FOXBORO -- Stevan Ridley gets it.
The Patriots running back entering his fourth NFL season out of LSU is not just another professional athlete promising to fix the errors of his ways. He has the humility, work ethic and perseverance to make it so. He doesn't blame weather, injuries or others. Listen to Ridley explain himself for a good 20 minutes, like I did Thursday, and you can't help but be impressed with how much perspective he has.
"Nobody is going to hand you anything. You're going to have to work every single thing you get," Ridley said Thursday after OTAs. "I'm just a country boy from the South, man. I enjoy getting hard work. If that's what it takes, that's what I'm going to do. I'll keep battling out every day."
No one in a Patriots uniform has seen more ups and downs over the last three seasons than the 25-year-old native of Natchez, Miss. He was drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Patriots as an explosive, game-breaking back. He had 15 touchdowns and 1,147 yards on 249 touches in his final season with the Bengal Tigers in 2010.
He was drafted one round after Shane Vereen in the same draft. While Vereen has had trouble staying on the field because of injuries in his first three seasons, it's Ridley's ball security -- or lack thereof -- that has kept him from reaching his full potential.
There were the fumbles at the end of the 2011 season and in the playoffs against Houston that earned him a seat on the bench for the AFC championship and Super Bowl. How did Ridley respond?
Ridley had his best game to date of his young career in a 34-13 win over the Titans in the 2012 opener, gaining 125 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown, while catching three passes for 27 yards. In Week 5, Ridley topped his Week 1 performance with 151 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Broncos. In his second year, Ridley proved himself to be a productive NFL back, racking up 1,263 total yards on 290 carries, while also scoring 12 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. His 82 carries that produced first downs marked the third-highest total in the league.
Ridley has always responded to adversity with production. That's a sure-fire way to get out of Bill Belichick's doghouse and why Belichick keeps going back to him.
"My focus, my focus on the small things," Ridley said Thursday when asked what he's looking to improve upon this season. "I think if I can do that I can become a better player for this team. I think when you lose focus on the small things, whether it's on the field, small assignments, whether it's carrying the football, running a route, a blitz pickup, those are things that cost you your playing time. Those are the things that cost you mistakes.
"So, you have to be zoned in, almost like you're going back to school again, but be zoned in, listen to every detail that the coach gives you and be on the same page with Brady out there. That helps our offense go."
In three NFL season, Ridley has gained 2,477 yards on 555 carries for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. Throw in 20 rushing touchdowns and you have a valuable run option to complement Tom Brady. Since Ridley joined the Patriots, only Rob Gronkowski (33) has reached the end zone more than him. But four fumbles lost in each of the last two seasons has planted the seed of doubt in the minds of the coaching staff and many fans. Last season began with the epic fumble in Buffalo. With the Patriots leading 10-0 and in complete control, Ridley inexplicably lost the ball without contact, leading to Da'Norris Searcy rambling 74 yards for a touchdown. The turnover gave the Bills new life, and the Patriots had to come from behind and win on a last-second field goal.
"All you can do is squeeze it high and tight," Ridley said. "I can't really sit on that too much. That was a lesson I had to go through. Hopefully I won't have to go through it again. But who knows? You never know the plan or what God has in store for you. A little bit of adversity never hurts anybody. I just have to go out there and be the player I am. At practice, I told one of the young guys that's one of the quickest ways to get off the field. You can ask me first. Putting the ball on the ground, no way. You take your mistakes, you learn from them and you grow, and you just keep on pushing."
It's one thing to be productive in the NFL. It's another to be dependable.
LeGarrette Blount is gone to Pittsburgh but Vereen and Brandon Bolden remain, along with a slew of rookies and first-year backs.
Even though we're more than a month from full training camp, Ridley is once again trying to prove to everyone that he should be the first option when the Patriots run the ball. Does he feel like he's still fighting for his job?
