When McGinest is moving at full speed, he is among the best pass rushers in the game and the Patriots are a threat in the AFC East. Last year, with McGinest hobbling, New England ranked 25th in the NFL in pass defense, despite a secondary that featured two Pro Bowl players, cornerback Ty Law and strong safety Lawyer Milloy. Carroll calls McGinest "a difference maker—one of a small percentage of guys in this league who change games." Milloy says the first thing he does when he enters the Patriots' locker room before a game is check for McGinest and make sure he's healthy and ready to play.
In the off-season McGinest took steps to prevent his chronic groin ailment from spoiling another season. He visited Dr. Alex McKechnie, a specialist from Vancouver who has worked with Shaquille O'Neal, in an effort to strengthen the area around McGinest's groin. He had minor surgery to loosen a muscle that had been a problem.
New England fans are watching McGinest like a Pick Six ticket holder who has just seen his first four selections come up winners. In the Patriots' come-from-behind 30-28 road win over the New York Jets in the season opener, he hit every Jets quarterback but Joe Namath. Chasing down three passers, McGinest had two sacks, four tackles, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and countless pressures. Three days later he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. "He looked even better on film," says Carroll. At home against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, the Patriots pulled off another stunning comeback, wiping out a three-touchdown, third-quarter deficit to beat a much-improved Colts team 31-28. McGinest contributed seven tackles and tipped one Peyton Manning pass in that one.
During a 16-14 win over the New York Giants on Sept. 26, McGinest had four tackles, and on Sunday he got his third sack of the season in a 19-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. While jumping to a 4-0 start, New England has lived not only a charmed life but also a dangerous one. Against the Colts, the Patriots were penalized 15 times. New England spotted the Browns an early 7-0 lead and overcame a pair of first-half fumbles by wide-out Terry Glenn, who finished with a career-high 13 catches for 214 yards and a touchdown.
"There's just something about this team," says McGinest. "We never feel like we're out of a game. Sometimes it's nerve-racking, but we'll take a game like [the one against the Colts] and learn from it. That taught us a lesson."
McGinest is ready to bull-rush anyone who suggests that he's out to prove something this season. "I don't have to prove s—- to nobody," he says. "I went to the Pro Bowl. I've been a high-profile guy. Anytime I'm not on the field, [my detractors are] going to come after me. That's just the way it is."
McGinest, never one to spend much time with the media, is saying even less than usual this season. His new motto, he says, is Silent but violent, and he plans to pass out T-shirts with the slogan to his fellow defensive linemen. He loves the fact that many in the press picked the Pats, who went 9-7 last year and lost in the first round of the playoffs, to finish fourth or fifth in the division. "Last year we had 11 starters hurt and still went to the playoffs," says McGinest. "It's a different fight now. We have all our guns, and we're not afraid of anyone."
It's been a long time since Little Willie has been afraid of anyone—unless you count Big Willie. The younger McGinest grew up on the west side of Long Beach and watched as many of his friends took a wrong turn into the world of violence. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you a million stories about friends doing drugs and getting shot," he says. "But believe me, I could."
McGinest, who is single, still returns to Long Beach in the off-season and hangs with the same friends in the same places. After he struck it rich in the NFL, his parents tore down the house he grew up in and rebuilt on the same lot. He keeps a bedroom in his parents' new house with an old poster on his wall: himself dunking a basketball in high school. Little Willie owns a Baskin-Robbins and a sandwich shop near his family's home; Big Willie manages both stores.
As for the Dobermans, one was run over by a car years ago and the other grew old and died. Apparently, their work in this life was complete. "They only actually dragged Willie once," says Big Willie. "I don't think he ever quit after that."