Being the lead running back in a Tom Brady-led offense is the NFL equivalent of entering the witness protection program. Even though he’s now well into his 30s, Brady remains the face of the franchise, and his star wattage overshadows just about any offensive player who might hitch himself to the Patriots’ wagon.

Running back Stevan Ridley aims to break those stereotypes. The LSU product, entering his third season with the Patriots, emerged as a breakout star on offense last season, finishing with 1,263 rushing yards (seventh in the league) and coming within 10 carries of being the first New England running back to hit the 300-carry plateau since Corey Dillon did it back in 2004.

Known as a dynamic runner, the 5-foot-11 220-pounder combines elusiveness and power, and in his relatively short NFL career, he’s enjoyed an almost unprecedented run of success in the New England offense. The only back in Patriots history who had a better season than Ridley before the age of 24 was future Hall of Famer Curtis Martin (1,487 yards in 1995 at the age of 22).

Of course, you can’t approach Ridley with the same preconceived ideas you have about most running backs. The first sign you’re dealing with an individual comes with his sense of style. In 2012, he introduced the Patriots’ locker room to the onesie, and posted a picture on Facebook of the entire running back crew rocking the unusual fashion choice. In January, he took it a step beyond that when he showed up in the locker room in his personalized blue onesie and gold-studded backpack.

On a team in which fashions swing between extremes—hunting boots and barn jackets for offensive linemen, throwback Zubaz for Rob Gronkowski, the finest European designer duds for Brady—Ridley makes a unique statement. He says he draws on his Southern “country boy” roots for inspiration.

“I’m not really worried about what the next man says or what anybody says—I just go with what I like,” Ridley says. “I think that’s something that’s always been a part of me. I’m comfortable being myself and the way my mom raised me. Just go out there and be who you are. And as long as you’re confident with yourself, that’s all you have to worry about.”

His philosophy can be summed up thusly: As long as it’s OK with his mother, Carolyn, it’s OK with him.

“She’s a Christian lady and she raised me in the church,” he says with a grin. “As long as God is the head of my life, I’m good. I’m not worried about what anyone else says who is walking the earth.”

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Photo Credit: New England Patriots/
David Silverman photo

Ridley, who was born in Mississippi, spent his formative years in the South and admits it took some time to get used to New England winters. With help from his family and teammates (including next-door neighbor and fellow running back Shane Vereen), he’s started to settle in, finally adjusting to the snow and wintry conditions. Maybe it’s the rainbow moon boots he was seen sporting late last season: In a locker room where UGGs are pretty much par for the course (thanks to the quarterback, who routinely provides complimentary pairs for his teammates), Ridley again stands out.

“I just have fun with it, man,” he says. “If I think it’s cool or if it’s off the wall, then most likely, I’ll probably have it on. To me, it’s just living life.”

Like most 24-year-olds with fame and fortune, Ridley likes to have fun. Apart from his adventures in couture, he’s an enthusiast of interacting with fans via Twitter. But he’s also well aware of the job at hand. Entering this season, Ridley’s challenges include one that would separate him from every other back who played for Bill Belichick: In his 18 years as a head coach in the NFL (13 with the Patriots and five with the Browns), Belichick has had some truly elite running backs, like Dillon, but he’s never had a running back finish with at least 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons. After his 1,263 yards in 2012, Ridley has a chance to be the first. It’s something he’s ruminated on over the course of the offseason.

“Going to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons was actually a goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year,” he says. “It’s something I’m going to come in here and work hard to be. [Belichick is] one of the great all-time coaches, and I’m honored to be playing for him. It’s something I’d like to do, to set a goal of my own, but also for the team. And then, for him as well.”

Ridley seems modest. “I haven’t said anything to [Belichick about the stat], out of respect for the kind of coach that he is. He’d rather me just come out here and do it instead of talking about it… and then it not happening. So I’m just going to come out here and work hard every day and try and put myself in a position to go out there and execute and get a good number for the team.”

He should have even more opportunities this year, as the New England offense underwent an extreme makeover during the offseason: Four of the top five pass catchers from 2012 (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead) are gone, and the fifth (Rob Gronkowski) will likely open the season on the sidelines because of offseason surgeries on his back and forearm.

That will mean more work for Ridley and the rest of the backs, particularly right out of the gate. Three of the first six teams the Patriots face this year include some of the worst run-defenses in the league from last season. So, while they wait for Gronkowski to return and all of the rest of the disparate parts of the passing game to come together, New England could open in a run-heavy set the likes of which we haven’t seen since Dillon and the Patriots ground out wins on a regular basis in 2004.

“We really just come out here and do our job,” Ridley says. “There’s going to be a spotlight on Brady. But our deal is this: If we can go out there as a unit and we can get defenses something else they have to respect, it takes pressure off Brady to be the quarterback that he is. It’s hard to execute when you have 11 people zoning in on you on the field. So it’s just our job to go out there, as Coach says, and do our job. Be productive on the ground, through the air and picking up blockers and blitzers as well.”

Practicality is the expected mantra from a Belichick player, and Ridley is no exception. “If it’s playing in the shadows, then so be it. We’re just going to get it done on the ground and do whatever this team needs us to do.”

 

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Photo Credit: New England Patriots

It hasn’t all been moon boots and rushing milestones. Ridley has had his fair share of growing pains in the New England system: He got a late start on his rookie offseason because of the 2011 lockout, and ended up sitting and biding time behind starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis for much of the year. As a backup, he had issues with ball security, and didn’t play in the Super Bowl that season. More fumble problems popped up when he assumed the starting role last year, including one in the AFC title game against the Ravens after a nasty helmet-to-helmet collision with Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard.

So he counts improved ball security among his goals for 2013. “Every year, you have to improve. If you’re not improving, you’re falling behind,” he says. “I follow the people in front of me, our coaching staff and my QB. So I follow the leaders I have, and if I can follow in their way, I’ll be all right.”

Humble words, but Ridley now stands poised to lead the crew of backs. This includes his neighbor Shane Vereen (who will likely be asked to do many of the things that Woodhead did the last couple of years) and youngster Brandon Bolden, along with veteran additions Leon Washington and LeGarrette Blount.

“I think in the running back room, we know we have a lot more experience now,” he says. “We’re a year older. Not to say we’ve made it or we’re close to where we need to be yet, but with the experience comes confidence.”

It’s confidence backed up by Ridley’s emphasis on that most Patriot of virtues. On the factor that won the team its championships. On what makes them great. On teamwork.

Despite being such a classic individualist, Ridley sums it up this way: “We rely on each other.”

Styling: Janine Maggiore/ENNIS INC.; On-set dressing: Liz Curley/ENNIS INC.
Wardrobe in opener: Thom Brown cardigan and Nudie jeans, both at Riccardi; Theory tee at Saks Fifth Avenue. Wardrobe inside: Johnny Love jacket at Louis Boston; Hudson Clothing hoodie at Saks Fifth Avenue; Nudie jeans at Riccardi.