Football journey: Jerod Mayo

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Before he made his first tackle for the Patriots, Jerod Mayo made a decision to live within five minutes of Gillette Stadium. His thinking was that he planned to be at the stadium most of the time, doing what he loves and striving to improve, that anything more than five minutes away was wasting his time.

The 24-year-old Mayo made an immediate splash in 2008, becoming just the second Patriots player to win the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award (Mike Haynes in 1976 was the other). After battling through a knee injury in 2009, Mayo has returned to form this season, with coaches crediting him with a team-high 103 tackles.

Mayo, who hails from Hampton, Va., has emerged as one of the leaders of the team's defense. He shares his football journey with ESPNBoston.com.

When he first started playing football: "I think I was 5 years old, it was back in Virginia. Played a little Mighty Mites. My mom put me in that. It was a good time."

Why he first started playing: "My mom believed in us playing every sport and then seeing what we liked. I played soccer, basketball, baseball, football. I kind of eliminated them as I got older. It ended up being football."

First positions: "I played guard [laughing], then moved to fullback. I've always played linebacker."

Top memories at Kecoughtan High, where he was a Prep Star All-American: "Before I got there, they were a winning program, then they took a dip, and my junior and senior year we were pretty good. I played running back. That was a good time, but at the end of the day, I like to give the hits instead of taking them. I ran the ball like I was a linebacker. We had some good games against Heritage High School, a big win. Any time you are an underdog and get a big win, it's huge."

Why he chose to attend Tennessee: "SEC football, stadium holds 110,000. At the time, the linebackers there were known to go to the NFL and that was always a dream for me. It was a good decision."

NFL players he looked up to at that time: "I've always been a big fan of Derrick Brooks. He was one of those guys who did it all -- he could tackle, run, cover passes."

Favorite team growing up: "I liked the Oakland Raiders. Those guys just seemed like they were a hard-nosed team, and I love hitting. It seemed like defense was a big part of that team out there early on. It was the teams with Tim Brown, Rich Gannon, Napoleon Kaufman and those guys."

Best memories at Tennessee: "Going to the SEC championship, even though we didn't win. We went twice. Just the camaraderie you build with the guys, living with a group of guys, just building relationships and things like that."

Toughest memories at Tennessee: "We came into the season one year, my red-shirt freshman year, ranked No. 3 in the preseason. We ended up going 5-6, losing a lot of games."

If he didn't attend Tennessee...: "Probably Virginia Tech. A lot of guys from my area go there."

What he appreciates about the game of football: "Camaraderie and being with a group of guys, going out there competing, and having that team feeling."

Hardest thing in his career: "Losing, especially when things might fall to the defense."

Getting drafted by the Patriots in the first round: "Great feeling. The year before, they won 18 games, so any time you can go first round and go to a successful team like the Patriots -- that won all those games without you -- you just try to go in and learn as much as you can."

Walking into the Patriots locker room for the first time: "It was great. You play with these guys on video games and then all of a sudden you're in the same locker room with them. I'm not going to say I was star struck, because I wasn't really following the Patriots like that, but at the same time I knew who the guys were. It was great to be able to play with them."

What he learned from Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and other veteran linebackers: "Just how to be a professional, on and off the field. Coming in early, staying late, studying film."

Learning about life in New England: "I've learned about snow [laughing]. Most of all, I've learned how passionate the fans are. You hear a lot about hockey and other sports, but these fans also love football. It's great having them out there."

Summing up his football journey from Mighty Mites to the Patriots: "Just having a band of brothers. You grow up with guys in your neighborhood, playing football, then you go to high school and some of those guys are still with you, but some of them fall off. Then you go to college and most of the time you don't go with anybody from your hometown. You don't know anybody, so you're starting over from scratch. Just building those relationships. I still have friends now that I played with in Midgets. It's the relationships."