Congratulations to one of my best friends and favorite teammates of all time, Mike Vrabel, on his retirement from the NFL and his new job as Ohio State linebackers coach.
We spent a lot of time together, our wives got to know each other and our children played together. There were times after training-camp practices when I'd tackle his kids and he'd tackle mine. After games during the regular season, it would be the Vrabels and Bruschis on the field and there would be an impromptu game; everything from who could kick it through the uprights to who could score a touchdown.
I was fortunate to spend a majority of my playing career, eight years, with my great friend Mike Vrabel.
I'd also say that the New England Patriots would have zero championships without "Vrabes"; he was such a big-game player.
I remember when Mike first came to New England from Pittsburgh in 2001. Part of what made him fit so well was that we were a bunch of players who felt we had a lot to prove. He had the same type of mentality.
At the time, I didn't know what type of player we had -- I actually had a little animosity toward him because, as a Steeler, he had strip-sacked Drew Bledsoe and ended our 1997 season -- but I immediately knew he was one of the smarter football players I had ever met. Over the next eight years, I could say without question that he was the smartest defensive football player I ever played with.
What was so special about him is that he combined that knowledge with an attitude and confidence that really trickled down to all of us on the defensive unit. He led the mentality that we were not just a bunch of "yes" men. You always accept coaching, but after hearing what we were asked to do, if he had questions or concerns, he stated them and let the coaches know, whether it was Matt Patricia, Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel or Bill Belichick. We'd question things we didn't feel comfortable with and Vrabes led that charge.
He had the knowledge, so when game plans were installed, he'd ask, "What if we try this?" It made us a better defense and made coaches think.
I remember one time that trickled down to the offensive side. We were winning a game, it was at the end of the fourth quarter and the defensive players felt we should be running the ball to run the clock out. But the offense was throwing it; there were a few incompletions, and then a punt. Vrabel got up and expressed a lack of agreement to the offensive coaches, Charlie Weis and Belichick. There was a melee on the sideline -- coaches arguing with Vrabel and yelling at defensive players, and Vrabel and the players yelling back.
I think that was part of what made the team special. Players didn't accept the status quo; we felt our input was just as important as that of every coach.
He also provided a lot of humor. He grew so tired of seeing all the old Giants film of Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks, which Belichick was showing to illustrate proper technique. So he went to Don Brocher, our equipment manager who had all the old helmets in his office, and grabbed the Giants helmet and brought it to practice.
Vrabel's message was, "If you want the old-school linebackers to come back, we'll do the best we can," and he ran around practice with it on. It was hilarious.
So he provided a lot of levity to teams, and for all those who follow the Patriots and the way Coach Belichick runs a team, levity is a nice addition.
When I think of the big-game performances, Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers is one of the first that comes to mind. He had a strip sack of quarterback Jake Delhomme and later scored on a touchdown pass. That just reflected his knowledge and ability -- doing it on defense and offense.
There wasn't a player who was a bigger part of those championship teams than Mike Vrabel was.
Coach Belichick always talks about putting the team first and being tough, and there is no better example of this philosophy than Vrabel. He was off and running as an outside linebacker, elevating his game to a level where he was going to be mentioned as a perennial Pro Bowler, but we got caught short at inside linebacker in 2005. Somebody had to step up and make concessions for the team. It was Vrabel, so he was lost for a year from the conversation of best outside linebackers. He could have been selfish, but he didn't have that attitude. His attitude was, "If this is what the team needs me to do, I'll do it."
Some might not realize it, but those two positions are like night and day. Yet Mike, while struggling a bit initially, was able to make the switch.
Then you think about his toughness. One time he broke his arm and he was back three weeks later. Trainers told him it might not be the best thing to do, but he put a graphite brace around it, threw some dirt on it and said, "Let's go."
Intelligence, toughness, versatility, putting the team first and unique football ability -- that's Mike Vrabel.
I am so happy for him transitioning into an area of his life that he is so passionate about. We had many conversations in the stretch line about the Ohio State Buckeyes. You'd hear him and Tom Brady talking about Ohio State and Michigan. I'd get tired of hearing it, but Vrabes would never relent. He was proud of being a Buckeye.
So for him to combine those passions -- coaching linebackers and the Buckeyes -- it's perfect for him and perfect for his wife, Jen, and Tyler and Carter, his sons, who are Buckeye fans through and through. They would go to games as a family, and now they can watch their dad, from the sidelines and stands, coach linebackers.
I'm sure they're very proud of him. I'm very proud of him and wish him the best of luck.