TAMPA, Fla. – Long before Mike Vrabel strolled the sidelines as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, he was a successful NFL player.
Vrabel made a name for himself as a versatile linebacker.
Until he got a chance to catch passes, that is.
Vrabel caught touchdown passes in two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, and leading up to Super Bowl LV, those around Vrabel back then said he relished the opportunities. He had 12 catches in his playing career, all for touchdowns.
"I just remember it starting in practice as something he wanted to do, and he was begging the coaches to put him in and let him be the tight end," former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, Vrabel's teammate, said on Friday. "He was talking about how great his hands were, and he was such a good catcher. He didn't care about the blocking aspect of it when we wanted to run the ball, but when we had our specialty pass plays …
"We didn't know he was going to become the guy who had all these touchdowns ... in the playoffs and Super Bowls, but it worked out. He was definitely reliable, and he made the big plays in the big games. So, we couldn't mess with him after that. He proved his point."
Vrabel caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers, making him the first defensive player to score a Super Bowl touchdown on offense since William "Refrigerator" Perry did so for the Chicago Bears against the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
In Super Bowl XXXIX, Vrabel caught a two-yard touchdown pass against the Eagles. The reception made him one of 17 players to catch two or more touchdown passes in Super Bowls.
Former Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, who later signed Vrabel to the Chiefs when he was named GM in Kansas City, shared a secret while on Friday as he appeared on an NFL Network media availability leading up to Super Bowl LV.
"I couldn't say anything then, but I can say it now – (Vrabel) tried working (the pass catching) into his contract," Pioli said with a smile. "He wanted more money, but that was Vrabel. He also didn't like the fact that our quarterback was a Michigan guy and getting way too much attention – he had to bring Ohio State back into the limelight.
"… Once he got a little taste of (catching passes) in practice he wanted it in the game. And once he got one in the game, it was like all the time. And then he tried to put it in his contract negotiations, on how many touchdown catches he had. (He'd say), 'Didn't I have an incentive for that?"
Vrabel's accomplishments as a player from with the Patriots included three Super Bowl wins (2001, 2003 and 2004), one Pro Bowl selection (2007) and an All-Pro honor (2007). He appeared in 206 NFL games and totaled 57 sacks, 496 tackles, 11 interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 20 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries. Vrabel also played for the Steelers and Chiefs in his career, which spanned from 1997-2010.
This week, Vrabel was listed at No.44 on USA Today's list of the 55 Greatest Super Bowl players in NFL history.
"A consummate Patriot, he played in four Super Bowls and wound up with three rings," USA Today said. "He also racked up 16 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble ... and two TDs on two receptions while lining up as a tight end in goal-line packages. Not bad."
Brady, now quarterback of the Buccaneers, remembers.
"Mike, what did he have -- 12 touchdowns, 12 receptions?," Brady told TennesseeTitans.com the week of Super Bowl LII. "He was actually very good down in that area. Mike had a great first step. He could kind of slide his way through the line of scrimmage and he had great hands. I loved throwing it to him down there.
"We've had some good goal line receivers but I don't think anyone will have that kind of stat-line again."