Former Ohio State All-American Mike Vrabel knows he is playing with house money this week as he and the New England Patriots go for a third Super Bowl title in four years. The Patriots will meet NFC champion Philadelphia on Sunday on the game's biggest stage.
The 6-4, 261-pound linebacker is wrapping up his eighth NFL season and his fourth with the Patriots.
"Sometimes things fall in your lap," Vrabel said. "My friends call me Jelly Up because they say I always seem to land jelly side up. I'm just lucky to have this opportunity."
Vrabel was an All-American defensive end as a senior in 1996. He played on OSU's stellar teams from 1993-96 that won a pair of Big Ten titles. He was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 1997 NFL draft, but never made his mark with the Steelers in four seasons.
"The first four years you're in the league, you're scrambling to find out what's going on where the meeting is at," Vrabel said. "Once you become a veteran in this league, you get a sense for how things are done.
"I was just lucky to get here after Pittsburgh. I was lucky to have (Pats coach) Bill Belichick say, `You could come here and play for the Patriots.' It has certainly worked out and I am fortunate for that. You don't dream that you will play in the Super Bowl or with a quarterback like Tom Brady.
"I have two sons and if they could play like one guy, I hope its (Pats cornerback) Rodney Harrison. He plays with a lot of passion."
Vrabel became a mainstay with the Pats, playing alongside Harrison and star linebacker Tedy Bruschi. New England is threatening to become the NFL's latest dynasty if it can win the Super Bowl. Vrabel said the Pats' success is grounded in their respect for the game and immense preparation.
"You try to be professional and have respect for everybody," Vrabel said. "The preparation that we put in to play is amazing. People say we may win boring, but for what we do, I'll take it.
"We get that all the time – why don't other people do it like New England? But we know it works for us."
Vrabel will be wearing No. 50 for the Patriots on Sunday, so he sticks out as a sore thumb on the rare occasions when he goes in on offense and plays tight end in goal line situations. He has three career regular season catches with all going for touchdowns. He also caught a 1-yard touchdown in last year's Super Bowl win over Carolina.
"I was scared to death," Vrabel admitted about making a play like that in such a big game. "When you talk about playing tight end, I never thought that would be a possibility."
Vrabel has come up big in some of the Pats' biggest games. He pressured St. Louis' Kurt Warner to force an interception that Ty Law returned for a touchdown.
This year, Vrabel sacked Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and forced a key fumble in the team's playoff opening win. He then forced a fumble by Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis in the team's AFC championship game rout of his former team.
Off the field, Vrabel talks often of getting into coaching when his playing days are over. He is preparing for life after football, earning his degree in exercise science last summer – eight years after he left OSU. Vrabel missed the Patriots' trip to the White House and also was absent when the team received its championship rings from owner Robert Kraft while taking classes.
His last class was a biochemistry class: "I was in there with a bunch of nursing students,'' he said. "There were, like, 12 girls and me, which wasn't too bad, don't get me wrong. I didn't have to take a whole lot of notes.''
Vrabel was Ohio's top prospect when he came out of Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit in 1993. He admitted earlier this week he grew up following the Browns and actually harbored early resentment against Belichick, who got his head coaching start with Cleveland.
"I was a huge Browns fan growing up. I even threw the football side-armed and I wanted to be like Bernie (Kosar). I joked with Bill and said, `I couldn't stand you when you got rid of Bernie.' "