FOXBOROUGH — Brandon Spikes will freely acknowledge his nearly four full seasons in New England have taught him how to be a Patriot.
But then he adds a quick, “pretty much.”
That is an accurate summation of Spikes, who is, for better or worse, his own person, and he revels in it.
The North Carolina native was fined twice by the NFL this season for wearing red cleats instead of blue, which is proper protocol (being different is a no-no to the league); the “Harvard Law (just kidding)” sweatshirt he wore in the locker room in September was photographed by every reporter in the room; and he’s notorious for on-field trash talking, some of it so clever he makes teammate Rob Ninkovich laugh even as he’s setting up for the coming snap.
A few weeks ago, Spikes tweeted, “I tried being normal once. Worst two minutes of my life.” It’s not a new quote, but it illustrates how the 26-year-old looks at things.
Drafted by the Patriots in the second round out of Florida in 2010, Spikes’s time with the team didn’t get off to the best start: There was the online sex tape that surfaced during his first training camp, and then he was suspended for the final four games of his rookie season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Half of his second season was lost to injury, as he sat out the opener and then seven late-season games because of a strained medial collateral ligament. Spikes returned in time for the playoffs that year, starting all three games as New England made a run to the Super Bowl.
Things started coming together last year. Spikes played in all but one regular-season game, and was second on the team with 128 tackles, with five forced fumbles.
This year, he’s taken things a step further. Spikes will play in all 16 games despite a knee ligament injury that has limited him in practice for about two months (a league source said Spikes will require surgery when the season ends).
Asked about the knee and how much pain he’s been dealing with, Spikes grimaces a bit, but then gives an answer that would probably make his linebacking idol, hard-nosed Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, smile.
“It’s pretty banged up, but this deep in the season, everybody’s banged up,” Spikes said. “I’ve been able to deal with the pain and stuff like that.
“And when I’m out there, my adrenaline is pumping and the thrill of it, but it’s part of the game. That’s what makes this game so good — you’ve got to be able to play through pain.”
But Mondays and Tuesdays haven’t been easy once that adrenaline has worn off.
Spikes will likely lead the Patriots in tackles. It’s a bit circumstantial — Jerod Mayo, who has led the team in that category every year since being drafted in 2008, was placed on injured reserve in Week 7 — but an achievement nonetheless, particularly when you consider Spikes has totaled 131 tackles on just 652 snaps, while Dont’a Hightower has 123 tackles and has played about 160 more snaps.
Against the Bengals in Week 5, Patriots coaches credited Spikes with 22 tackles, the most for a Patriot since Mayo had 23 against the Jets in November 2008.
“Honestly, I feel blessed and thankful,” Spikes said. “I feel like I just try to be accountable for the team. I’m here to do a job and one of the jobs I have is being a middle linebacker, getting people lined up, making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to, and I’ve been able to maintain it, pretty OK right now.
“There’s still some things I need to work on, but taking it a day at a time.”
That includes his growth on the field and off.
“As far as being a professional, I had a lot of great examples around here to learn from. When I got here, I was a little crazy, a little wild,” Spikes said. “I’m not going to say I’m done with that, but I’ve learned how to be a Patriot pretty much. I’m a Patriot now.”
That transformation has been both physical and mental, including paying closer attention to detail, taking better care of his body, and watching more film.
But it remains to be seen whether he’ll still be a Patriot this time next year. This is the final season of Spikes’s rookie contract, and while he has made great strides, he’s not quite the three-down linebacker the pass-heavy NFL prefers.
Spikes is a force in run defense, however. ProFootballFocus.com has Spikes graded as its sixth-best middle/inside linebacker this season, and the best at his position when it comes to stopping the run: His grade for the season of plus-13.2 against the run is nearly six points better than the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, whose plus-7.5 ranks second.
Spikes loves Twitter, though a couple of his tweets have garnered the wrong kind of attention and weren’t exactly Patriot-approved. He stepped away from the social networking site for several months this year, but returned during the regular season, much to the delight of his followers and fans, which number well over 150,000.
“I think, you know, everything has to have a balance,” Spikes said in explaining why he took a Twitter break, “and I was going too wild on there. Some people said [I was], but I was just having fun, interacting with my fans and everyday people. It’s fun. I don’t do it for no other reason.
“The time I took off, I was just enjoying myself during the offseason, paying more attention to my family, friends, spending more time with them . . . I love interacting. If it was me and I was a fan, I would, you know, someone I look up to — I would love to be able to interact with Kobe [Bryant]. I idolize him, and I’m pretty sure people look at me the same. That’s why I do it. It’s all fun and games.”
On Sunday morning, he’ll probably send out his familiar game-day tweet, “Mind right! Grind tight! Shine bright! #PoWwWwWwW” and head to Gillette Stadium for what could be one of his final games as a member of the Patriots.
But all Spikes is thinking about is the present, and not what might be coming in the future.
“Nah, it’s all ball right now,” he said when asked about his pending free agency. “I haven’t even thought about it.”