When Willie McGinest was a chubby 10-year-old tearing up his youth football league in Long Beach, Calif., his dad, Big Willie, taught him a lesson about the game: You quit, and you don't walk home—the dogs drag you. Now a defensive end and pass-rushing specialist for the New England Patriots, Little Willie still adheres to that rule. "My dad taught me that losing is like falling down and letting the dogs drag you," he says. "You have to get up and keep going, no matter what."
As a kid Little Willie was big and strong but carried too much baby fat. The father let his son eat as much as he wanted to—"because I grew up poor and never had enough to eat," says Big Willie—but would not allow him to get soft. Even at 10, Little Willie was expected to be tough, like his old man. "His mother showed him love," says Big Willie, who stands 6'2�" and weighs 250 pounds. "It was my job to make him a man."
So when Little Willie asked to go jogging with his dad, Big Willie brought him along with the family's two Dobermans and this warning: There would be no giving up, no quitting. "My father was in good shape, and I had trouble keeping up, but the dogs would stay right with him," says Little Willie, who now checks in at 6'5", 255. "Once, when he got tired of me lagging behind and complaining, he started running, and the dogs ran after him. Pretty soon I fell, and those dogs started to drag me. I knew if I didn't get up, they'd either keep dragging me or I'd get in trouble, so I jumped up and kept going even when I thought I couldn't. That taught me that I could do more than I thought I could."
In his first five-plus years in the NFL, McGinest has already accomplished more than he had dreamed. The fourth pick in the 1994 draft, he played in all 16 games that season, then became a full-time starter the next year and had a career-high 11 sacks. The '96 season was capped by trips to the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl. But the past two years were marred by injury, and McGinest entered this season with this question hanging over him: Will this be the year he plays to his full potential, the year he shakes free of the dogs at last?
"He never reads anything written about him, but I do, and it hurts," says McGinest's mother, Joyce. "It kills him to sit out injured, but [the media and the fans] say he's not a competitor or won't play hurt. That just drives me crazy. Believe me, if he could play hurt, he would." Among the articles Joyce read was a column by The Providence Journal's Jim Donaldson, who questioned Willie's value to the Patriots before the '98 season. "Look, Willie—here's the deal: The Pats gave you a five-year contract worth $25 million. You're not worth it," wrote Donaldson. "Obviously, your agent is a lot better at what he does than you are at what you do."
After racking up 25 sacks in his first three seasons, McGinest missed five games in '97 with injuries and finished with just two sacks. His reward: the five-year deal at $5 million per, the going rate at the time for an accomplished pass rusher. "If you don't have a significant pass rusher, an offense can do anything to you," says coach Pete Carroll. "That's why they get paid the kind of money they do. They're special."
Still, the resentment spread among New England fans last season when McGinest missed seven games with a nagging groin injury. Talk-show callers and Foxboro Stadium hecklers pelted McGinest with insults. "It was frustrating for him," says Joyce. "Even though he didn't read the newspapers, he knew what people were saying. He wanted to go out there and show them."
It didn't help matters when, with McGinest watching from the sideline in street clothes, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe broke the index finger on his passing hand and then made three more starts before calling it a season. If Drew could play hurt, fans wondered out loud, why not Willie? "I tried to play through it last year, I really tried," says McGinest, who played at USC. "I tore my groin and then [had a painkilling injection before a game against Buffalo] and went out and tore it again. Then I did another dumb thing: I shot it up before the Pittsburgh game and ripped it again. Finally I said, It's not worth it. I'm young, I need my body, this will heal. One year is not going to make or break me."
McGinest says his critics don't realize he relies on speed, agility and an ability to cut sharply and change directions. "If I don't have my legs, I'm useless," he says. "I'm 255 pounds going against 330-pounders. I've got to be able to move and cut and juke. If not, I'm dead."
The once-embattled Carroll, who needed a healthy pass rusher more than anyone, shakes his head at those who questioned McGinest's ability to play with pain. "You don't suck it up with a hamstring or a groin," says Carroll. "You suck it up with a bruised shoulder or cracked ribs maybe. This had nothing to do with toughness or will or heart. That's ridiculous. If you can't run, you can't run."