Logan Mankins tractor-tough as ever

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Change is unavoidable. It has been impossible, for instance, for Logan Mankins to ignore the subtle shift in the way his body responds (or doesn't respond).

Some other differences have been more jolting, a shock to the system, like sticking your feet in a bucket of frigid water. That's how it felt when he lost his longtime partners on the offensive line, Matt Light and Dan Koppen; one retired, one released, just like that.

Like it or not, the football life of Logan Mankins is evolving.

"It's a little different," Mankins conceded. "I played next to those guys for seven seasons. We've been through a lot together, and all of a sudden, they're gone. I went from the third-oldest to the oldest [on the line] very fast."

The newly anointed "elder statesman" is the anchor charged with protecting Tom Brady against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans in Sunday's playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The O-line's job is paramount to the success of the Patriots, who have learned that when Brady is under duress, his job becomes infinitely more complicated.

Mankins, a cattle rancher's son who prided himself on never missing a game under any circumstances, has been sidelined a career-high six games this season. According to the perpetually murky Patriots injury report, he has battled ankle and calf injuries. It has been a source of frustration for Mankins to be unable to play up to his capabilities, even though he still garnered his fifth Pro Bowl invitation.

In the first five seasons of his Patriots career, he played all 16 games, regardless of what was ailing him.

"I had a pretty good streak for a while," Mankins said, "but this year has been injury-plagued."

Mankins has been targeted by impatient fans who believe the Patriots ran the ball more successfully while he was sidelined, by national pundits who questioned the veracity of his Pro Bowl selection.

Former teammate Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, said such scrutiny is preposterous, particularly since Mankins played most of last season with a torn ACL.

"Some have reported it as happening late in the year, but it was the entire season," Bruschi said. "It happened in the Miami game [Week 1].

"Think about this: How amazing is it that he played through that, had major surgery and didn't even start the season on the PUP [physically unable to perform] list? Actually, he probably came back too soon, and maybe it affected other things. That could explain some of these injuries. The trainers call that overcompensating."

It remains unclear whether Mankins unknowingly played through the ACL tear or knew exactly what was happening and chose to soldier on quietly all the way to the Super Bowl.

"You don't ever ask him how he's feeling," tackle Sebastian Vollmer said. "You just assume he's going to play through anything."

The mention of Mankins elicited a wide range of adjectives describing his uncommon grit: "a rock," said tackle Nate Solder; "nails," offered linebacker Niko Koutouvides; and "tougher than boot leather," submitted Bruce Vegely, who coached Mankins in high school football and baseball.

That toughness was hatched in Catheys Valley, a rural California town with a population of 800. When Mankins wasn't chopping wood, building fences or wrangling livestock three times his size, he was riding horses, hunting game and felling trees with a chain saw.

"Playing football in the NFL was a lot easier than working on that ranch," said Trace DeSandres, Mankins' high school basketball coach.

"He never lifted a weight in high school," Vegely added. "He's just flat-out country strong."

Mankins was a champion roper and a three-sport star at Mariposa High. He stood 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and when he caught the ball on the block in basketball, opposing players shrank from the contact.

"It wasn't enough for him to score," DeSandres said. "Logan was going to punish you on the way to the basket."

Mankins was on course to breaking the school's basketball scoring record in his senior season when, in the first quarter of a game against the Delhi Hawks, he hauled in a rebound. One player jostled him for the ball, while another came up from behind and tried to poke it free.

"So Logan chinned the ball, and when he brought it up, he threw one kid in one direction, and elbowed the other kid in the chest and sent him 10 feet in the opposite direction," DeSandres recalled. "It was the most amazing thing. The refs threw him out of the game, even though it was totally legal.

"He was on his way to 30 that night, but he only had four points when he got tossed. It cost him the scoring title."

On the baseball field, Mankins was, his coach said, "a mountain" playing third base. When players stepped into the batter's box, they determined bunting down the third-base line was a viable strategy.

Those who dared to raise Mankins' ire by questioning his speed blanched as he thundered down the line, scooping the ball. What they didn't realize was he was also a pitcher and delighted in firing a fastball in the mid-80s toward first base within a hair of their ear, to remind them to think twice about challenging him again.

It was more of the same on the football field, where Mankins played tight end, fullback and linebacker.

There was the time Mankins came barreling across the middle at tight end just as his quarterback threw 3 feet behind him. Without breaking stride, Mankins reached back with one hand, grabbed the nose of the ball and pulled it in. Then there was the time he lined up at fullback and flattened the linebackers on back-to-back plays with such force, the third time they simply turtled and let him score.

Mankins wanted to play college ball, but Mariposa was a small school and not many recruiters found their way to the valley. When a coach from Fresno State showed up and asked Vegely whether he had any good juniors, the coach told him no, but there was a senior he should see. Vegely showed him a film clip of Mankins playing tight end and leveling a defensive tackle.

