Danny Amendola: New England’s Big Little Man

With his gravity-defying catches and penchant for making big plays, the often-overlooked receiver has emerged as a key player in New England’s latest dynasty
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If you find yourself in awe the next time Danny Amendola makes a big play, you won’t be alone. He is among the most important members of the current Patriots dynasty, yet he is generally overlooked until he emerges, football in hand, out of a crowd in the end zone.

Patriots teammates who have been watching him make these plays since his arrival in 2013 call him Danny Playoffs and Playoff 'Dola, because he seems to shine when the lights are brightest. After a pair of gravity-defying catches in the 2018 AFC championship game, he held the New England franchise record for fourth-quarter postseason touchdowns with four.

It’s safe to say that no one saw this kind of success coming from the 5'11" receiver. Not all the college coaches who didn’t offer him a scholarship, not the 32 NFL teams who decided he wasn’t worth a draft pick. Not even his own dad.

“I never thought [a professional career] was realistic,” says Willie Amendola, who developed a pretty good scouting eye over his two decades of coaching high school football in Texas. College recruiters had told Danny’s offensive coordinator at The Woodlands (Texas) High School, Mark Schmid, that he was “not a Division I football player.” Even after he made it to Texas Tech, his father encouraged him to take education courses his senior year to prepare for what seemed inevitable: a career as a coach, not a player.

Danny took the classes, but he was undeterred: He left Texas Tech early to train for the NFL combine  . . .  and then went undrafted. He signed with the Cowboys in the spring of 2008, then got cut during training camp. He spent his first 13 months in the league on practice squads, first with the Cowboys and then with the Eagles. He finally got a shot when Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur became the St. Louis Rams’ offensive coordinator and picked him up before Week 3 of the ’09 season.

Amendola led the league in all-purpose yards a year later with 2,364 and averaged 4.7 receptions per game in four seasons in St. Louis. Despite those credentials, fans scratched their heads when the Patriots gave him five years and $31 million as a free agent entering his age-28 season in 2013. His deal was announced the same day Wes Welker, his predecessor with the Red Raiders and again in New England, signed with the Broncos for less money, and the press was largely unimpressed with the swap. “By every measureable but a calendar (Amendola is 27, Welker 32) paying Danny Amendola more than Wes Welker is ridiculous,” the Boston Herald wrote. The New York Daily News, speaking for Giants and Jets fans, headlined its story on the signing, “Thanks, Genius.” Quarterback Tom Brady, who had just renegotiated his contract to create more salary-cap space—presumably to re-sign Welker—was, according to media reports, disappointed.

“I really don’t listen to it,” Amendola says of public opinion.

“He pretends it doesn’t bother him,” his father responds. “But it does.”

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Amendola found himself in a strange situation as the 2013 season, his first in New England, began. He had been discounted as a football player since he was a teenager at Woodlands High, but now he would be a disappointment in New England if he provided anything less than Welker—the only receiver in NFL history to catch 100 balls in five straight seasons.

At first, that was the case. Amendola had only 833 receiving yards in his first two regular seasons combined, and the Patriots fell to Welker’s Broncos in the ’13 AFC championship. Julian Edelman, a converted college quarterback who had spent most of his time in the league returning punts and kickoffs, emerged as the Patriots’ primary receiver while Amendola struggled to stay on the field.

Through his early scuffles in New England, Amendola’s intensity never diminished. Even when he was a child, his parents could get him to sleep only if they offered to race him to bed; once he leaped from beyond the threshold of his room and crashed through the headboard. “He only has one speed,” his father says of his many injuries, including a strained groin, at least two concussions, a left-knee injury and a left-ankle sprain. He also has high expectations of himself. Fellow receivers jokingly back away during practice when Amendola drops a pass because the primal scream he lets out each time is so ear splitting. (“Fortunately he doesn’t drop too many,” says wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.)

