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ATLANTA — The belly laughs bounce off the back of the locker room walls as the Patriots “Fun Four” take turns zinging each other after practice or in between meetings.
Similar to “Last Comic Standing,” a winner of these near daily episodes is declared when someone delivers a knockout blow that cracks the others up and breaks up the gathering.
Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Adam Butler, and Keionta Davis are the co-stars of this show. The four second-year defensive linemen are among the tightest groups of players on the team.
They’ve bonded over competition, comedy, and cards. Yes, cards. A lot of the most entertaining sessions come during the card games they play to pass the time and keep their minds sharp.
Veterans, rookies, reporters, and even coaches serve as the audience for these roasts.
“I love walking in there and they’re throwing cards, their bantering back and forth, they’re ribbing each other, they’re laughing at each other, joking on each other,’’ defensive line coach Brendan Daly said this week. “But the other side to that is that they’re pushing each other.’’
Strangers two years ago, the four arrived in Foxborough as rookies – Rivers and Wise were drafted, Butler and Davis were free agents – with a common goal of making the team that had just won its fifth Super Bowl.
From Day 1, they never looked at each other as enemies. Instead, they leaned on each other during the highs and lows of their journey. They have developed what Daly predicted will be “lifelong” friendships.
“It almost feels like I might not have made it without them, you know?,’’ said Butler. “We have a great bond. It’s always good to have somebody to lean on to take the edge off of things, especially at this time of year because things get really intense because there’s such high expectations around here.’’
The first year was particularly tough for Rivers, the team’s top pick in 2017, and Davis. Both missed the season with injuries. Rivers tore an ACL during a joint training practice with the Texans and Davis was still recovering from a neck ailment from his college days. Instead of spending time on the practice field, they bonded during the many hours spent in the rehab process.
Wise and Butler made big impacts as rookies, Wise as an edge rusher and Butler as a subpackage interior pass rusher.
The foursome spent a lot of time together during positional and team meetings as well as film review sessions. They realized pretty quickly that they enjoyed being around each other.
“We’re all a little bit different but at the same time we all kind of the same,’’ said Davis.
Rivers, known as the group’s spiritual leader, said, “Jesus placed those guys in my life and it’s been a blessing.’’
This year all four have been healthy and because of that, playing time has not always been a given. Only Butler, a tackle, has played in every game. The other three play end, so snaps come at premium. Davis hasn’t played since early November, Rivers had a stretch of six straight inactives late in the season, and Wise was inactive for the two playoff games after playing all 16 regular-season games.
Instead of wasting time pouting or being jealous the group spends its energy competing against each other and trying to keep one another sharp for when they do get the call.
“Those guys, from a mental toughness standpoint, have dealt with adversity — the uncertainty of being active or inactive — ‘what’s my role going to be week to week?’ which is one the most difficult things to deal with as an NFL player right now,’’ said Daly. “Maybe it’s because of their relationship with each other and they’ve got each other, and they’ve got that camaraderie. I haven’t sensed a single bit of an issue in that regard the entire year. Again, that’s allowed them to stay focused on the task at hand and continue to improve.
“I’ve said for a long time a lot of players don’t make it in this league because they are unable to do that.’’
The card games have proved to be the perfect formula for dealing with the stresses of NFL life.
“We were just looking for something to do and it just became like an everyday thing,’’ said Davis. “It’s nothing crazy, it’s just something we do to have a little competition between us.’’
The comic relief that is produced as a result of lots of those games was just an added bonus. Davis said it became apparent early on they all had a sense of humor.
Butler labeled Wise and Davis “clowns” while Davis called Rivers “sneaky funny.’’
Daly said the “the energy they bring to the building every day” and their infectious laughter has had a positive influence on everyone.
“Those guys are always clowning around,’’ said veteran Adrian Clayborn. “But those guys are also always working hard.’’
Clayborn then repeated himself and paused between each word for effect. “Those guys are always working hard.’’
Daly said one area where their work always shows up is when they’re mimicking the opposing defense during practice to help the offense get prepared.
“The most impressive thing about that group, quite honestly, and nobody sees it, is the way they work on the scout team,’’ he said. “When they’re in there on the look team, like they’re simulating the Rams defense this week — not that anybody can simulate that front accurately — they do a great job. Watch that group of players operate, they way they interact, the way they work, they have jumped right on board and I would say the effort they give is one of the better ones that I’ve ever been around. And they continue to get better.’’
The “Fun Four” trotted out their act on media night, hanging with each other taking in the atmosphere. They’re hoping to have one last laugh on Sunday night.
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.