Out Of The Doghouse Defensive end Willie McGinest, healthy again after two subpar seasons, is back creating havoc for the undefeated Patriots

October 10, 1999

When Willie McGinest was a chubby 10-year-old tearing up his
youth football league in Long Beach, Calif., his dad, Big
Willie, taught him a lesson about the game: You quit, and you
don't walk home--the dogs drag you. Now a defensive end and
pass-rushing specialist for the New England Patriots, Little
Willie still adheres to that rule. "My dad taught me that losing
is like falling down and letting the dogs drag you," he says.
"You have to get up and keep going, no matter what."

As a kid Little Willie was big and strong but carried too much
baby fat. The father let his son eat as much as he wanted
to--"because I grew up poor and never had enough to eat," says
Big Willie--but would not allow him to get soft. Even at 10,
Little Willie was expected to be tough, like his old man. "His
mother showed him love," says Big Willie, who stands 6'2 1/2"
and weighs 250 pounds. "It was my job to make him a man."

So when Little Willie asked to go jogging with his dad, Big
Willie brought him along with the family's two Dobermans and
this warning: There would be no giving up, no quitting. "My
father was in good shape, and I had trouble keeping up, but the
dogs would stay right with him," says Little Willie, who now
checks in at 6'5", 255. "Once, when he got tired of me lagging
behind and complaining, he started running, and the dogs ran
after him. Pretty soon I fell, and those dogs started to drag
me. I knew if I didn't get up, they'd either keep dragging me or
I'd get in trouble, so I jumped up and kept going even when I
thought I couldn't. That taught me that I could do more than I
thought I could."

In his first five-plus years in the NFL, McGinest has already
accomplished more than he had dreamed. The fourth pick in the
1994 draft, he played in all 16 games that season, then became a
full-time starter the next year and had a career-high 11 sacks.
The '96 season was capped by trips to the Super Bowl and the Pro
Bowl. But the past two years were marred by injury, and McGinest
entered this season with this question hanging over him: Will
this be the year he plays to his full potential, the year he
shakes free of the dogs at last?

"He never reads anything written about him, but I do, and it
hurts," says McGinest's mother, Joyce. "It kills him to sit out
injured, but [the media and the fans] say he's not a competitor
or won't play hurt. That just drives me crazy. Believe me, if he
could play hurt, he would." Among the articles Joyce read was a
column by The Providence Journal's Jim Donaldson, who questioned
Willie's value to the Patriots before the '98 season. "Look,
Willie--here's the deal: The Pats gave you a five-year contract
worth $25 million. You're not worth it," wrote Donaldson.
"Obviously, your agent is a lot better at what he does than you
are at what you do."

After racking up 25 sacks in his first three seasons, McGinest
missed five games in '97 with injuries and finished with just
two sacks. His reward: the five-year deal at $5 million per, the
going rate at the time for an accomplished pass rusher. "If you
don't have a significant pass rusher, an offense can do anything
to you," says coach Pete Carroll. "That's why they get paid the
kind of money they do. They're special."

Still, the resentment spread among New England fans last season
when McGinest missed seven games with a nagging groin injury.
Talk-show callers and Foxboro Stadium hecklers pelted McGinest
with insults. "It was frustrating for him," says Joyce. "Even
though he didn't read the newspapers, he knew what people were
saying. He wanted to go out there and show them."

It didn't help matters when, with McGinest watching from the
sideline in street clothes, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe
broke the index finger on his passing hand and then made three
more starts before calling it a season. If Drew could play hurt,
fans wondered out loud, why not Willie? "I tried to play through
it last year, I really tried," says McGinest, who played at USC.
"I tore my groin and then [had a painkilling injection before a
game against Buffalo] and went out and tore it again. Then I did
another dumb thing: I shot it up before the Pittsburgh game and
ripped it again. Finally I said, It's not worth it. I'm young, I
need my body, this will heal. One year is not going to make or
break me."

McGinest says his critics don't realize he relies on speed,
agility and an ability to cut sharply and change directions. "If
I don't have my legs, I'm useless," he says. "I'm 255 pounds
going against 330-pounders. I've got to be able to move and cut
and juke. If not, I'm dead."

The once-embattled Carroll, who needed a healthy pass rusher more
than anyone, shakes his head at those who questioned McGinest's
ability to play with pain. "You don't suck it up with a hamstring
or a groin," says Carroll. "You suck it up with a bruised
shoulder or cracked ribs maybe. This had nothing to do with
toughness or will or heart. That's ridiculous. If you can't run,
you can't run."

