Cleveland linebacker Willie McGinest won three Super Bowl rings with New England but believes his 6-foot-5, 270-pound body can earn a fourth ring and help the Browns win their first.
BEREA, Ohio - Another brutal training camp practice behind him, Willie McGinest yanked off his helmet, shed his sweat-soaked jersey and shoulder pads and began walking slowly to the Browns' locker room in the sweltering heat.
Before leaving the field, he slid into the driver's seat of a golf cart. He wrapped his giant hands around the steering wheel, and although McGinest wasn't going anywhere, the linebacker looked as if he was about to take a ride.
He's about to - off into the sunset.
McGinest, who won three Super Bowl rings in 12 seasons with New England and holds the NFL record for postseason sacks, is preparing for his 15th and final season, one the 36-year-old believes can be special in Cleveland.
"This is a very talented team," McGinest said of the Browns, who went 10-6 but just missed making the AFC playoffs last season. "I try not to compare teams, but this team has a lot of talent and a lot of potential."
When the 2007 season ended, McGinest left Cleveland not knowing if he would return - or if he wanted to. He missed the first three games last season after back surgery and the wear and tear of 14 training camps, countless hours in the weight room, grueling training sessions and the pounding of 216 career games had taken its toll.
He was tired, mentally and physically.
"I had some doubts about coming back," he said. "I wanted to assess how I felt, what was going on with the team and how my body felt. I wanted to talk to my family."
While he was deciding on his future, the team made it clear to McGinest that it wanted him, and that the players needed him.
And by early April, after seeing the Browns' front office make another big splash in free agency and trades, McGinest decided he would give it one last shot.
"The organization is trying to make a run at something special here," he said. "The coaches were calling me constantly, telling me that I was a big part of what they wanted to do and they needed me to come back - not just for leadership but for playing my part on the field. I talked it over with my family and thought, 'Why not?' One more year, make it 15 and try to go out."
McGinest has been a leader from the moment he walked into the Browns' training facility in 2006, when the club signed him as a free agent. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder is as imposing as they get, the kind of player whose presence demands respect. Whatever Willie McGinest is doing, rookies, veterans and coaches take note.
"He has shown me a lot," tight end Steve Heiden said. "He reminded me of how Junior Seau [Heiden's former teammate] did things out in San Diego, a workmanship-type deal. He's always in the weight room and he's always around the facility. He's very good at what he does. We're all glad he came back. He definitely helps us out."
Make no mistake, McGinest can still play. As the starting left outside linebacker in Cleveland's 3-4 scheme, McGinest's duties are to contain any running plays to the edge, rush the passer and drop back into pass coverage. Because of his size - bigger than most linebackers, smaller than defensive lineman - and speed, he has helped transform his position.
While not as quick as he once was, McGinest makes up for any deficiencies with smarts.
"You know how long he has been in the league, but when you see him on the field, he doesn't play like that," third-year linebacker Leon Williams said. "He's still the first one off the ball. He knows all the calls. He still plays like a young guy out there."
Williams has idolized McGinest since he was little. And now that he's a teammate, Williams views McGinest as his role model on and off the field.
"I had his playing card as a kid," Williams said. "I remember watching Willie play when he was with New England. I didn't know what kind of linebacker he was or if he played in the 3-4 or what. But I knew he was a player. He had the [hair] braids back then. I was like, 'This is the guy I want to be like.'•"
And one day soon, McGinest may be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This weekend, his good friend, Andre Tippett, will finally be enshrined in Canton after getting enough votes in his 10th year of eligibility. Tippett, who spent his entire career with the Patriots, was a five-time Pro Bowl selection who finished with 100 sacks. McGinest will enter this season with 85, not including his 16 during the postseason.
When the time comes to debate McGinest's Hall of Fame credentials, perhaps the strongest case for his election will be that he was arguably the Patriots' best defensive player during the club's stretch run of Super Bowl titles. Winning a fourth one with the Browns would probably cement his candidacy.
McGinest doesn't like to talk about his legacy, but he wants to leave a lasting imprint on the game.
"I look at it that we are all spokes on a wheel and we have to fine-tune ourselves to make it go around," he said. "If I can leave an impression on guys, it's definitely a compliment to me and I'm flattered by it.
"I try not to think about that stuff, though."
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