Risky business

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.-- Larry Izzo has a business degree from Rice. Which naturally explains why his primary mode of business is running full speed down a football and knocking guys off their feet.

"Well, I just love football and I love getting out and hitting guys and making plays," Izzo said Wednesday. "I'm an aggressive guy on the football field. That's one of my strengths. I love the game and from whistle to whistle I give it my all."

We all know that Houston has its share of present NFL standouts. But how many are preparing for the third Super Bowl and their third Pro Bowl this week?

The answer would be one and that's Izzo, who toils in relative anonymity because he's primarily a special teams player for the Patriots. But what a special teams player he's turned out to be. The former two-way player at McCullough High School (now The Woodlands) has carved a nine-year career out of his special teams exploits. And a darn good career at that.

Izzo again led New England in 2004 with 27 special teams tackles, the fourth consecutive season he's led the Patriots in that category. His combination of size, quickness and energy have made Izzo a key component to New England's remarkable four-year run.

"I think I have the ability physically," he said. "Other than just looking at me, I'm fast enough, I'm quick enough and I'm strong enough to be productive. Physically, I feel like I match up well against other guys. My size can actually be a strength as far as matchups – maybe being quicker or faster than some of the guys I'm blocking.

"My experience helps in that I've been around awhile so I recognize things quickly. And from that point you just use your instincts and aggressiveness to get to the ball."

In 1996, Izzo went undrafted but was signed by the Dolphins as a rookie free agent. He immediately impressed then-head coach Jimmy Johnson, making so many plays in camp that Johnson had to find room for him on the roster.

"Throughout camp (special teams coach) Mike Westhoff was always very supportive and motivated me as far as what I needed to do every day to show up," Izzo said. "He said that I needed to show every day on film and do something every day that sets you apart from the rest of the guys. Having him there telling me that every day really kept me going and throughout camp Jimmy took notice. I had some good practices consistently and made plays. From the early part of camp, I moved up the depth chart and was given opportunities and fortunately I took advantage of them."

Izzo earned his first Pro Bowl selection in his fifth season in Miami, leading the team with 31 special teams stops. The Patriots took notice and signed Izzo as an unrestricted free agent. Izzo paid immediate dividends. He led New England with 22 special teams tackles, which also tied him for the league lead. And he made one of the most crucial plays of the Patriots' surprise Super Bowl run. Remember Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal in the snow that forced overtime against Oakland? The Raiders would have been running out the clock if Izzo hadn't pounced on Troy Brown's fumbled punt return that started the drive.

Two more Super Bowls, and two more Pro Bowl selections, followed. It's a long way from Izzo's days as a two-way player under Weldon Willig. As the national media gathered around him Wednesday, Izzo delighted them in reminding him of McCullough's prowess – and the gridiron prowess of the Lone Star State in general.

"I played free safety and running back in high school," Izzo said. "I played at a big-time high school in north Houston. We were very successful and played under a great coach in Weldon Willig. I take a lot of pride in the quality of football in Texas and I feel like I played in one of the better programs in that state. Fortunately for me it opened up some opportunities."

Izzo had offers from TCU, Houston and Minnesota, but opted to head down I-45 to Rice, which posted winning seasons in his first two years. He left Rice with 301 career tackles, good for fourth on the school's all-time list. But Izzo never got to play in a bowl game, something the Owls haven't done since 1961.

Then again, he's gotten his share of postseason trips at the pro level.

"I just think that whatever wins we didn't get at Rice I've made up for them in the NFL," Izzo said.

One more win Sunday, and Izzo will have his 11th playoff win – and third ring. This business major's business is booming.

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