But the production was not always there. Then came the 2015 divisional playoff game against the Ravens, when Brady lateraled to Edelman, who lofted a pass down the sideline that Amendola nabbed for a 51 yard touchdown to tie the game at 28 in the third quarter. “Me and Julian have been practicing that for about five years,” Amendola joked afterward. It was his second game-tying touchdown of the day. Two weeks later, with the Pats facing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, he seized a pass in the back of the end zone to begin the comeback. He keyed another come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl LI, scoring the touchdown that brought the Patriots to within 10 of the Falcons with 5:56 left and barely crossing the goal line with the two-point-conversion catch that tied the game with 57 seconds to go.

This season, in the Patriots’ divisional round win over the Titans, Amendola racked up 112 yards on 11 receptions, then followed that performance with the two touchdowns in the AFC championship game. Edelman was out for the year after tearing his right ACL in the preseason, and tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a concussion early in the contest. Amendola rose to the occasion, something he makes a habit of doing. In the regular season for the Patriots he has averaged 10.4 yards per catch and 3.33 catches per game with 12 receiving touchdowns in 69 appearances. In the postseason he averages 11.4 yards per catch and 4.1 catches per game with six receiving TDs in just 12 games. “He’s kind of a guy you take for granted,” said Belichick after the win over the Titans, “but he delivered a lot tonight—as he always does.”

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None of this is new. Mark Schmid nearly wears himself out recounting the countless times in high school games in which three or four players jumped for a ball and Amendola ended up with it. The Woodlands High coach’s favorite moment perhaps came in Amendola’s senior year with a few minutes to go in the semifinals of the state playoffs. During a timeout the receiver stared at the coach. “Get me the damn ball,” he insisted.

“He had to go up,” Schmid recalls. “Contested ball. Of course he came down with it.”

Amendola made the play using a hand he had broken four weeks earlier, an injury he’d hidden from his parents. The team went on to go undefeated that season.

He is, in many ways, the ideal Patriot. “He’s a company man,” his father says. Amid rumors that he might retire rather than return as the fourth or fifth option on the depth chart this season, he restructured his contract for the third time and took a pay cut to stay in New England. Then, even with Edelman out, Amendola played only 49.8% of the snaps during the 2017 season, an arrangement that must have eaten at him given how much he yearns to prove his durability. But the reduced workload helped keep him fresh for the playoff stretch.

New England collects players who feel undervalued and convinces them that it’s their organization against the world. Amendola keeps his Eagles practice jersey framed on a wall at home. After they won Super Bowl LI, he and Edelman, another oft-overlooked receiver, fell on the ground embracing one another.

“We ain’t good enough!” Edelman bellowed.

“We can’t make any other team!” Amendola answered. “We can’t make no other f------ team!”

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When it comes to the media, Amendola has been well trained by Belichick, king of the 20-word press conference. Amendola is evasive and vague in interviews. He says he can’t remember which hand he broke in high school. He declines to share details about the offseason trip he, Edelman and Brady took to Bozeman, Mont., other than that they ran routes and worked out at The Pitt, a training facility run by former Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher. Who else accompanied them? “I’d rather keep that between the guys who were there,” Amendola says.

He is most expansive when it comes to the topic of why he ignores the hype and the slights. “I think I probably learned that in college playing for Mike Leach,” he says of his former coach at Texas Tech.

“Whether it was a good play or a bad play before it, just forget about it and play the next play. He really preached that. It sounds stupid and simple, but it makes sense. If you mess up on a play, you can’t hold the team down. You’ve got another play to play. That’s the same with games and years.”

Amendola returns to The Woodlands periodically to speak to students. During one visit he explained to Schmid why he enjoyed playing in New England. “Nobody’s treated like a superstar,” Amendola said.

The guy nobody believed in is on a team everyone believes in, surrounded by like-minded teammates who also carry a chip on their shoulder. And, more often than not, it’s Amendola who’s the one coming down with the ball.

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