surgery on both of my knees: one in January and one in February. The doctor told me that I couldn’t do any physical activity with my legs for seven months. This would be the second offseason in a row where I wouldn’t be able to really get into the shape I wanted – and I was entering the last year of my contract. To make things more complicated, the team hired a new coach whom I would have to impress to earn my spot.

We go into OTAs, and he announces that he’s completely revamping the defense, from a 4-3 to a 3-4. I’m still sidelined trying to recover. Training camp was the first time I was able to even run.

I was only getting second string reps during practices, but over time I was starting to look good. But when the season finally rolled around, the team placed me on the inactive list. It was a pretty big blow because I knew I was good enough to be dominant on this team. They put me on the scout team, and even my teammates were shocked. This was 2014, my fourth year in the league and the last year of contract. That contract year is what every athlete eyes because it’s so important for your future, and I wasn’t even going to get a snap in a real game.

But being on scout team ended up being a blessing in disguise. I’m normally a linebacker, but they had me playing defensive end, pass rushing. I was going against the first-team offense, so in the back of my head, I’m like, This is perfect. When I get on a new team, whenever it is, I’m going to be ready.

When Week 8 rolled around, I got the call I’d been waiting for from the GM. I was traded to the New England Patriots. And you know what, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. I loved my time in Tennessee, but I wanted to play. I wanted to prove myself.

Right after I got the call, I packed my bags and I was on a flight to New England the next morning. Off the plane, straight to the facilities, meeting the coaches, straight into the playbook. I’m telling you, getting traded is a whirlwind, especially midseason. I got there on a Tuesday, and we had a game against the Bears on Sunday. Every day, nose in the playbook from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

I figured I would be playing linebacker because Jerod Mayo had just gotten injured. Chandler Jones was also injured, though, so they wanted me at defensive end. Like I said, those weeks on practice squad were a blessing in disguise.

To get traded to New England was just unbelievable. I had heard about the culture of the team — the intense preparation and complete focus — but I didn’t really understand what that meant until the first week I was there. New England prepares with the expectation of winning. You go there as a player and you know the tradition they have, the players they have and the mindset they have. Anything other than winning is simply not an option. And I can see how they’ve maintained such success over a long period of time. When I arrived, I just had to follow everyone’s lead. The organization runs like a well-oiled machine.

I go out there that first Sunday against the Bears, and I’m so ready to play. I was angry and ready to prove a point. They told me I was going to be playing special teams and maybe I’d get a few snaps at DE. In the second quarter, they told me to go out on defense. On one of my first snaps, I got a sack, and it was like a spell was broken. All of the sudden all that confidence that had been drained from me came back.

The next week, we were playing the Broncos at home. The whole game, I was making good plays, making tackles. But oh, man, all I wanted was to sack Peyton Manning. What defensive player doesn’t dream of that? Second quarter, just before the two-minute warning, the Broncos are at our 34-yard line with a 4th-and-6. They go for it. Manning drops back, and I break through the line and take him down.

I was happy about that one.

After the game, Mr. Kraft greets everyone as they walk into the locker room. He comes up to me and says, “Akeem, you’re our good luck charm.” That was a pretty cool thing to hear from one of the top guys in the NFL.

Next week, we’re playing the Colts, and I play well. Then the Lions, and I get another sack. Now I’m rolling — the whole team is rolling, and I’m feeling great. I basically came from a team that told me I wasn’t good enough, and now I’m on one of the best teams in the league, starting, making plays and making an impact. I came to New England in a stretch where they were being doubted, and I was in the same place. We were out to prove ourselves.

When a team is in playoff mode, everyone is just so focused on doing their job. This was my first time playing on a seasoned playoff team, and you could sense the difference. Everyone is completely selfless, giving all they’ve got and doing everything they can to help the team get to the Super Bowl. That’s the only acceptable result. And that’s why the Patriots keep making it there.

Being in the Super Bowl was just something else. Those whole two weeks before, it doesn’t really hit you. You’re just practicing and preparing like normal. There’s a quiet confidence. Just how Tom Brady prepares, how the defense prepares, how the offense prepares. They were just so calm and composed.

It didn’t really hit me that I was about to play in the Super Bowl until we left the hotel to go to the game. As you get closer and closer, you start seeing traffic, and as you pull to the stadium, you see fans everywhere and you see the Super Bowl XLIX logo everywhere. You walk off the bus into the locker room and you see your jersey with the Super Bowl logo all over it and your Super Bowl name plate. It’s one of those things you dream about, but just seeing that jersey with my name on it and the Super Bowl logo was a lot to process.

When I went on the field for the first time, I realized why there’s no game like this in the world. I’ve never seen so many cameras in my life. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it right now. It’s an atmosphere where you can feel the world watching you. We go out on to the field, they introduce the Pats players, and the Pats fans go crazy. Then they introduce the Seahawks players, and their fans go crazy. A small battle before the game even begins.

After kickoff and that first popping of pads, we all got dialed in. We were just playing football now. We were going out there and making our plays. Everyone remembers the end of the game: Lynch got stopped on the one, Malcolm made the interception, Pats win the Super Bowl. Looking back, it all feels like a whirlwind — the celebration, the parade, and then it’s the offseason and you starting looking towards the next year.

I had a lot of confidence after winning the Super Bowl, and I was excited to enter free agency in the fortunate position of being able to choose where I thought I could reach my full potential. My linebacker coach from when I was with the Titans, Frank Bush, took a job with the Rams, and that was enough to sell me. He really helped me become a productive player, and I wanted to get back with him. St. Louis already had a stellar defense, and after meeting with the coaches, I felt like I could help make it even better.

I’ve had my first healthy offseason in two years, and I could not be more excited for the season to begin. I feel like I can finally be the player I know I can be: one of the top defensive players in the league. I’m ready to prove myself.