FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Jerod Mayo let out a bit of a groan during the stretching portion of Tuesday's joint practice between the Patriots and Buccaneers, as the sixth-year veteran casually mentioned some aches and pains early in the morning.
That's all it took for the young linebackers to pounce.
"I got onto him (yesterday) about it, just messing around with him," second-year pro Dont'a Hightower said with a laugh. "He was stretching and talking about how he was a little sore, a little tender. Me and Jamie (Collins) were messing with him talking about, I think he's really 27 (years old), but we were calling him 33, 35, just messing around."
Everyone in the Patriots locker room holds Mayo in the highest regard, especially the young linebackers who recognize he bridges the gap between them and the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin. Mayo has always been considered a hard-core football mind with a work ethic to back it up, but he took that mentality to a higher level when he was immersed in a locker room full of greats at the dawn of his career.
Mayo takes his responsibilities seriously when it comes to carrying their torch and fueling his younger teammates' careers. It's important, too, as the 2008 first-rounder leads a group of athletic linebackers that include a first-round pick in Hightower (2012) and two second-round picks in Brandon Spikes (2010) and Jamie Collins, the Pats' first selection last April. Dane Fletcher and rookie Steve Beauharnais are also key linebackers in the mix."I was fortunate enough to come to a situation where we had rocking chairs in our room," Mayo cracked. "I pretty much didn't have to say anything. I would sit back and listen as much as possible.
"Every once in a while, it's not like I'm purposely doing it, but I tell the guys about the guys that I played with when I first got here. Some of the locker room stories that we had, the hard times, the good times, things like that. Everything is not always going to be perfect, and I try to let them know that. At the end of the day, as long as we go out there and work hard, everything will work itself out."Spikes, who wasn't at yesterday's practice, is the group's intimidating thumper. Hightower is the versatile national champion from Alabama who might add an additional pass-rushing element to the defense this season. Collins has already developed a reputation for being a freakish athlete with a playmaking side to his game.Mayo, meanwhile, is the guy who has held it all together. He's led the team in tackles in all five of his seasons and will be a captain for the fifth time when that group is announced in a few weeks. Mayo's work ethic helps set the pace behind the scenes.
"It's a great (asset) to use," Collins said. "No matter who you are, you come in and look at a guy like Mayo, and you have to learn from him. You've got to talk to him and get all your info from him."
Even when Mayo gets ragged on for being the rickety old man of the group, his peers know he could still run circles around them in conditioning drills. Hightower recalled the linebacker conditioning drill from last season, when Mayo was among the group of players who were gassed. But Mayo still pushed everyone, got to the line and ran his rep like it was his first of the day.
Instances like that reinforce his credibility within the locker room. And then there are his infamous all-night film sessions.
"A nerd or a bookworm would be the best way to describe him," Hightower said. "He always has an answer to a question no matter how ridiculous it might sound. He's always quick to bring something to attention if maybe somebody else had missed it on a play or something. He could literally watch film and tell you what every position has to do, or if something broke down, how to fix it. It's always good to be able to watch film with a veteran like Mayo."
Mayo didn't want as much credit as his teammates heaped on him, deferring respect to Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and ring-wielding veterans like Vince Wilfork. But the fact is the Patriots have spent some valued resources on this group of linebackers, and the youngsters relish their time with the leader.
"It's just a real big honor for me," Hightower said, "especially growing up watching him at Tennessee and then getting to play with him."