When McGinest is moving at full speed, he is among the best pass
rushers in the game and the Patriots are a threat in the AFC
East. Last year, with McGinest hobbling, New England ranked 25th
in the NFL in pass defense, despite a secondary that featured two
Pro Bowl players, cornerback Ty Law and strong safety Lawyer
Milloy. Carroll calls McGinest "a difference maker--one of a small
percentage of guys in this league who change games." Milloy says
the first thing he does when he enters the Patriots' locker room
before a game is check for McGinest and make sure he's healthy
and ready to play.

In the off-season McGinest took steps to prevent his chronic
groin ailment from spoiling another season. He visited Dr. Alex
McKechnie, a specialist from Vancouver who has worked with
Shaquille O'Neal, in an effort to strengthen the area around
McGinest's groin. He had minor surgery to loosen a muscle that
had been a problem.

New England fans are watching McGinest like a Pick Six ticket
holder who has just seen his first four selections come up
winners. In the Patriots' come-from-behind 30-28 road win over
the New York Jets in the season opener, he hit every Jets
quarterback but Joe Namath. Chasing down three passers, McGinest
had two sacks, four tackles, a fumble recovery for a touchdown
and countless pressures. Three days later he was named AFC
Defensive Player of the Week. "He looked even better on film,"
says Carroll. At home against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2,
the Patriots pulled off another stunning comeback, wiping out a
three-touchdown, third-quarter deficit to beat a much-improved
Colts team 31-28. McGinest contributed seven tackles and tipped
one Peyton Manning pass in that one.

During a 16-14 win over the New York Giants on Sept. 26,
McGinest had four tackles, and on Sunday he got his third sack
of the season in a 19-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. While
jumping to a 4-0 start, New England has lived not only a charmed
life but also a dangerous one. Against the Colts, the Patriots
were penalized 15 times. New England spotted the Browns an early
7-0 lead and overcame a pair of first-half fumbles by wideout
Terry Glenn, who finished with a career-high 13 catches for 214
yards and a touchdown.

"There's just something about this team," says McGinest. "We
never feel like we're out of a game. Sometimes it's
nerve-racking, but we'll take a game like [the one against the
Colts] and learn from it. That taught us a lesson."

McGinest is ready to bull-rush anyone who suggests that he's out
to prove something this season. "I don't have to prove s--- to
nobody," he says. "I went to the Pro Bowl. I've been a
high-profile guy. Anytime I'm not on the field, [my detractors
are] going to come after me. That's just the way it is."

McGinest, never one to spend much time with the media, is saying
even less than usual this season. His new motto, he says, is
Silent but violent, and he plans to pass out T-shirts with the
slogan to his fellow defensive linemen. He loves the fact that
many in the press picked the Pats, who went 9-7 last year and
lost in the first round of the playoffs, to finish fourth or
fifth in the division. "Last year we had 11 starters hurt and
still went to the playoffs," says McGinest. "It's a different
fight now. We have all our guns, and we're not afraid of anyone."

It's been a long time since Little Willie has been afraid of
anyone--unless you count Big Willie. The younger McGinest grew up
on the west side of Long Beach and watched as many of his friends
took a wrong turn into the world of violence. "I'm not going to
sit here and tell you a million stories about friends doing drugs
and getting shot," he says. "But believe me, I could."

McGinest, who is single, still returns to Long Beach in the
off-season and hangs with the same friends in the same places.
After he struck it rich in the NFL, his parents tore down the
house he grew up in and rebuilt on the same lot. He keeps a
bedroom in his parents' new house with an old poster on his
wall: himself dunking a basketball in high school. Little Willie
owns a Baskin-Robbins and a sandwich shop near his family's
home; Big Willie manages both stores.

As for the Dobermans, one was run over by a car years ago and
the other grew old and died. Apparently, their work in this life
was complete. "They only actually dragged Willie once," says Big
Willie. "I don't think he ever quit after that."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Zeroing in McGinest needs only 2 1/2 more sacks this year to match his takedown total of the last two seasons combined. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Father knows best Big Willie used some unusual training early on to make sure his son maintained a dogged determination.

"I don't have to prove s--- to nobody," McGinest says. "I went
to the Pro Bowl. I've been a high-profile guy."