By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub


BOSTON (CBS) — In the layout of the New England Patriots home locker room, only an entrance to the team’s equipment area separates the daily personal space of Jonas Gray from that of Rob Gronkowski, who dresses just a few stalls to the left of Tom Brady.

Every day in such close proximity, they ready to go to work for a collective cause. One is a guy who had to grind away several years for several teams as an anything-but-overnight success to become a Sunday-evening sensation. The others are the most recognizable of Patriots, sharing residence both in New England and the constellation of stars in the greater NFL universe.

Similar arrangements exist all around the players’ Gillette Stadium domain. For instance, Darrelle Revis lockers near Devin McCourty, who lockers near Kyle Arrington. An all-everything next to an All-Pro next to someone who went “all-in” as a relative unknown on two other stops before his inclusion as a Patriot.

Every NFL roster has a similarly eclectic mix of high-round picks, high-price free agents and high-mileage journeymen who labor long and hard to make it in the league. In Foxborough, contributions from such a rich blend have once again lifted the Patriots into Super Bowl contention.

Look no further than their most recent win, which also happened to be their sixth straight and AFC-best eighth overall in 2014.

There was Brady connecting with Gronk for their 50th touchdown completion and the capper on a 42-20 rout of Indianapolis. And there was Brady as well, handing off 38 times to Gray, in just his fourth game on an active roster some three years since his last college appearance.

There were Revis and McCourty, deflecting and intercepting, respectively, a pass from Andrew Luck intended for Reggie Wayne. And there was a third defender, Arrington, entering the vicinity, closing in on the carom after passing off underneath coverage on Colt T.Y. Hilton to teammate Jamie Collins.

With all those opportunities, Gray generated one of the greatest rushing performances in team history. His four TDs are a regular-season franchise record, while Gray’s 201 yards are the third-most in Pats history. Only Tony Collins (212 vs. the Jets in 1983) and Jim Nance (208 vs. Oakland in 1966) gained more yards in a single game.

In letting Hilton continue crossing the field well in front of the McCourty theft, Arrington left Luck’s top target for one of only a handful of times all night. Hilton entered the contest with 56 catches, in need of only 63 receiving yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season. Shadowed much of the way by Arrington, he ended it with three receptions for 24 yards.

Gray’s determined running fits seamlessly into his personal narrative. Several weeks ago, on the verge of his NFL debut against the Jets, he spoke of writing his own story — a self-described “page turner.” On Monday, in a semi-circle of reporters, encasing Gray in his little corner of the locker room, he gave the super-condensed, ultra-abridged, Cliff-Notes version of it.

“Simply put, I had a pretty good senior year at Notre Dame,” Gray said of 2011. “I tore my ACL in my final senior [home] game [vs. Boston College] on Senior Day and rehabbed for an entire year [2012] with the Miami Dolphins.

“I was cut after camp, I went to the Baltimore Ravens practice squad for an entire year [2013] and now I’m here.”

Here, as in Foxborough. And there, at news stands and checkout lines just about everywhere; a football everyman suddenly gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Rather than reading about it, fullback James Develin was part of Gray’s latest chapter.

“Jonas, he’s had a tough road to the NFL, with a couple of injuries in college and [being] off and on practice squads and IR. I’m really happy for him,” said Develin, whose ascension from the Ivy League to NFL and conversion from defensive end to fullback also required a road arduously traveled. “I’m really relieved that he’s finally got the opportunity, and now he’s seizing it.”

At the same time, Develin made sure to help keep his teammate grounded by confirming word of Gray’s one-time collegiate foray into funny business. While at Notre Dame, Gray tried stand-up comedy at an off-campus bar in 2011.

To think, the newest NBC prime-time star once opened at the mic for “Screech” (a.k.a. Dustin Diamond) of television’s “Saved by the Bell.” Only in the NFL.

Like Gray, Arrington has also gone on stage before. Armed with his own dry sense of humor, Arrington was in school plays and considers pursuing an acting career in his post-football life.

And like Gray, along with Develin, he once performed in the NFL equivalent of Off-Broadway. All three spent time on multiple practice squads, including New England’s, role-playing opponents while auditioning for a chance to shine before Sunday audiences.

Gray did it for Baltimore a year ago and the Patriots the first month and a half of this season. Develin did it in Cincinnati (2010-11), before joining New England’s practice squad in 2012. Arrington did it for three practice squads in all, with Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and New England in 2008-09.

