- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib has turned in a stellar 2013 season with a heavy heart. One of the biggest role models in his life, his father Theodore, died the morning of Sept. 12.
That night, in a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets, Talib played one of the best games of his six-year NFL career.
"He was out there with me," Talib said of the game in which he had two interceptions and a forced fumble. "That's my No. 1 role model."
Theodore Talib had been ailing with lung disease (sarcoidosis) for the past three years. When Aqib was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the 2008 draft, he had Theodore, who had been living in Trenton, N.J., move in with him.
In one respect, it gave father and son important time together. But it was also tough for the son to see the man he admired most in failing health.
Talib, who grew up in the projects of Cleveland, explained that the words "family first" tattooed near his right hand are there for his dad.
"He did the best job you can do in terms of taking care of your family. He and my mom [Okolo] were separated since I was born, and he still took care of her. He just showed me how to be a dad, a family man, how to handle your business as a man."
Some of Talib's business that has found its way into the headlines since he entered the NFL is not the flattering type. He's had run-ins with the law that are well documented.
There have been no such issues since he was traded to the Patriots in November of 2012 and now Talib, after declining several requests over the last year, shares his "football journey":
When he first started playing football: "I first started playing organized football in eighth grade. I moved to Texas in '99 and that was my first time putting on shoulder pads and a helmet."
Why he moved to Texas: "I had lived in Cleveland and Trenton, New Jersey. My dad was in Trenton, so I used to be in school in Cleveland and in Trenton for the summer. And then for the second half -- in fourth, fifth, sixth grade -- it was Trenton for school and Cleveland for the summer. So I was kind of back and forth. Then, after seventh grade, that summer, my mom moved from Cleveland to Texas. My brother was in 11th grade and he had heard about all that Texas [high school] football. He had dreams of going to the NFL too, so he was like, 'I want to play my last two years in Texas.'"
His first taste of organized football: "We had played in Cleveland on the street, but it wasn't the thing to do, putting on pads. We played basketball and baseball. There just wasn't anyone playing [organized] football."
Top memories of playing football at Richardson Berkner High School: "In 11th grade, I think we went 7-3 and tied for third [place] but didn't make the playoffs. In 12th grade, we went 8-2, made the playoffs, and that was the first time the team went to the playoffs in 30 or 40 years, or something like that. That's probably the best memory, making that playoff."
Enrolling at University of Kansas: "[Head coach] Mark Mangino showed me the most interest out of anybody who was recruiting me. He came down, ate my mother's breakfast, and then put it in a way, 'We're Kansas; we might not be Texas -- but you're in the Big 12 and you get to play against Texas, you get to play against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, all those guys, and show what you got.' He kind of sold it."
Top memories of playing football at Kansas: "Definitely that Orange Bowl year. We got to 11-0 before we lost to Missouri in the rivalry game. Then we won the Orange Bowl game and I was the Orange Bowl MVP."
Deciding to enter the draft after his junior season: "A lot of people were talking about it after my sophomore year and [Coach] Mangino was like 'If you play one more year here, and leave after your junior year, you'll be my first first-rounder.' We had kind of planned it. He put me on offense, let me score some touchdowns, returns. After the Orange Bowl, I was really going after that."
Selected in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Buccaneers (20th overall): "You kind of followed the draft boards while you were in college and I kind of had an idea that if I went to the combine and ran fast, I had a chance of going in the first round. So I went there and ran 4.44 and had a good idea I was going first round. There were a lot of pre-draft interviews and a lot of those coaches told me 'If you're at this spot, we're going to take you.' So it was just a matter of where I was going to go."
Summing up his four-plus years with the Buccaneers: "I loved my team there, man. It was a real close group of guys and I had three years under Coach Raheem Morris and he's still one of my best friends to this day. It was a great experience when I was there, a great facility, and great weather. I bought my first house out there. I wouldn't change anything."
Getting traded to the Patriots in November of 2012: "I was surprised at first, because me and [Coach Greg] Schiano, I used to meet with him all the time. I was one of the leaders on the team. I thought we were on good terms. He kind of told me what the situation was, about the owners, whatever the situation was. I got traded and where else better to get traded than here? I was excited, man. It was like, 'Damn, I got traded?' But then my brother was like, 'You're going to the Patriots. You're going to the playoffs every year.' It was a lot of excitement -- I didn't want to get traded to anywhere but here."
Entering free agency this past offseason after his half-season with the Patriots: "I had a half-year to see how this organization was run. It's like an A1 business, from the coaches to the locker room. The players accepted me so fast. They're a close group of guys and it was kind of like our locker room in Tampa. I didn't want to go to a whole another locker room and meet more guys. You can't pass up an opportunity like this, to work for a company like this. I had no intentions on going anywhere else."
After signing a one-year deal, preparing to enter free agency again this upcoming offseason: "Just let it play out; I kind of don't worry about it. We still have work to do here. Right now, I'm a Patriot and I go one day at a time."
His two biggest role models: "My dad had four kids and always kept a decent job, whether we were in the projects [or not]. He took care of his kids to the max and acted like everything was perfect. We knew it wasn't. We lived in the projects. He just did a great job as far as taking care of his kids, his whole family -- he has nine brothers and sisters. They'd call him for money like he was rich, but he was living in the projects. Then my brother, man. My brother [whom Talib calls 'Q'] kind of followed in his footsteps; he's all about his business. He showed me the ropes on how you get to the league. I didn't know about getting scholarships, going to the combine, keeping a certain GPA, but my brother was the brains of the operation. I'd say my dad and my brother, they kept me on the right foot. They are good men."
What he loves about football: "The competition. I love a guy lining up across from me and thinking he's going to beat me and me knowing that I'm not going to let that happen. That's the best thing about football -- there are 60-something guys going up against 60-something guys and no matter what we're going our hardest, trying to win. It's that competitive nature. In the locker room, you'll see us playing basketball with the trash can and it's competitive with that too. That's the main thing I love -- the competition."
Summing up his football journey: "It's like a movie, man. Somebody could write a book on it. From where we came from in Cleveland, that neighborhood, it was terrible. There are probably all abandoned houses there. It kind of still seems unreal to me."
The pride he takes in having come from such a tough background: "I don't take one minute for granted. I pray every morning. I pray every night. I thank God every morning and thank God every night for blessing me with what He blessed me with."