His high school teammates called him Deion, as in Deion Sanders, because of his explosive ability to pick off his opponents' passes. His coaches called him Leon, a moniker referring to a commercial that featured a football player who was "too cool" to follow coaches' instructions. When it came to football, Patriots defensive back Kyle Arrington had the skills of Deion but the attitude of Leon. He didn't like to tackle.
So much has changed since then.
Arrington finished the regular season tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He also finished second on the Patriots in tackles, totaling 88 (66 solo, 22 assisted), behind linebacker Jerod Mayo's 95 (58/37). In addition to leading the team in interceptions, he was tops in passes defended (13), ahead of Devin McCourty (12).
"I've seen that guy go from a practice squad guy to a nickel back guy to a starting corner and now he leads the league in interceptions," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork told CSNNE in late November. "I'm not surprised. I'm pretty sure he's not surprised, because I'm not surprised, and my teammates aren't surprised, because we put so much into this game."
Maybe he's not surprised, but the road to becoming one of New England's defensive leaders wasn't always smooth for the 25-year-old Maryland native.
Kyle Arrington started playing football almost by default. At 12 years old, he was a lanky, athletic basketball talent with aspirations of becoming an NBA player. He walked into the gym one night for a pickup game but couldn't find anyone. When he called a few friends to ask where they were, they told him they'd signed up for football. So Arrington asked his mother to enroll him as well. He was the youngest of four athletic children -- two boys, two girls -- and his older brother, also a gifted basketball player, hadn't tried football.
Arrington played on the JV football team for Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Md., for two years. During his junior year of high school, he dislocated his shoulder twice. Healthy for his senior year, he played well despite what Gwynn Park head coach Danny Hayes called an unorthodox style.
"[Kyle] just didn't have a good backpedaling stance and he always had his arms up front, like a froggish type of look," Hayes says. "That drove me nuts. But once he got three interceptions, I let him stand how he wanted to stand."
Hofstra University was the only Division I school to offer the 5-foot-10 cornerback a football scholarship.
Arrington admits that even after accepting the scholarship, he thought about pursuing basketball. "I didn't want to ruin my jump shot [with football]," he says, laughing. He considered playing for Hofstra's basketball team but chose to focus on football. He also ran track to work on his speed and agility.
The weight room is where he spent the majority of his time. Redskins DB Stephen Bowen played with Arrington at Hofstra for two years. "He was a freakish athlete -- I think he benched 225 pounds, like 15, 16 times as a freshman," Bowen says. "He was always in the weight room."
Arrington gained 15 pounds of muscle while at Hofstra. His teammates nicknamed him Herc because of his Hercules-esque physique. He was one of the quieter players, working hard but saying little. Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, also a Hofstra alum, often matched up against Arrington in practice.
"He's a guy that has all the measurables: He's fast, really strong, smart and he's got pretty good ball skills, as you've seen this year," Colston says.
As a sophomore, Arrington started seven of 10 games, totaling 21 tackles but no interceptions. His junior year, he played in 11 games, recording 48 tackles and grabbing his first collegiate interception. Prior to his senior year, Arrington's coaches told him that several scouts had asked about him.
"That's when I realized, 'Hey, I have a chance,' " Arrington says of the NFL. "So I put everything into it my last year." He played in all 11 games, finishing with 53 tackles and another interception.
After talking with several coaches and scouts, Arrington thought he'd be drafted somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds of the 2008 draft. But on draft day, his name wasn't called. He signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent, joining their practice squad. Philadelphia cut him eight days later. Arrington then signed with Tampa Bay on Sept. 17, 2008, joining the team's practice squad for the remainder of the season.
Arrington wasn't angry about not being drafted and immediately focused on becoming stronger as well as finding ways to showcase his athleticism on the practice field.
While he puts a lot of pressure on himself, Arrington says he's not much of a planner. If football didn't work out, he didn't have a Plan B.
"I always cross bridges when I get there -- football was in the forefront of my mind and what I wanted to do, so I put everything into it," Arrington says.
Entering his second year in Tampa, Arrington was cut by the Bucs on Sept. 5, but was re-signed the next day. Four days later, he made their 53-man roster and played the team's opening game, only to be waived again the next day.
Still, Arrington refused to give up football, signing with the Patriots practice squad on Sept. 21, 2009. He grew up a Redskins fan but had always admired Bill Belichick-coached teams. He jumped at the chance to learn from fellow corner Leigh Bodden and says he watched the play of former Patriot Asante Samuel as well as NFL players like Champ Bailey and Lito Sheppard.
In early November 2009, Cleveland tried to sign Arrington to its 53-man roster. Arrington's agent pointed out that while he realized how much his client liked playing for New England, a roster spot versus a practice squad was a no-brainer.
