Following an impressive junior season in 1991 for the Warriors during which he racked up 70 tackles and four sacks as an inside linebacker, Vrabel missed the first three games of his senior year with a stress fracture in his back, an injury that occurred sometime during the summer.
There was even a point during the season at which he was unsure he would ever be able to play football again. But after consultation with several doctors, he was told his back would heal normally and he would be able to return to the gridiron.
He was fitted with a back brace at the Cleveland Clinic and he wore it throughout the season, but only in practice.
"The brace covered my entire back from my underarms to my hips," Vrabel said. "There was no way I could have been effective in games while wearing it, so I only wore it in practice."
Despite missing those first few games and playing with the bad back, Vrabel showed enough talent to warrant mention on several prep All-America teams. After showing signs early in the recruiting process that he favored Michigan, the 6-5, 250-pounder eventually signed with the Buckeyes over the Wolverines, Penn State, UCLA and Notre Dame. After that, it was simply a case of piling up tackles for loss by the bucket loads.
Born Aug. 14, 1975, in Akron, Vrabel eventually teamed with Matt Finkes to give Ohio State one of the most potent one-two defensive punches in college football history. Together, the duo recorded an amazing 125 tackles for loss during their careers to go along with 61 sacks.
Vrabel began his OSU career in 1993, seeing only limited action as a freshman behind defensive end Jason Simmons, who finished his career as the school record-holder in TFLs and sacks. After Simmons graduated, however, Vrabel took a stranglehold on the starting end position and began to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
He was a three-year starter from 1994-96 and got better every year. As a junior, Vrabel established new single-season marks with 26 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The TFL number still stands as an OSU record and the sacks total stood until broken last season by Vernon Gholston, who recorded 14.
By the time Vrabel completed his college career, he had set more than a half-dozen new school defensive records including most career tackles for loss (66) and most sacks (36). Finkes ranks second on the all-time TFL list with 59 while Simmons is still second in sacks with 27½.
In the 11 seasons since he graduated, the closest anyone has come to Vrabel's records has been Will Smith, who wound up his OSU career with 45½ tackles for loss, and Gholston with his 22½ sacks.
Despite all of those gaudy stats, and the fact he was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and two-time All-American, Vrabel wasn't taken until the third round of the 1997 NFL draft, selected by Pittsburgh with the 91st overall pick. Worse yet, the Steelers seemingly didn't know what to do with him.
He played four seasons in Pittsburgh, never getting to start a single one of his 51 game appearances, and registering only 27 tackles and seven sacks.
But Vrabel got new life when he was traded to New England in 2001. Since that time, he has been one of the anchors of a defense that has led the Patriots to victories in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX.
And he seems to be getting better with age. As New England rolled through the 2007 regular season, Vrabel registered a career-high 12½ sacks and matched a career-best by forcing four fumbles. He now has 51 sacks for his career as well as 542 tackles and 10 interceptions.
In addition to his defensive prowess, he has become somewhat of a pass-catching legend. Lining up in the backfield in goal-line situations, Vrabel has eight career pass receptions in the regular season – all for touchdowns. He has also caught two more TD passes in the postseason – one each in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX.
Vrabel is married to former Ohio State volleyball player Jen Boleyn, and they have two sons – Tyler and Carter. In 2006, the Vrabels made a $75,000 donation to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center renovation fund.
"We were excited to make this gift to the university," Vrabel said. "Ohio State has had a great impact on the lives of my wife and me. The more we talked about it, the more obvious it became the right thing to do."
Yesterday: No. 36 Mike Nugent
Tomorrow: No. 34