By Hector Longo
FOXBORO - Stevan Ridley introduced himself to the New England football faithful this summer, tearing it up against Jacksonville and Tampa in a pair of preseason games.
"A couple hours after the Tampa game, I get a text from Stevan that read: 'It all started at The Pit,'" said David King, coach of the Trinity Day Episcopal School football team in Natchez, Miss. "That's our home field. For Stevan — a big-time athlete like that — to go out of his way and send that message. I think that shows what kind of person you've got there.
"I don't know too many NFL players who would do something like that. We don't get too many of them here. But I can assure you that Stevan is special."
Ridley, 22, has burst on to the scene as the present and future of what could be a dominant New England running game.
So far, he's pounding out 8.2 yards per carry. And last week in Oakland, the third-round pick out of Louisiana State dropped 97 yards on his 10 carries, including a jaw-dropping 33-yard TD that left Pats' fans lusting for more.
"He's got a lot of good elements to his style. He's got some quickness, he's got good vision, he's got some strength, can run through tackles. He's got a combination of skills," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "He showed a burst there last week against Oakland when he got through the line of scrimmage."
King, for one, is not surprised by anything Ridley does. The former "Saint" - who led his team to the 2006 Division 1A state championship by rushing for 337 yards in the title game - has made a career of silencing doubters.
At Trinity, he graduated in a class of about 20 students, playing football in the smallest division in the state, with just 15 players on the team.
SEC schools like LSU simply don't recruit that level. But Ridley's mom, Carolyn, wasn't thinking about football when she first brought Stevan to Trinity in the second grade. Education was the only thing on her mind.
"I have always thought that's what drives Stevan," said King. "He's been doubted his whole life. He didn't play at a high enough level. And he wasn't fast enough to play in the SEC. And he wasn't this. And he wasn't that.
"He plays the game with a chip on his shoulder, because he's always been asked to prove people wrong."
Big man on campus
King saw Ridley's athleticism early. A three-sport standout, whom King said had the tools to be a professional baseball catcher, Stevan lived up to the family name.
"His dad, Leon, was one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Natchez," said King of the small town of about 16,000 people on the banks of the Mississippi River bordering Louisiana.
"And his older brother (Chad) was a heck of a football player, too."
Despite all his numbers, though, it appeared that Stevan was destined to go the small school route, just as Chad did as a receiver at Delta State and Central Missouri State.
"I had sent out over 100 highlight films without one bite," said King.
But Ridley finally caught a break his senior year when Shawn Slocum, then an assistant coach, stopped by Trinity on his regular recruiting rounds.
"I popped in Stevan's highlight tape, and his mouth just dropped," said King of the current Green Bay Packers' special teams coach. "Two days later, Stevan had an offer from Ole Miss. And then everybody wanted him."
Chasing the tiger
Speed might have been the biggest question surrounding the 6-foot, 225-pound Ridley at LSU.
The stop watches and all the silly talk were quickly set aside when practices began.
"Everybody is looking for that guy who runs a 4.3 (40-yard dash)," said King. "All I knew is that this guy was as fast with 50 pounds of football gear on his body as he was running naked."
At LSU, Ridley amassed a resume that might as well have been crafted with the Pats and coach Bill Belichick in mind.
Production against the best? Check. Ridley rushed for 1,147 yards and 15 TDs as a first-team all-SEC back in 2010.
Leadership and intangibles? Check. He was a captain as a junior.
And overcoming adversity? Well, the kid somehow recovered from a torn right ACL in just three months before his sophomore season. Add in the fact that Ridley earned a reputation at Baton Rouge as a beast on special teams, and you can see why Belichick made Ridley the second back he selected in the 2011 draft, right behind second-rounder Shane Vereen.
Away from the game
King called Ridley just a little kid, having fun in a man's body.
"I'm from Mississippi, so I'm a big hunter and fisherman," said Ridley, who at draft time noted his specialty was duck hunting. "When I'm not on the field, you'll find me in the woods or something like that. I'm pretty much a country boy at heart."
Ridley remembers his roots very well.
"Twice, when he was at LSU, we were playing in the state championship game, which we play on the day after Thanksgiving," said King. "We schedule a walkthrough on Thanksgiving night. And both times, Stevan drove over from Baton Rouge (about 2 hours) away just to give the kids a pregame speech about the game they were going to play in."
Rushing to a bright future
Speed, or a lack thereof, hasn't been an issue with the Pats for Ridley, who was originally thought of as a bruising between-the-tackles runner.
Ridley is big enough to pound it, but his burst at the point of attack is clear to the naked eye.
"He can do a number of different things - break tackles, cut back, make guys miss, find the hole, he ran outside, ran inside, caught the ball," said Belichick. "I don't think it's really a question of overall ability; it's a question of consistency. A lot of things can go on in a play and just being able to do all those things right and make the right decisions, that type of thing. He has running skill."