New York – Ty Law was a wide-eyed youngster with big dreams when he started making summer visits to his Uncle Tony’s home in Texas.
They fueled his passion for football. And, they guided his journey to greatness.
Tony Dorsett was forging his own path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame long before his nephew even put on a uniform and became one of the best cornerbacks to play the game. Dorsett’s days in Dallas as one of the NFL’s greatest running backs followed an incredible college career at the University of Pittsburgh – and it all had Law imagining someday being like his famous uncle.
“I used to just stare at that Heisman, stare at his Hall of Fame bust,” Law recalled. “And that right there, it meant the world to me because I realized dreams do come true. He walked the same streets that I did, so why can’t I? Why not me? But, I knew there had to be a lot of sacrifice to get to that point.”
Law, like Dorsett, grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a football hotbed that has also produced the likes of Mike Ditka, Darrelle Revis and Sean Gilbert. “Pistol” Pete Maravich also honed his shooting touch and showmanship on the basketball courts of the steel town in western Pennsylvania.
Ask anyone from there, and they’ll tell you that toughness and perseverance are part of their inner fabric.
Law is no exception.
“It hardens you to an extent, in a good way, because you see a lot of things, both good and not so good,” Law said. “But, the pride that we have there, and I think my upbringing, the competition has prepared me for everything that I went through in life. My journey stems through what I’ve done and what I’ve seen in Aliquippa. You cannot get any more competitive than that, because we competed at everything, every single chance we’d get.”
Law, who played at Michigan from 1992-94 and was an All-American in 1994, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday. It’s been 25 years since he watched Dorsett slip on his gold jacket, pose with his bronze bust and take his place in football immortality.
“Once I got to the NFL, there was no stopping me because in the back of my mind I still see that little kid staring at that Heisman Trophy and Hall of Fame bust,” said Law, who’ll be presented by childhood friend Byron Washington. “So, that was the goal from Day One, and I just went for it. And I know you had to play a long time. I know you had to play consistently.
“They don’t just give those things away, no matter how long you played. You had to make an impact, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Law was a first-round pick by New England out of Michigan in 1995 and played 15 seasons in the NFL, including 10 with the Patriots. He also had two one-year stints with the New York Jets and with Kansas City, and one with Denver.
He quickly established himself as one of the NFL’s true shutdown cornerbacks who routinely covered – and regularly quieted – opponents’ best receivers. Law helped Bill Belichick’s Patriots win three Super Bowls as the heart of a defense filled with other stars such as Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Lawyer Milloy and Richard Seymour. Law, a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s, is the only Hall of Famer among them.
“He never got tired,” said Vrabel, entering his second season as Tennessee’s coach. “That’s the one thing that I always remembered about Ty. He could be running a conditioning test and talking junk and trash to everybody around him. He was a big corner that wasn’t just a cover-2 corner. He was a man-matchup corner, could play man coverage, could play zone coverage, could jam, reroute, could tackle.
“But just his energy and excitement for life and playing a game, it was always fun hanging out with Ty.”
Law was selected for five Pro Bowl teams and was a two-time All-Pro. He finished with 53 career interceptions, twice leading the NFL in that category, had over 800 tackles, 169 passes defensed, five sacks and scored seven times.
He was a game-changing cornerback whose swagger and confidence were intimidating. Then, Law would step on the field and take over with his play.
“Ty was tough, he would tackle, he could play against big receivers and he was physical against guys,” Belichick said. “You know, the Marvin Harrisons of the world that were maybe a little quicker, but Ty had great instincts and size and playing presence, and he matched up well with those type of players, too, as well as (Eric) Moulds, and some of the other big guys he covered.”
Law refused to accept he couldn’t do something, an attitude born from those sometimes-rough days in Aliquippa.
“You can’t just be a good athlete because Aliquippa’s got great athletes walking around the street every day,” he said. “What’s going to set you apart? I tried to set myself apart by doing everything necessary to achieve my goal.”
That meant playing cornerback, tailback, safety, wide receiver and returning kicks at Aliquippa High School – anything that would make himself stand out.
College scouts noticed and Law ended up going to Michigan, where he played in every game from the moment he stepped onto campus. He was a starter midway through his first season and a dominant force not too long after.
After his junior season, Law opted to enter the NFL Draft. It was a gamble, he acknowledged, but one he needed to make. The decision also became a driving force after the Patriots made him the 23rd player picked in 1995.
“The tone was set when I decided to leave college early after my junior season,” he said. “It was a belief that I had in myself, and I said, ‘You know what? There ain’t no turning back now.’”
So, he kept moving forward – all the way to Canton.
“I knew if that was the goal, it wasn’t about just getting on the field right now or working my way up into the nickel, into the rotation and eventually being a starter,” Law said. “I said from Day One that my goal by the time I’m done was to be a Hall of Famer. I set that bar that high.
“And everything else, to get to that point, I had to work harder, I had to study harder, I had to compete harder.”