"I was a little distraught about leaving New England because I'd wanted to be a Patriot and a part of this team so badly," Arrington says. "So even though I had a better opportunity elsewhere, I kind of didn't want to leave."
Still, he agreed with his agent's logic. That night, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio called Arrington. Caserio asked the cornerback if he'd signed anything yet. Arrington said no. Caserio said the Patriots wanted to keep him -- and sign him to their 53-man roster.
"Besides first entering the league in Philly as an undrafted free agent, that was probably the happiest day of my life," Arrington says. He stayed in New England, playing in eight games that season and totaling 18 tackles.
After taking over for starting corner Darius Butler, Arrington had a breakout season in 2010. He started 14 games and his tackle total skyrocketed to 77. On Dec. 19, 2010, against Green Bay, Arrington grabbed his most famous interception to date, one that has recorded over 10,000 views on YouTube.
With the Packers leading 17-14 on third-and-3 early in the third quarter, Green Bay backup QB Matt Flynn called the play. Arrington, lined up against Packers WR James Jones, described what happened next.
"We were in a Cover 1, man-to-man. I had gotten beaten previously by [Greg] Jennings on an inside route in the first half, so I'm like, the next inside route they run, I'm going to jump it. Patrick [Chung] did a great job because he had his man running in the flats and he came down and ran between James [Jones] and I to make James hesitate just a second. So I'm thinking inside, jump it. Once Flynn threw it, it felt like slow motion. I'm thinking, 'Do not drop the ball,' I'm on national TV. Once I caught it, all I thought about was to keep my legs moving and go from there. Fortunately I was able to get into the end zone. That was definitely a good feeling."
As he ran 36 yards toward the end zone, Arrington broke through four tacklers. The interception gave New England a 21-17 lead; the Patriots would go on to win the game, 31-27.
After the Patriots' 2010 playoff loss ended their season, Arrington sat down with Belichick. While the cornerback says he can't reveal too many specifics of the conversation, he came away realizing he needed to work on specific drills to focus on his own hands, watching the receivers' hands and finishing each play.
He returned to Maryland for the summer and worked out with trainer Michael Brooks. Brooks, who runs the Waldorf Fitness Center in Waldorf, Md., and played defensive back in college, began working with Arrington a few years ago.
"A lot of our strength and conditioning training is geared toward making his nervous system respond to being off-balance," Brooks says.
He worked out Arrington for several hours each day, standing on balance balls or utilizing the TRX equipment to generate off-balance power. He designed drills to improve hand-eye coordination with reaction balls as well as tennis balls. In the latter drill, Brooks threw the ball against the wall and Arrington had to catch it with both hands, reacting immediately. Brooks told Arrington to learn to juggle and enrolled Arrington in yoga classes to increase his flexibility.
Prior to the 2011 season, Arrington wasn't a starter. But after rookie Ras-I Dowling was placed on injured reserve and Bodden was cut, Arrington seized the opportunity. He grabbed his first interception in the team's opener against Miami and snagged two more two weeks later during New England's three-point loss to Buffalo. His seven interceptions lead the league (tied with Eric Weddle and Charles Woodson), and he had been the solo leader in the stat category for much of this season. He keeps most of his interception balls, often giving them to his mother. His parents have attended almost every home game this season and his mother is an avid sports fan.
"He's more confident now," Brooks says of Arrington. "You can see it when he lines up -- he's sure of what he's doing, he's breaking on the ball better. His reaction is better; a lot quicker."
Still, Arrington admits he needs to improve. The Patriots defense, which has been plagued by injuries, ended up ranking 31st in the league in both passing and total yardage -- with 6,175 yards allowed through Week 16. (Green Bay finished last with 6,585 yards allowed.) While Arrington snagged two interceptions against the Chiefs on Nov, 21, Dwayne Bowe often beat him in man-to-man coverage, catching three of six passes for 51 yards against Arrington (Bowe finished the game with seven receptions on nine targets for 81 yards).
Though only 25, Arrington is considered a veteran in a young backfield that's been hampered by injuries. He's still a fairly quiet player: "I'm not the most vocal guy on the field. I just try to lead with my play and be an example, the best I can be," Arrington says.
"He's definitely a hard-working guy who competes every day in practice and doesn't ever take a play off," Patriots safety James Ihedigbo says. "He studies his opponent so well and studies receivers so well, so you're happy for him when he goes out there and makes a play in the game."
When not focusing on football, he's either spending time with his fiancée, playing video games or going to the gym to shoot hoops. "I still fancy myself a basketball player," Arrington says, laughing.
And he's left his Leon days behind. "Honestly, I prefer tackling now -- I'd rather have a big hit than an interception," Arrington says. "It's been a transformation."
Some might say the same of Arrington's path, from undrafted practice squad player to a stat-leading Patriots starter.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.