They're young adults, professionals, fully grown men. But let's not forget, they're playing a child's game.
So, it's no surprise that many of them still get a bit anxious when the regular season dawns. In the Patriots locker room today – the official start of the NFL work week --
"As soon as you know preseason's over, you get excited," observed tight end Aaron Hernandez. "And you went through all that hard training in camp, offseason workouts and everything to do what we're doing on Sunday, so I'm excited for it."
"Super excited," added fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, "and sometimes I get nervous going out to practice, just thinking that it's almost game time. I know when game time comes around, and I'm super excited, which I am right now for it, and also definitely nervous. Basically nervous almost every single game. Especially the season-opener."
Both Gronk and Hernandez were rewarded this year, their third in the NFL, with lucrative, long-term contracts. Do they feel any added pressure to perform now, and is that contributing to their jitters?
"Honestly, you don't even think about that. You just keep playing," replied Hernandez. "Yeah, you're OK, maybe you can relax a little bit more off the field. But on the field you're still trying to become the best player you can be, go out there, make plays and perform."
"Yeah, there's certainly a lot of excitement from everybody in the locker room," quarterback Tom Brady pointed out. "It's been a long training camp and I think every is excited to get to this point. It's very good team that we're playing [Sunday in Tennessee]… there's just a different sense of urgency. I think all the players recognize that and we've got to go out and have a good three days of preparation and then try to go out and put together a good game on Sunday."
On the other side of the ball, New England's defense will debut several new faces, along with old familiar ones, on a unit that ranked near dead last in most categories last year. That might be reason enough to be eager for a new season to start, to put those bad memories behind them and start fresh.
"Football's back in the air. It's exciting," declared cornerback Kyle Arrington. "We're all looking forward to putting it all together, what we've been doing since spring ball… just anxious to get out there."
"It definitely gets more serious. It counts now, those wins and losses… we're focused. It gets more intense," added safety Steve Gregory, one of the new players the Patriots acquired via free agency.
That intensity is no doubt fueled, in part, by the desire to turn things around on defense. Arrington told reporters on Wednesday what the mentality of the Patriots defense is heading into this season.
"Establish confidence… It's aggressiveness. Just want to be as aggressive as possible. That's why we play defense: to impose our will on an offense."
Easier said than done, of course. Especially when your first opponent features one of the NFL's most talented running backs (Chris Johnson) and an athletic QB (Jake Locker) making his first start. Locker is only in his second year in the league, so, there's precious little recent film of him for Patriots defenders to study.
"Yeah, we're just watching what we have," Gregory acknowledged. "He's a good athlete, heck of a quarterback. We're going to have to be on our A-game to contain him. Yeah, those guys are fast, special athletes. So, we have to get 11 guys around the ball, rally to them, and get to them before they get going. Or else, they can hurt you."
"They've very dangerous out on the edge," said Arrington of the Locker/Johnson combo. "It's going to take everybody to contain them. It's a great challenge for us."
In the final analysis, perhaps it's that challenge of competition, coupled with the start of something new, which creates that most human of emotions.
"I think so. It's kind of that first day of school, that excitement in the air, everyone's 0-0 and dreaming of going to the Super Bowl," remarked receiver Matthew Slater.
"Every game I get nervous before. If I'm not nervous before a game, I know I'm not ready for it. There's a lot of nerves involved. Part of that's excitement, part of it's knowing you're getting ready to compete. That's just part of the game, having those butterflies come game day."
"I think there's really an excitement of what we're doing and you really are excited to see how the team's going to come together," Brady continued. "You put in all the practice in the springtime and then the practice in the summer time, and now after Labor Day is when the football season kicks off. So there's just definitely a progression of really what's next."
"There's always that excitement," Gregory concluded. "But once that first ball is kicked off, you get that first hit in, all that goes away and now you're just playing football."
Ridley on a role
Second-year running back Stevan Ridley knows that more is expected of him going into this season compared to last year. And to hear him talk about it, he seems just fine with that.
"This year I have a role on this team. I have to go out there and fulfill that role. Have to pay attention to the small details. They're depending on me to do my job and do it well.
Absolutely, compared to last year, being a rookie, you have to adapt to your role if you want to keep your job. It's a lot of competition in the backfield, but it's making us better every day."
The Patriots are carrying five backs on the active roster: Ridley, fellow second-year man Shane Vereen (who's been out of commission since the Tampa game), veteran Danny Woodhead, newly signed vet Lex Hillard (who can play tailback or fullback), and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden.
"Brandon's working hard, man," noted Ridley. "We have a room of very unselfish people. We're learning from Woody. I'm learning from Brandon. He does some things better than I do. Shane is in there battling also. We have a room of athletic backs and we're feeding off each other to make it through the year."
Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty will be seeing double on Sunday – his twin brother, Jason, a corner for the Titans.
New England's McCourty was asked about his fraternal foe during a conference call with Tennessee media Wednesday
"This should be exciting. We've gone against each other in different basketball games and things like that, but really never been at each other or on opposing teams. We've always played together. It will be kind of cool to watch each other in live action, really rooting against each other."
So, who will their mother be cheering for come Sunday?
"Supposedly she has a half-and-half jersey. She says she's going to root for both teams," McCourty replied. "But I kind of think since it's in Tennessee, she still might root for the Patriots. She'll tell [Jason] she's rooting for him since she's staying at his house."
For details about today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.