"I told the Fresno State coach, 'See that kid on the ground? That's the kid you just gave a free ride to,"' Vegely said, chuckling. "He said, 'Wait, let me see that again.'

"I showed it to him again, and he said, 'Are you sure that's our kid?' He watched it three more times before he said, 'Can I have that tape?' Next thing you know, we're pulling Logan out of class and they're talking to him about playing football at Fresno State."

Mankins redshirted in his freshman season, then went on to become the first offensive lineman in the history of Fresno State to be named team MVP.

He was drafted by the Patriots, bought his first suit coat for the news conference, then set about convincing a tight-knit group of offensive linemen that he could fill in for the wildly popular Joe Andruzzi, who had signed with Cleveland as a free agent.

"Obviously I had big shoes to fill," Mankins said. "They had just won a Super Bowl. But I didn't have much time to think about it. They just threw me in to see what I could do."

Mankins had played tackle his entire career, but the Patriots switched him to guard. It didn't matter. The rookie who was flat-out country strong made an immediate impact.

Linebacker Bruschi, playing in the 3-4 defense, found himself lined up against the new kid on a regular basis in practice. He went home one afternoon and peeled off his pads and his shirt to reveal bruises on his arms and dark welts on his back.

"I had all these strange marks on my body, like someone had me in a vise grip," Bruschi said. "My wife, Heidi, was appalled. She said, 'What are those from?' I said one word: 'Mankins.'"

Bruschi knew what to expect because of a film clip the coaching staff had showed him in advance of the rookie's arrival.

"It wasn't the devastating blocks Logan made, although there were plenty of those," Bruschi said. "It was what he was doing after the devastating blocks. He'd destroy the guy, and the guy would try to get up, then he'd destroy him again, and push him down one more time.

"After I saw that, I figured, 'This guy has a short fuse. I better be nice to him.'"

While Mankins was quiet, respectful and understated off the field, he exhibited a fury on the field that could be terrifying. Vegely termed it "just the right amount of ornery."

"If you pissed him off," Vegely said, "you were in trouble."

Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban discovered Mankins' dark side in 2005. Ekuban was, according to Patriots teammates, hitting Mankins after the whistle. Mankins became so incensed he punched Ekuban in the groin, which earned him an ejection and a $7,500 fine. While teams generally frown upon such underhanded tactics, Bruschi confessed, "We liked it. You need at least one guy like that on the line."

Mankins' goal was to never miss a game. He made it all the way to 2010 before a contract dispute that caused him to sit out broke his streak. It was a miserable dose of reality for a guy whose work ethic was his proudest attribute.

"It was tough," Mankins said. "But once I came back, it was like nothing ever happened."

By then he was a Pro Bowl regular who stayed true to his valley roots. When the NFL arranged for a pig hunt in Hawaii, Mankins enthusiastically participated, gleefully returning to his luxury hotel donned in a blood-soaked T-shirt while horrified guests gasped.

"I can see it now," Andruzzi said. "Lots of blood and a big smile."

Andruzzi serves as a part-time strength coach for the Patriots during the offseason and maintains Mankins is one of the "top guys in the weight room."

His results on the close grip bench press have been unmatched, as well as the subsequent chest presses he piles on top of that. Lead by example, Mankins said, when asked about the limits to which he subjects his body.

"I have more responsibilities now," Mankins said. "Everyone is always looking to you.

"If you want to take a day off because you're beat to hell, you don't, because you don't want them to follow."

The line has been solid, though Mankins maintains there are "plenty of plays we'd like back," particularly from a bruising loss to San Francisco.

They have a close group, he said. He has hosted barbecues at his home for his line the way Light and Koppen did for him.

Mankins isn't big on discussing his legacy or his place among Patriots greats.

"The best thing I've ever heard another player say is, 'I hate playing against you,"' he said, shrugging.

Bruschi was reviewing the tape of the first Patriots-Texans game and noticed something he hadn't before. It was Mankins, who wasn't just blocking his own guy, but shoving some additional Texans to the turf, whether they were his assignment or not.

"So we're saying that for two years now he hasn't been right physically, but he's still pushing guys all over the place," Bruschi said.

The man they liken to a mountain, a rock, some nails and a piece of boot leather knows the shadows of time are inching closer, and no matter how tough, how strong and how disciplined he remains, there is an end to all of this.

He will be 31 in March. He figures he's got some good years left, but he has been to two Super Bowls and come up empty both times.

"It's tough," Mankins admitted. "You only get so many opportunities. Hopefully this is the year."

Ask Bruschi what word he'd use to describe his friend, and he doesn't hesitate.

"A tractor," Bruschi said. "A green and yellow John Deere tractor."

The tractor has been under repair, but it's up and running again. Logan Mankins might be evolving, but he's still a guy who favors T-shirts soaked in pig's blood, a flat-out country tough guard who plows on in search of a ring like the ones his old pals from the line already have.