Football journey: Jeff Tarpinian

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Jeff Tarpinian on the field with special teams units against the Cowboys.FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There always seems to be one surprise player in Patriots training camp, a rookie free agent who emerges to make the final roster.

Linebacker Jeff Tarpinian kept the streak going this year.

The 24-year-old Tarpinian not only made the 53-man roster, but he’s contributing on the 46-man game-day roster. His five special teams tackles, a total accumulated over five games, rank tied for third on the club.

Tarpinian was born in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to Houston when he was 5 years old, before returning to Omaha entering his eighth-grade year. At Millard North High School in Omaha, Tarpinian was an option quarterback, leading the team to the state title his senior season, when he was named Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year.

The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Tarpinian, who played in college at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, shared his football journey with ESPNBoston.com this week:

When he first started playing football: “Second grade. Down in Texas, they start young. It was full pads.”

Why he started playing: “Growing up, my mom was a big Nebraska fan, so we always watched Nebraska football. My older brother played, and it was something I liked and could tell I was going to get into at a young age.”

Memories of watching Nebraska football: “They were very good in the 90s. We’d sit down and watch as a family. I just loved the way they ran the ball and played defense.”

Big names at Nebraska at that time: “Tom Osborne, Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, Ahman Green … they had a lot of good defensive players as well.”

Growing up watching the NFL: “I didn’t follow much. I watched some Oilers games growing up in Houston before they took off and there wasn’t much going on after that. For me, it was following the guys you wanted to be like, which was the option quarterbacks. Once I started playing linebacker [in college], it was guys who played it too, like Chad Greenway at Iowa.”

Top memories at Millard North High: “Winning the state championship as a senior, because you’re playing with guys that are your best friends. To play in that big game, and win it with them, it was a lot of fun.”

What type of quarterback he was: “We threw it about once every other game. We ran the ball, straight option football. Eric Crouch went to high school there, and he ran the option. So when I was moving to Omaha I was like, ‘I want to go to that school’ because I knew I couldn’t throw, but I liked playing quarterback.”

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Tarpinian at work at Iowa.Why Iowa was the right college choice: “When I was a sophomore, there were about 9-10 guys who got Division I scholarships that were a few years older than me. A lot of them had different experiences, but the guys who seemed really excited to talk about where they went and what they were doing, and loved where they were playing, were the guys who went to Iowa. It was Seth Olsen and Adam Shada. They had really good things to say, then meeting Coach Ferentz and all the coaches there, they were great. It was a pretty easy choice once you got there and saw what type of place it was.”

Top memories at Iowa: “There are quite a few, because I met a lot of good friends there. Winning the Orange Bowl was a lot of fun, and we had that streak going where we were undefeated. Senior year, there were bumps and bruises, but we had good memories winning that last Bowl game.”

Starting his college career as a defensive back: “I had never played defense in high school. I started out as a safety, and I was about 200 pounds when I got there. I started putting on weight and toward the end of my freshman year they moved me to linebacker. We had a lot of good linebackers and I played a lot of special teams most of my career there. That was a lot of fun and helped me learn that aspect of the game. It was important to me, and to the team, and then I started [at linebacker] as a senior.”

What makes a good special teams player: “You have to be fast, furious and physical. You have to know what you’re doing and be fundamentally sound, but at the same time, be aggressive and fast to the ball.”

Expectations entering the NFL draft: “I didn’t really have any. I was just focusing on what I could control and focusing on what could help me improve as a player. Pro Day was important, because I knew that was my only shot; everything else was already on film. I wasn’t really disappointed not getting drafted. I just wanted an opportunity and whatever presented itself I was going for.”

Signing with the Patriots: “It was pretty crazy when the lockout ended, getting a lot of calls. Hearing from Coach Belichick and the other coaches, it made it pretty easy. All the coaches here are great.”

Making the final roster despite a training camp injury: “You really didn’t have time to think about not making the team; it wasn’t worth your time. You just had to work and try to get better. That’s what I did. I did my best, and anything that didn’t go well, I didn’t dwell on it or feel sorry for myself. They don’t really tell you if you’re on, and you’re not thinking like that either. Your mindset has to be that you never make the team, you’re always trying to get better.”

Role models: “My high school quarterback coach played at Iowa State, Todd Doxon, and he was a very good role model for me. He’s a pastor now. He’s somebody I always looked up to.”

Life as a Patriot: “It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work. You work hard during the week and it’s rewarding going out on Sunday and being able to play. It’s been a great experience so far. I’m learning from the other guys – how to study, how to prepare – and learning special teams and the defense.”

Impressions of New England: “I lived down south, in the midwest, and now out East. There are great people everywhere, I’ve enjoyed all my experiences. The Boston accents definitely stand out. That’s pretty funny.”

Summing up his football journey: “A lot of hard work and mental toughness. You learn a lot about life. It’s been a great experience the whole way through.”