You can see the arc of one man's life by the lights in the hills. There's a small glow in the hillocks of South Carolina, then a great burst behind the Appalachians where they peter out in central Georgia, and then this huge explosion in the low rises of southern Massachusetts, where the trees are incandescent now anyway, as they run toward the sea. � But how does this man find his way to this place: the opening night of the NFL season, with fireworks and championship banners and the Boston Pops and with rings being handed out that look like something Montezuma got out of his gumball machine? There's Toby Keith! There's Elton John! And, of course, there are the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions. And there is a football game, same as it ever was, at the center of a life that began in a place where the brightest lights were the ones at the stadium.
The lights don't shine just at night. They shine in the mind during the high-summer days of training camp and through all the tedious, grinding practices. The lights are the payoff. They are there on the day of the game, when the stadium is filling and the bands are playing. Make a life in this game, and, even in the middle of the day, the lights shine for you.
"I was talking with my kids about this the other day--I don't think you ever come home from practice thinking, Boy, that was a great football practice," muses Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has been more successful than anyone recently at understanding the people who play this game. "I played lacrosse, and I used to love practice because you got to play. Football is preparation, preparation, preparation, and then you get one chance to play. It's all about that: the game itself. It's a big social event in many places, and it's center stage."
Richard Seymour plays for Bill Belichick as a defensive lineman. He's 6'6" and weighs 310 pounds, and he has made the Pro Bowl twice in his three seasons with New England. He is broad-faced and soft-spoken, at 25 still youthful in his face and in his walk--he is not yet afflicted by that orthopedic list that eventually comes to almost everyone who plays in the NFL--and he is incontrovertibly of the American South. "I got a place here," he says of New England, "but I'm still a Southerner. I'm a country guy. You come up here, and it's, I don't know, a little bit ruder. Everyone's honking the horn. Everything's in a hurry. I'm more laid-back. When I have to do it, I can get rowdy."
He has been a star everywhere he's played: at Lower Richland High School in Hopkins, S.C., and at Georgia and now in New England, where he anchored the defense that edged the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl in Houston last February. Moreover, he's been a captain everywhere he's played--as a Diamond Hornet and as a Bulldog and as a Patriot. When Seymour's stats fell off a bit at the beginning of this season, Belichick, who hands out public compliments sparingly, leaped to his defense. "I feel like, if I have a problem, I can go to him, and if he has a problem, he can come to me," says Belichick. "He's one of the captains. He's part of the decision-making apparatus on this team."
"I always had talent, but I was always a work in progress," Seymour says. "The thing was, when I went out there against good competition, I was one of the guys people could count on."
So let's walk through the places where he built his r�sum�, the competitive c.v. of Richard Vershaun Manning Seymour, on one weekend as autumn begins the slow bend toward winter. One weekend: a high school game on Friday, a big college game on Saturday and an NFL matchup on Sunday in which Seymour and the Patriots will try to win their 19th consecutive game, more than any other team ever has won. Walk toward the lights in the hills and see what they illuminate.
FRIDAY, Oct. 8
Richland Northeast 34, Lower Richland 0
Corey Wright knows that they still talk about the old days here, when coach Mooney Player and the Diamond Hornets ran the table on the rest of the schools in and around Richland County, S.C. There was the undefeated 1965 team and another one two years later and the 1972 bunch that finished No. 1 in the state. Nobody called it Lower Richland High back then. Everybody called it the Creek. "Can't beat the Creek!" they'd chant, despite the fact that there is no creek anywhere near the place.