ST. LOUIS James Laurinaitis walked from a shower area to his locker Friday at Rams Park and passed fellow linebacker Brady Poppinga. Over the last five months, Poppinga has come to respect Laurinaitis' mental and physical approach to his craft honed over three seasons. But one recent episode captured Laurinaitis' grit, and Poppinga gestured his teammate closer to hear his praise.
At about 3 a.m. last Saturday, less than nine hours before the St. Louis Rams were scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, Laurinaitis suffered from flu symptoms. He vomited and experienced diarrhea. He received little sleep. When he arrived at Heinz Field later that morning, he slouched near his stall without his usual pregame energy.
Poppinga approached Laurinaitis before kickoff and thought the Rams' defensive leader was in for a long afternoon. He told the Ohio State product he would be tested. Then Laurinaitis went out and earned a game-high 13 tackles.
"I mean it, bro," Poppinga said to Laurinaitis on Friday. "That was freaking awesome."
"I love you, Brady," Laurinaitis said, drying himself nearby with a cream-colored towel. "Thank you."
Though he is only 25 years old, Laurinaitis has established himself as the heart of the Rams' defense. He leads his team with a career-high 133 tackles before St. Louis' finale against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams' disappointing season has taught him to keep his commitment strong despite adversity.
The lesson began his rookie season. The Rams took him as the 35th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, four months removed from a 2-14 year under then-coaches Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett. Later, they finished 1-15 in Laurinaitis' first season before going 7-9 last year.
Laurinaitis watched running back Steven Jackson and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, now with the Washington Redskins, to study how to be a consistent professional. He learned he must be accountable to each teammate within a franchise that has not produced a winning season since a 12-4 year in 2003. The observation produced results: As a rookie, he led the Rams with 120 tackles.
"At the end of my rookie year, I started to understand a lot of the scheme," Laurinaitis said. "Really that offseason after rookie year, I became more aggressive on certain things, trusting that I could play. Once you get halfway through your rookie year, you start to figure out that you can play, and you kind of belong a little bit. And now you continue to work harder and try to get better."
Laurinaitis has been a steady presence throughout his career. He has started all 47 games since entering the NFL. He has led the Rams in tackles in each of the past two seasons, including 114 last year. In addition, he has earned three sacks this season to bring his career total to eight.
Those numbers are a product of Laurinaitis' commitment. Some teammates call him obsessive compulsive Poppinga has noticed Laurinaitis stay at Rams Park late until he has grasped nuances of the Rams' scheme.
"If he does make a mistake, it kills him," said Poppinga, who has 49 tackles this season. "You can see it hurts him. You can see that it afflicts a little burning anger inside of him when he makes a mistake, because he doesn't want to."
"He's a guy who puts in the work on the field and off the field, and I think that's what everybody respects about him," said linebacker Chris Chamberlain, who has 74 tackles this season. "He's fully committed."
There are times when Laurinaitis' preparation pays off. He has two interceptions this season, matching a career-high total from his rookie year. The first came late in the fourth quarter in Week 4, when he slipped in front of a pass by Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman that was intended for wide receiver Santana Moss. And the second occurred early in the fourth quarter in Week 9, when he snatched a pass from Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton that was intended for wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Laurinaitis credits film study in younger years as the moment when a passion for preparation began. As a standout player at Wayzata (Minn.) High School, he developed an appreciation for details required to become a defensive leader. Now with a 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame, he learned he would have to gain a mental edge, because he knew he would not always be the most-physical presence on the field.
"The mental part is important, especially in our defense," Laurinaitis said. "There's a lot of adjustments, a lot of checks, a lot of things that change on the fly. And you've got to be able to handle a lot of it. Mentally, you've got to be ready not only to know what you are doing but what teams are going to try to do to that where your weaknesses are within the coverages and the run defense. So there's a lot to digest."
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo thinks Laurinaitis is handling the responsibility well. Spagnuolo saw Laurinaitis' leadership potential early. The then-rookie coach was comfortable starting the young linebacker in a Week 1 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in 2009. Since, Laurinaitis has gained the trust of Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole to the point where the linebacker can make coverage decisions at the line of scrimmage.
Laurinaitis' direction has contributed to the Rams' performance on that side of the ball this season. They rank sixth in passing defense (206.4 yards per game), 21st in total defense (360.9 yards per game) and 32nd in rushing defense (154.5 yards per game). Their high point came in Week 8, when they held the New Orleans Saints to 14 offensive points and intercepted quarterback Drew Brees twice.
Back in the locker room Friday, Poppinga continued to share why Laurinaitis has earned teammates' respect. After Laurinaitis thanked Poppinga for the compliment about playing through illness in Pittsburgh, the seven-year veteran turned to his left. He wanted the Rams' defensive leader to know his words were genuine.
"No, I'm serious," Poppinga said. "That was a heckuva moment, and that's when I knew this guy was freaking tough, and he's a freaking competitor. He went out there with an empty stomach, sick as a dog and played a heckuva game."
Laurinaitis smiled and continued dressing from three stalls away. Though he is young, he plays with a dedication beyond his years.