"I would say so," Ridley told me Thursday after the second week of OTAs concluded. "I look to my team captain. I look to Brady. Brady's arguably the best player in the league right now. I don't care what anybody says. If I had to start a team, there wouldn't be another quarterback I'd take over him. Brady comes in and he's so competitive. Regardless of where he is today, I don't forget where he came in. Everybody knows his story, how he started from the bottom.
"So, if that guy comes in here and he's that competitive and he works that hard every single day, why should that change for any of us? So, absolutely, I come in here and I fight for my job every day. I don't care who they bring in or the guys in the room. I'm going in there to compete. And I don't think anything is mine or that I deserve anything. I want to go out there and work for everything I get. And that's the way of the world."
Many athletes thank God and their faith for the chance to get paid to show off their skills on the field, playing a game they love. But with Ridley, he has repeatedly employed that faith to get him through the tough times of self-doubt and outside criticism.
"It's really more about God's time than my time," he said. "Everybody has what they think is the best for them. Everybody has a preset in their minds. I think as a Christian first, God has a plan for you. Whatever it may be, you just have to believe in that. Every day that you wake up and you're healthy and your family is OK, and you have friends around you and you have a team play to for, there are so many people that would give their right arm and right leg to have that opportunity.
"So, I have to be thankful. Even though you mess up and you'll be down some days, you just come back to work the next day because yesterday is behind you. All you can do is go forth from that point. So, that's really what I learned through it all. I'm just thankful."
Ridley was happy to be in the pouring rain this week at Gillette. He looks at it as an opportunity to prove to everyone he belongs.
"The one word is the grind," Ridley said. "These are the days that, I don't care what player you are, nobody really likes these days. It's hard work and there's no football being played for weeks right now. So, that's the beauty of the season. You work hard during the week but you know you get the payoff at the end of the week and get to play a game and get to knock around somebody on the opposite team.
"Right now, it's just a bunch of days ahead of us. Every single day you have to come in here, and as a player, never be satisfied. You have to stress yourself to go in there and make sure you're better than the day you that you were before. You have to eat right. You have to put the right things in your body. You have to come in here and train hard. The coaches are never satisfied right now. Your team is still trying to mold and become a high-caliber team because this is the National Football League."
Another reason to believe in Ridley is that he genuinely is his worst critic, not the coaches, not the fans calling for his benching at the moment a ball he was carrying hits the ground, not his teammates. Ridley knows when he's done wrong and he's always proven that he possesses the one skill essential in the NFL -- grinding.
"I think how I've gotten here is you can't be satisfied," he said. "My dad always tells me that you're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as they say you are. You just have to keep grinding, man. That's how I live my life, just to come in here and work hard every single day.
"Right now, there's no pads on, nobody is hitting each other. The best thing you can do right now is go out there and try to make sure everything is perfect. There's no contact. You should be running your routes perfectly, you should be catching every ball that's thrown to you. You shouldn't be dropping anything on the ground, rain, sleet, whatever is out there, whatever the conditions are, you have to find a way to fight through that. This is the time that you really get to zone in on that and make sure you're in the best shape of your life, going into the season. Right now, this is when your body is the healthiest. You're not taking any nicks, you're not taking any beatings, you're just out there playing football. Hopefully, you can stay healthy through this time so you can get into the season and press to be a good player for this season and benefit this football team."
Ridley is someone who grew up in the deep South, someone who had parents that were supportive and instilled work ethic at a young age. Maybe that's why going to work in the pouring rain felt so natural to him.
"I've always had that attitude," said Ridley, who then referred to the activities of his youth. "You start working at a young age and doing real manual labor, I think it put things in perspective of what's really hard work. So, it's a blessing to be here. It's a blessing to be playing ball for a job that I can support my family and help out. It's not something I'm going to let slip away as something I'm going to get complacent about. To think for one minute that I deserve something or they owe it to me, I have to come in here and work. I don't mind that. It's all good with me."