JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The youngest piece from among the odd scraps that comprise the crazy quilt New England secondary didn't know on the first day of training camp last July that he would fit into the tapestry of the defending Super Bowl champions.
By the end of the first week of Patriots practices, however, rookie corner Randall Gay had settled into a sufficient enough comfort zone to realize that he belonged.
"I looked around at some of the rookies and felt like, 'Man, I'm as good as they are, and I didn't even get drafted,' and that convinced me I could make the roster," said Gay, who Sunday evening will complete the incredible journey from undrafted college free agent to Super Bowl XXXIX starter. "I mean, I didn't take anything for granted, you know? But I had a lot of confidence. Now, did I think I could go from being a special teams player to starting in the Super Bowl? Hey, I'm confident, but I'm not crazy."
Actually, you've got to be a little bit of both to survive life as an NFL cornerback, so Gay might do well to add a little wackiness to his repertoire. Then again, things couldn't get much zanier for the LSU alumnus.
Think about this: In his rookie season, and counting the playoffs, Gay has now started more than twice as many games (11) in the NFL than he did in his senior year in Baton Rouge (five). That's not supposed to happen to first-round draft choices at cornerback, let alone a guy who wasn't even among the 255 prospects chosen by teams in the '04 lottery.
Blame injuries, primarily the two that put starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole on the shelf for much of the season, for the accelerated learning curve Gay was forced to accept in his maiden season. And credit Gay, who fought through a shoulder injury and a broken arm over his final season and a half at LSU, for stepping up to the challenge.
During the regular season, the Brusly, La., native registered 38 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He has seven tackles in the playoffs. It is believed that, at least over the last 15 years, he is the lone undrafted rookie cornerback to start in a Super Bowl game.
Want to talk about return on investment? The Patriots are paying Gay just the NFL rookie minimum base salary of $230,000, and they are getting big-time dividends on their very modest gamble. Gay is an effusive, outgoing rookie, but his penchant for chatting it up does not carry over to the field. Unlike most corners, he prefers to smack a wideout, not talk smack to him.
"He can play it pretty physical," assessed Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison, the graybeard of a unit that, beyond him, features a rookie and two second-year veterans in the starting lineup. "But he's smooth, too, pays attention to his techniques, and doesn't make mental mistakes, which is a key. He's just a good football player."
Gay, 22, surrendered a long touchdown pass to Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress on the first play after replacing Law, but there haven't been many such letdowns after that. "I'm just trying not to make mistakes," allowed Gay earlier this week.
It isn't much of a mistake, of course, that Gay wound up with the Patriots. There is a strong bond between the team and LSU, in part large because of the longtime friendship between Belichick and former Tigers coach Nick Saban, who is now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. It's not unusual for Saban to recommend prospects to Belichick, but he didn't have to lobby hard for Gay, who started in 16 of 42 appearances in college, and who finished his career with 123 tackles and two interceptions.
Gay caught Belichick's eye when the Patriots coach was scouting another LSU player, linebacker Eric Alexander, and the impression he made was good enough to get him a spot on the team's "priority" free agent wish list. While it took Gay a week in camp to decide he belonged in the NFL, it was obvious to others from the opening day.
Said Belichick: "We thought that he would be competitive in camp. Once he got here, he showed pretty quickly that he not only had some physical skill but he had confidence and he had good football understanding. He understands coverages. He knows the defensive concepts and it came, I think, pretty easily to him, in part because of his skills and in part because of the (college) system that he was in. All of those things helped him. And then, when he had a chance to play, he played well."
Certainly the emergence of Gay, who starts along with second-year veteran and former "nickel" cornerback Asante Samuel, provides the Patriots with plenty of flexibility for the future. It's doubtful Poole, 33, will return in 2005. And the Pats may simply jettison Law, if he declines to rework a contract that carries a salary cap charge of $12.5 million for the '05 season. A year ago at this time, such a likelihood would have been considered heresy, but it's now a distinct possibility, thanks in part to Gay's speedy development.
"Just think," said Gay. "Two years ago, I was playing for the national championship in college. Now, here I am, starting in a Super Bowl. Pretty amazing isn't it?"
Yeah, pretty amazing, indeed.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.