Tucked under Ty Law's arm as he made his way off the field after
the 1999 NFL Pro Bowl in Honolulu was the football he
intercepted early in the third quarter. Law, a Patriots
cornerback, swiped a pass from Vikings quarterback Randall
Cunningham to Packers wideout Antonio Freeman and sailed 67
yards down the sideline for the touchdown that helped secure a
23-10 win for the AFC all-stars. As co-MVP of the Pro Bowl, Law
was swamped after the game with autograph and photo requests,
including one from his idol, Cowboys corner Deion Sanders, who
pointed to Law as the picture was being snapped and yelled,
"This man is the new breed and the leader of the next generation
of great NFL cornerbacks!"
Law was still buzzing from that moment when he returned to his
home in Franklin, Mass., and placed the ball, labeled simply PRO
BOWL MVP, on the redbrick mantel above the fireplace in his den.
Shortly after he was taken with the 23rd pick in the 1995 draft
out of Michigan, Law decided he would keep and display the
footballs from every significant interception he made in the
NFL. The problem is that since he led the league with nine
interceptions in 1998, Law's mantel is so crowded with leather
keepsakes that he has begun stacking the footballs like firewood
on the carpet in front of the hearth. The collection, which
includes balls picked from Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino
and Steve Young, is almost waist high. It's protected on either
side by life-sized ceramic rottweilers.
"Ty had what can only be described as an extraordinary year,"
says Patriots coach Pete Carroll. "It was as dominant a season
at cornerback as I have ever seen in this league--and I have
seen some great ones."
In 1998 Law became the first Patriot to lead the league in
interceptions. His total of nine tied him with four others for
the second-highest number of picks in the NFL in this decade
(Chicago's Mark Carrier had 10 in 1990); he did this while
playing behind an anemic pass rush that finished 23rd in the
league in sacks. He's been beaten for a touchdown only three
times in his career. The first time was in 1995 by Saints wide
receiver Quinn Early, and the second time was by the Dolphins'
Oronde Gadsden during a 1998 regular-season game at New England.
The most recent--and most painful--was by Jaguars wideout Jimmy
Smith for the game-winning score in an AFC wild-card game last
season. Nevertheless, Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was
so impressed by Law's play that after the all-star game he sent
Law his helmet with the inscription TO TY, SAME TIME, SAME
PLACE, NEXT YEAR, JIMMY SMITH.
"When Deion leaves this game, I want to be the measuring stick
at cornerback," says Law. "But I want to be known as a more
complete corner than Deion. Five years after I finish this game,
I want to be walking around the Hall of Fame with that yellow
jacket on. I've been overlooked so much during my life, I want
Law grew up in the mill town and football hotbed of Aliquippa,
Pa., near Pittsburgh, where as a nine-year-old he ran right out
of his shoes during a Pop Warner championship game and finished
a 65-yard touchdown run in his stocking feet. When he was 13,
his mother, Diane, began an eight-year battle with cocaine. Ty's
father, Larry Jeter, had not been around much (although the two
are close today), so Ray Law, Ty's grandfather and guardian,
took on a larger role helping to raise his grandson.
Ty was a two-way star at Aliquippa, playing tailback, wide
receiver and cornerback. He committed to Georgia Tech but then
switched to Michigan so he could be closer to his grandfather,
who is now 74 and retired from his job as a supervisor in a steel
mill, and keep an eye on his mom. On his first day of practice he
picked off four passes. He went on to become the first true
freshman to start at cornerback for Michigan since freshmen
became eligible in 1972. In a win over Ohio State during his
sophomore season, Law pirated two passes, one at the five-yard
line, the other in the end zone, in what Wolverines coach Lloyd
Carr calls "the best game any corner has ever had at Michigan."
By the time he was a junior, he was a unanimous All-Big Ten
Many times at Michigan, Law would attend practice, hit the
team's study tables, then jump into his rust-colored '86
Oldsmobile Sierra with 80,000 miles on the odometer and drive
the 220 miles home to deal with family problems. Ty would track
down Diane and try to comfort Ray, then jump back in his car and
drive through the night, arriving in Ann Arbor just in time for
his morning classes.
"I had one thing on my mind during those drives: my family,"
says Ty. "If I ever thought about football in my car, it was
only about how making the NFL would allow me to get my mom clean
and have my grandfather walk with his head up again." Law left
school after his junior year and signed a five-year, $5.5
million deal with the Patriots.
Three seasons later, however, after failing to make the 1997 Pro
Bowl, Law stood in his den and stared at the mantel he had
promised to fill with footballs. The shelf was not crowded. A few
days later he saw a television special in which track and field
coach Bob Kersee was featured. Kersee, a St. Louis native, was
training Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan. Before the special
ended, Law was calling St. Louis, looking for Kersee.
The no-nonsense Kersee has coached 23 Olympic gold medalists,
including his wife, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and
sprinter Gail Devers, and had worked with some baseball and
hockey players, but Law was his first NFL client. Their initial
meeting was a doozy. Kersee popped in a tape of Law running and
said with mock seriousness, "Oh, here's the problem right here.
You can't run." Jackie poked her head into the room, looked at
the screen and yelled, "Oh, my god, Bob, who is that?"
Law was amazed by Kersee's manic attention to detail and by his
mixture of barbaric and state-of-the-art training techniques.
"Ty came in humbled," says Kersee. "He left enlightened." On
some days Law would begin his workout in the morning on a
computer-controlled leg-lift machine that charted the strength
and mechanics of his legs and finish in the afternoon running
with a heavy sled hooked to his back or jumping back and forth
over a bench for about 20 minutes while Kersee punched him in
"Now I can swat little receivers down like gnats," says the
5'11", 200-pound Law. "I can run with the big, fast guys or just
pop 'em in the mouth once or twice, and all of a sudden they
aren't so big anymore, and they're not running so fast, either."
Kersee reconstructed Law's gait by working extensively on the
flexibility and power in his hips. That gave Law a smoother,
faster, more efficient break on the ball to complement his 4.35
speed in the 40. "Ty could be a world-class sprinter," says
Kersee, who will train Law for three months this spring and
summer. "He reminds me of the old Oakland Raiders kind of
corner, like Lester Hayes. He can get right in a guy's face, or
he can run stride for stride with any receiver in the league."
Law returned to the Boston area from St. Louis a few days before
training camp feeling, he says, as if he had been torn down and
rebuilt with bionic parts. But he knew all the hard work in St.
Louis would be for naught if he were forced to spend yet another
football season worrying about his mom.
Before the '98 season Diane entered a rehab program. In his
first three games, Ty picked off four passes. "I don't care how
tough you think you are as a football player," he says,
"watching your mom go through something like that hurts. It
hurts a lot. And the worst part may be that you can never escape
it. Not even for a second." Law finished the season with the
most All-Pro votes of any NFL defender and was named the top
defensive back by the NFL Players Association. But best of all,
he says, his mom has stayed off drugs. She says that she has
remained clean for more than a year.
Proof of Law's success in 1998 is spread across the mantel and
around the fireplace in his den. Another nine-pick season and he
might have to add a second fireplace. So he plans to build a
bigger house, complete with a trophy case for his purloined
footballs. Going into the off-season Law had his sights set on
getting a ball from the Broncos' John Elway. Now that Elway is
retiring, however, he'll have to look elsewhere.
"I've got an Aikman, a Kelly, a Manning, a Marino and a Young,"
says Law, "but I don't have a Brett Favre ball yet. The problem
is that the guy just won't throw at me. If he does, maybe I can
add him to my collection."