WOODSTOCK – Early during the 2001 NFL season, three young players from the New England Patriots headed out on the town.
At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, defensive tackle Jace Sayler was the biggest of the group. Second-year long snapper Lonie Paxton, who had appeared in 16 games one year earlier, had the most experience.
A scrawny quarterback named Tom Brady rounded out the trio.
“We were out walking around Boston,” said Sayler, a former McHenry High School star who now lives in Woodstock. “I swear to you, we couldn’t even get in to a nightclub. They didn’t know who any of us were.”
Then, Patriots starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe took a vicious hit against the New York Jets in Week 2. Brady stepped in. Everything changed.
“All of a sudden, Tom Brady started being Tom Brady,” Sayler said. “The next time we went to Boston, I turned around, and there were hundreds of people following him. And this was in a three-week span.”
Brady went on to become one of the biggest stars in the most popular sport in the most powerful country in the world. Sayler would break a bone in his back during a late-summer practice two years later, ending his career at age 24 and prompting his quiet return home.
He brought with him a 2001 Super Bowl ring that gleamed with diamonds.
It represented a lifetime of memories and zero regrets.
Zero regrets despite two back surgeries, a groin surgery and a finger surgery to date. Zero regrets despite two shoulder surgeries on the way.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Sayler, who now is 33 and hasn’t worked since his most recent back surgery. “It’s the best feeling in the world.
“To have the experience, it was all worth it. I wouldn’t trade one surgery, one anything for it.”
IN A BLUR
Before Sayler became an NFL player, he was a fan.
He was almost 7 years old when the Bears trounced the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. The Bears were his favorite team during his high school days at McHenry, where he excelled as a tight end and defensive end and committed to Michigan State as a senior in 1997.
Fast-forward four years: Sayler arrived to the Patriots’ old Foxboro Stadium, only to find out that his lockermate was ex-Bears linebacker Bryan Cox.
“I literally had to stop and go, ‘Bryan,’ ” Sayler said with a chuckle, “ ’Do you realize I lived in Chicago when you got signed by the Bears? I remember me and my buddies freaking out.’
“There are surreal moments like that, and when they happen to you, you’re blown away.”
And just like that, the moment is gone, converted to memory.
“It’s in the blink of an eye,” Sayler said. “Because you’re so busy. Everything is so prepared for you, and your days are so long.
“In New England, when we were rookies, we had to be there from 7 in the morning until 7 at night. And then they’d slowly start puling off you.
“But the weeks would fly by. Those six months just burn so quick.”
Despite joining the Patriots as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001, Sayler started the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals and appeared in another game as a reserve before being placed on injured reserve after Week 3. He remained with the team, eventually watching from the upper levels of the Louisiana Superdome as Brady led the Patriots to an improbable championship against the St. Louis Rams.
After the Patriots released Sayler in 2002, he searched for his next opportunity in the NFL.
A stint with the Washington Redskins didn’t pan out, but Sayler signed with the San Francisco 49ers in August 2003. He joined a team coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances, and like the Patriots, the club boasted star power in Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens.
In the lead-up to the 49ers’ season opener, injury struck again.
Sayler was taking part in a 9-on-7 drill during practice when Garcia ran a bootleg, keeping the ball and running toward the sideline. Moments later, Sayler knew something had gone seriously wrong.
“I rolled out to try to chase Garcia, and when I rolled out, I turned and I heard something crack,” Sayler said. “And then I couldn’t move. I just locked up – no different than if someone was shocking you.”
Sayler’s career was finished.
Almost a decade later, Sayler could be bitter because of a dream cut short. Instead, he is grateful for the experiences he did have.
He played for Nick Saban in college and Bill Belichick in the NFL. His assistant coaches included rising stars such as Pat Shurmur, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels.
Sayler made friends for life. He won a Super Bowl ring.
Not bad for a kid from McHenry who grew up watching football on TV.
“It’s a surreal thing [to play in the NFL],” Sayler said. “But then you look back on it, and you realize all the steps you took to get there.
“You can pertain that to everything in life. You can say, ‘I always want to get better in everything I do,’ and that’s how you approach every day.”
Sayler’s career offered life lessons worth more than any ring.
“I think it teaches you to control only the moment,” Sayler said. “Because you can’t control anything else. You can’t control the future, and you can’t control what just happened. You can only do the best you can in the moment you are in right now.
“And if you can bring that full circle into every aspect of life – being a dad, being whatever – you’ve pretty much figured it out.”