Tucked under Ty Law's arm as he made his way off the field after the 1999 NFL Pro Bowl in Honolulu was the football he intercepted early in the third quarter. Law, a Patriots corner-back, swiped a pass from Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham to Packers wideout Antonio Freeman and sailed 67 yards down the sideline for the touchdown that helped secure a 23-10 win for the AFC all-stars. As co-MVP of the Pro Bowl, Law was swamped after the game with autograph and photo requests, including one from his idol, Cowboys comer Deion Sanders, who pointed to Law as the picture was being snapped and yelled, "This man is the new breed and the leader of the next generation of great NFL cornerbacks!"
Law was still buzzing from that moment when he returned to his home in Franklin, Mass., and placed the ball, labeled simply PRO BOWL MVP, on the redbrick mantel above the fireplace in his den. Shortly after he was taken with the 23rd pick in the 1995 draft out of Michigan, Law decided he would keep and display the footballs from every significant interception he made in the NFL. The problem is that since he led the league with nine interceptions in 1998, Law's mantel is so crowded with leather keepsakes that he has begun stacking the footballs like firewood on the carpet in front of the hearth. The collection, which includes balls picked from Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Steve Young, is almost waist high. It's protected on either side by life-sized ceramic rottweilers.
"Ty had what can only be described as an extraordinary year," says Patriots coach Pete Carroll. "It was as dominant a season at cornerback as I have ever seen in this league—and I have seen some great ones."
In 1998 Law became the first Patriot to lead the league in interceptions. His total of nine tied him with four others for the second-highest number of picks in the NFL in this decade ( Chicago's Mark Carrier had 10 in 1990); he did this while playing behind an anemic pass rush that finished 23rd in the league in sacks. He's been beaten for a touchdown only three times in his career. The first time was in 1995 by Saints wide receiver Quinn Early, and the second time was by the Dolphins' Oronde Gadsden during a 1998 regular-season game at New England. The most recent—and most painful—was by Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith for the game-winning score in an AFC wildcard game last season. Nevertheless, Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was so impressed by Law's play that after the all-star game he sent Law his helmet with the inscription TO TY, SAME TIME, SAME PLACE, NEXT YEAR, JIMMY SMITH.
"When Deion leaves this game, I want to be the measuring stick at cornerback," says Law. "But I want to be known as a more complete corner man Deion. Five years after I finish this game, I want to be walking around the Hall of Fame with that yellow jacket on. I've been overlooked so much during my life, I want the attention."
Law grew up in the mill town and football hotbed of Aliquippa, Pa., near Pittsburgh, where as a nine-year-old he ran right out of his shoes during a Pop Warner championship game and finished a 65-yard touchdown run in his stocking feet. When he was 13, his mother, Diane, began an eight-year battle with cocaine. Ty's father, Larry Jeter, had not been around much (although the two are close today), so Ray Law, Ty's grandfather and guardian, took on a larger role helping to raise his grandson.
Ty was a two-way star at Aliquippa, playing tailback, wide receiver and cornerback. He committed to Georgia Tech but then switched to Michigan so he could be closer to his grandfather, who is now 74 and retired from his job as a supervisor in a steel mill, and keep an eye on his mom. On his first day of practice he picked off four passes. He went on to become the first true freshman to start at cornerback for Michigan since freshmen became eligible in 1972. In a win over Ohio State during his sophomore season, Law pirated two passes, one at the five-yard line, the other in the end zone, in what Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr calls "the best game any corner has ever had at Michigan." By the time he was a junior, he was a unanimous All-Big Ten corner.
Many times at Michigan, Law would attend practice, hit the team's study tables, then jump into his rust-colored '86 Oldsmobile Sierra with 80,000 miles on the odometer and drive the 220 miles home to deal with family problems. Ty would track down Diane and try to comfort Ray, then jump back in his car and drive through the night, arriving in Ann Arbor just in time for his morning classes.
"I had one tiling on my mind during those drives: my family," says Ty. "If I ever thought about football in my car, it was only about how making the NFL would allow me to get my mom clean and have my grandfather walk with his head up again." Law left school after his junior year and signed a five-year, $5.5 million deal with the Patriots.
Three seasons later, however, after failing to make the 1997 Pro Bowl, Law stood in his den and stared at the mantel he had promised to fill with footballs. The shelf was not crowded. A few days later he saw a television special in which track and field coach Bob Kersee was featured. Kersee, a St. Louis native, was training Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan. Before the special ended, Law was calling St. Louis, looking for Kersee.