Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Ty Law
In 1966 there was a popular song by The Bobby Fuller Four whose refrain endured in popular culture. The title phrase went “I fought the law and the law won.” Those words aptly described what opposing offenses did against the New England Patriots for ten years from 1995-2004. In this case the law they fought was cornerback Ty Law. And more often than not, they didn’t win. One of Law’s seminal moments came in the franchise’s first Super Bowl win following the 2001 season, so on this Super Bowl Sunday, BST&N has chosen to honor Law as the Vintage Athlete of the Month.
Law was born into the football hotbed of Beaver County Pennsylvania in the town of Aliquippa. In addition to football, he also excelled on the basketball court, where he was the MVP of the high school team. It would be the gridiron that got him to college though, and Law signed on at the University of Michigan.
Even though Michigan was rolling along as one of the top programs in the nation and racking up Big Ten titles year in and year out, Law was able to make an immediate impact. Midway through his freshman year of 1992, he got into the starting lineup and he went on to be a key contributor of a team that won the Rose Bowl. As it turned out, this was Law’s last trip to Pasadena, but he made All-Big Ten each of the next two seasons and All-American in his junior year of 1994. There was really one down note in his college career—in a September game in 1994 he was the main defensive back on Colorado receiver Michael Westbrook when the latter caught an epic desperation pass from Kordell Stewart on the game’s final play and signaled an early end to Michigan’s national title hopes.
Law opted to enter the NFL draft after his junior year. Bill Parcells had just finished leading the Patriots back into the playoffs in ’94, and decided to strengthen his secondary in choosing Law with the 23rd overall pick. By 1998, Law was leading the league in interceptions and on his way to the Pro Bowl. The ’98 season was the first of five trips to Hawaii for his career, and the first of two times he was named first-team All-Pro.
It would be the arrival of Bill Belichick that enabled Law to make his biggest mark. The corner joined linebacker Tedy Bruschi as cornerstones of the defense that New England’s run of Super Bowl winners was built on. It might seem hard to believe for today’s Patriot-watchers, but the team that burst onto the scene in 2001 and then continued to win Super Bowls, was built on defense and the young quarterback, Tom Brady, was able to be more of a game manager. The defensive secondary was renowned for physical play on receivers at the line of scrimmage and Law was part of that.
When the 2001 playoffs began in the blizzard against the Oakland Raiders, Law made 12 tackles and would go on to lead to the team in that category for the ’01 postseason. His most famous play though, was not a tackle. Law is the career leader for the Patriots in both interceptions and Pick-6’s, and none was every bigger than the one he delivered in the second quarter of that year’s Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams.
With a high-powered offense led by Kurt Warner and known nationally as “The Greatest Show On Turf,” , the Rams were 14-point favorites. The early part of the game favored New England in that it was low-scoring, it was still 3-0 St. Louis when Law picked off Warner and took it to the house. It was the biggest play in what was an entire game of brilliant defensive execution by Law and his teammates. St. Louis couldn’t get its top wide receivers, Torrey Holt or Isaac Bruce rolling and eventually the Patriots won 20-17. It was my view at the time, and still is today that Law should have been Super Bowl MVP. Brady would win the honor because quarterbacks almost always do, but as noted before, this was still a time when the Patriots were defense-first and they had clearly pulled this mammoth upset because of the defense. There would be another Super Bowl two years later where it was Brady playing like a star, but on this night in New Orleans, the future greatest quarterback ever was along for the ride as his defense, led by Law, delivered New England its first championship.
Law’s other storied postseason performance came in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Indianapolis Colts were red-hot and coming to Foxboro, with the nation awaiting a Brady-Peyton shootout. But Law and his teammates in the defensive secondary made this game the showcase of their physical style. They succeeded so thoroughly that Indianapolis begged the NFL for stricter enforcement on the illegal contact rule and the league would go along in coming seasons. But in ’03, you were still allowed to play some actual football as a defensive back and Law did it to perfection. With the Super Bowl on the line, Reggie Wayne was rendered a non-factor and Law would intercept Peyton Manning three times.
The ’03 AFC Championship Game was Law’s last great high point with New England. The Super Bowl against Carolina belonged to Brady and the offense in a 32-29 final and Law missed most of the 2004 regular season, plus the playoffs and the third Super Bowl win, with an injury. For salary cap reasons, he was let go in the offseason.
There was still more fight left in Law and he decided to prove his point on an archrival, going to the Jets. He proved it in spades, with a career-high ten interceptions and another Pro Bowl appearance. Although he was again cut to save salary cap space in the offseason. His next stop was Kansas City, and he was able to ruffle Peyton Manning’s feathers one last time. Kansas City got into the 2006 playoffs and though they lost in Indianapolis in the first round, Law picked off Peyton two times in a 23-8 loss.
After playing two more seasons, Law decided to hang it up. His brand of physical football is missed in New England these days, as the team continues to look for ways to shore up the secondary. He was an integral part of the franchise’s greatest years, and without a Pick-6 in New Orleans one February night, there might not have been a chance for the young Tom Brady to launch a later drive that would build his legend.