Each used those opportunities to overcome shortcomings that kept him off an active NFL roster coming out of college.

“I think that when you look at the National Football League and you look at the skill level of the players coming into the league from college, that there’s really a gap,” says Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “The amount of development that rookie players make from – or I’d say that NFL players make – from where they were in college to where they are in the NFL, usually by that second, third, fourth year, you know it’s very, very significant.

“There are some players that come in and roster in their first year and are able to do a little bit. Generally speaking, there aren’t a lot of real big impact rookies in the league. There are a few guys that play, but overall the impact guys (are) a relatively small group every year.”

Meanwhile, many such as the aforementioned three, as well as Patriots like linemen Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, need more time to bridge the college-pro gap.

“Sometimes it’s their physical maturity in the weight room, sometimes it’s their skill set, particularly as it relates to the passing game in the NFL,” said Belichick, citing obstacles between would-be pros and the NFL. “Sometimes it’s just experience of just seeing things and reacting to them quicker and be able to play faster and play more aggressively.

“I think that’s, again, just indicative of the level of development that we need in this league. As we’ve talked about, the development opportunities for players, especially young players, are somewhat limited based on everything. That process now might be a little more lengthy than it was maybe when I was coaching with the Giants in the ‘80s for example.”

Back then, before collective bargaining between the league and the players’ union shortened training camps and significantly reduced practice time, young players earned hundreds of more reps to improve and prove themselves.

Today, many have gone from where they were to where they are by seizing those extra opportunities on units originally called taxi squads.

“There’s a ton of great experience that can come from being on the practice squad, because really you’re going through every week like you’re going to play on Sunday. But you just don’t suit up,” says Develin, who also developed in the now defunct United Football League. “Just learning how to be a pro, learning to prepare and how to practice well and really getting some of that toughness out there on the practice field when you’re going against the guys who are playing on Sunday. And just kind of realizing that you are in the NFL and discovering that you’re worthy.”

Gray benefited from all of the above — especially from the toughness aspect — while simulating Baltimore’s upcoming opponents.

“I think going against the Ravens starting defense every single day definitely made me tougher,” he said in an August conversation. “Haloti [Ngata] and the rest of those guys, they never gave me a break. I remember one time the defensive line coach asked Haloti if he had a problem with me, because he would just go hard against me every day. I think that prepared me mentally to be tough and to be physical all the time.”

And the time required to last an entire NFL season is far more demanding than in college. As a pro, football is no longer an extracurricular activity. It’s a job, a lifestyle even. Thus, the game demands more both mentally and physically — over a much longer period.

“The 16-game-plus [schedule] of an NFL season is definitely different from a lot guys’ college careers,” said Develin, whose Brown schedule annually included 10 dates, as opposed to twice that amount in the pre- and regular seasons of the NFL. “Being on the practice squad, day in and day out on the grind, that’s a very good experience as well.”

It’s also like an internship alongside those you aspire to join. In Arrington’s instance, he soaked up what he could while apprenticing with a seasoned Eagles’ secondary.

“When I started with Philadelphia, I had tremendous veterans like Brian Dawkins, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard and Asante [Samuel],” Arrington recalled. “I was just a sponge.”

As a Patriot, of course, he is now one of the veterans at the back end of the defense, dispensing advice to young corners like rookie free agent Malcolm Butler and practice squader Dax Swanson.

It’s the way of the Patriots’ locker-room culture. Everyone earned his place. And nobody cares how anybody else got there.

“Here it doesn’t matter,” says McCourty, a team captain. “When I got here, I remember Stephen Neal was a 10-year veteran player who was a wrestler in college. I think this is one of the prime examples in the NFL of where you come from doesn’t matter. Our first-round picks are treated just like our undrafted players when you come here as a rookie, so it’s all about performance. I think when you base your team all about performance, it gives everyone an opportunity to come here and play and kind of define your own role.”

“Whether it be Jonas or myself or any of these guys here, we’re just really grateful for the opportunity that the Pats have given us,” Develin says. “We’re gonna just go out there and work hard every day and try to get better.”

So when given the chance, whether once or an additional 37 times, they contribute.

“You keep working hard, put yourself in a good position,” says Gray, “your number is called and you go out there and execute.”

Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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