The number 33 has long occupied a special place in Boston sports lore. It is most associated with Larry Bird, who wore it on his jersey for 13 seasons on the Celtics. For a limited time, McDonald's even made the "Big 33" hamburger in Bird's honor, complete with bacon and barbecue sauce.
Another less heralded local sports legend also wore 33 for 13 seasons. On Tuesday, New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk announced his retirement from football. Even the normally reserved and laconic coach Bill Belichick was moved.
"This is the first Patriots team, as head coach, that I’ve had without Kevin," Belichick said. “He was the ultimate team player. What a pleasure to coach. He always put the team first."
Faulk had been a standout running back at Louisiana State University. He rushed for 4,557 yards and 46 touchdowns during his LSU career, breaking the SEC record set by Georgia's Herschel Walker with 6,833 all-purpose yards. He's still second only to Tim Tebow.
But when the Patriots drafted Faulk in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft, many people paid more attention to the things he didn't do well. He wasn't good at blitz pickup. He struggled with ball security, fumbling nine times and losing six over his first two seasons.
Instead of becoming the featured back, Faulk was used as more of a role player. He had over 100 carries only twice in his whole professional career. He found himself playing behind Terry Allen, Corey Dillon, and many others.
A lot of people might have given up, or at least found a new team. He had been drafted by Pete Carroll and Bobby Grier. There was no guarantee he would ever survive the Belichick era. The new head coach had no investment in him.
The hard-working, soft-spoken Faulk turned it around. The running back who once coughed up the football became known for his reliability. He hadn't lost a single fumble since 2006. The 5'8 rookie who struggled picking up the blitz emerged as the team's best pass protecting back. As late as 2010, he was routinely trucking players who were five inches taller and ten years younger.
Faulk excelled at catching passes out of the backfield. He retired with more receiving yards than rushing, with only one fewer passing touchdown than rushing score. He had sure hands and was elusive. Even in his valedictory season with the Patriots last year, when he played just seven games and was used sparingly, he led the team in ratio of catches to targets.
Then factor in special teams, where Faulk still pitched in at 35. He was the team's all-time leader in kickoff return yards at 4,098, topping his fifth-ranked rushing yards. He retired the franchise leader in all-purpose yards at 12,349.
Nor do the stats tell the whole story. Faulk was often called upon to execute the "must have" plays. The five-yard run on 3rd and 4. The 12-yard reception on 3rd and 11. The clock-killing run to ice the game. The two-point conversion in the Super Bowl.
Well into his 30s, he was arguably the best third-down back in the league.
There were times when he could have left to make more money. He could have gotten frustrated when younger athletes eclipsed his playing time. Instead he took pride in staying with one team his entire professional career and he unselfishly embraced his role as an extra coach in the locker room.
When future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in 2008 (in a game where Brady had been without Faulk's pass protection), the veteran leader stepped up his game. He helped take charge of the offense. At 31 he increased his rushing yards to 507 on the season, amassing 6.1 yards per carry, while catching 58 passes for 486 yards.
When the Patriots were embarrassed at home in a stunning playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Faulk and rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman -- the latter filling in for an injured Wes Welker -- were practically the only team members to show up. Faulk led the team in rushing and tied for the lead in receptions. Early in the game, he accounted for all of the team's net offense.
The next season, Faulk himself was felled by a season-ending injury. (Like Brady, he tore his ACL and MCL.) He was one of the first players in the running backs' meeting the next day. As a captain of the team, he stood on the sidelines when they were at home and traveled with his teammates to select away games.
Many people thought he was done, but Faulk returned the following season. In his first game back, he caught all five passes thrown to him, led the team in rushing, picked up the blitz on the Patriots' first touchdown, and had a key 18-yard reception to set up their final score in a losing effort against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Faulk wanted to return for a 14th season, but the Patriots moved in a different direction. He continued to train in case the new running game didn't come together or a player was injured. Instead the new backs excelled -- with Faulk's help. Even though he was no longer under contract, Faulk met with lead back Stevan Ridley, a fellow LSU alum, on Wednesdays to review game tape.
When Twitter followers told Faulk that the team needed him back because the younger rushers weren't good at blitz pickup, Faulk defended the very players who were replacing him.
Clutch. Unselfish. Underrated.
But not unappreciated, at least not in New England, or unappreciative. In his emotional farewell press conference, Faulk thanked the fans, the dining staff who served players lunch, the massage therapists. He thanked his wife, who has been his sweetheart since the seventh grade. He thanked "Miss Myra," the team owner's late wife, for "how much she loved the kids, and how she’d help out no matter what, what anyone needed."
Larry Bird's number 33 was retired in 1993, shortly after he left the Boston Celtics. Numbers are harder to retire in football.
No matter who the Patriots assign it to next, number 33 will always belong to Kevin Faulk.
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