“My dad made me promise myself that I wouldn’t read any articles, good or bad on myself once I got to college,” Laurinaitis said. “I haven’t read anything since then. My mom and dad keep everything they find and they try to tell me what they say but I don’t like to read stuff on myself. I am not going to read this. I will read it when I’m done playing. Whether it’s good, bad, whatever, you start to believe it and either way it’s going to be a curse, so you have just got to stay focused and keep doing things you do well and be open to learning new things to help yourself get better.”
While Laurinaitis chooses not to read any of the many stories that have been written about him from his time as Ohio State’s star middle linebacker to his rising star as the heart and soul of the Rams defense because of a promise, the real reason lies at the center of what it is that makes Laurinaitis those things to begin with.
It certainly doesn’t come from a dislike of the media – Laurinaitis is one of the most affable, generous, stand up guys in any NFL locker room – or from a lack of knowledge of the game – he’s probably more plugged into what’s going on during the course of a game than most NFL coaches.
No, the real reason Laurinaitis ignores his press clippings is the same reason you’ll rarely find him out partying or hitting the town: because doing any of that could come at the expense of his greatest love.
“He loves the game of football,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He is passionate about it. My guess would be that he plans anything and everything around football. What he does away from this building, everything. That’s my guess. He loves being around it. We love having him around all the time. I don’t know what his plans are for when he’s done playing football which will hopefully be a long time from now, but he will certainly make a pretty good coach.”
Growing up in Plymouth, Minn., Laurinaitis couldn’t help but be instantly drawn to the weight room.
The ideals of hard work and putting in the time to achieve goals were instilled in him at an early age by his father Joe and mother Julie. Joe’s day job, of course, was working as “Animal,” one half of the professional wrestling tag team the Road Warriors. Julie, meanwhile, was a bodybuilder before giving birth to her and Joe’s three children.
Needless to say, Laurinaitis’ parents spent what little time they had away from raising their three children pouring themselves into doing what was necessary to be successful in their chosen line of work.
“Growing up that’s what I saw was mom and dad working out in the weight room, working hard to accomplish their goals,” Laurinaitis said. “And it just started with me that way and probably my freshman year of high school when my dad let me start working out, that’s when I started going four days a week right away and have been that way ever since.”
Joe Laurinaitis began coaching James in football as far back as the fourth grade. Because of his job, Joe knew the ins and outs of working out and preparing the body for high impact collisions. Alas, he wouldn’t allow James to really begin hitting the weights until his body had developed and he began high school.
But James put in the work in other ways. A three sport athlete, Laurinaitis played hockey, baseball and football growing up. He loved all three but football emerged as his greatest passion at an early age.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” Laurinaitis said. “I always loved playing hockey and baseball growing up but to me, football is the one sport where you truly couldn’t do everything by yourself. You had to have a bunch of guys around you to help you out and you had to help them. It was such a unique sport just in the sense that everybody had to be on the same page for everything to work. When that does happen, it’s a special feeling that you can’t really put your finger on.”
Coinciding with his work in the weight room, Laurinaitis also discovered another way to get an edge on the football field during his freshman year at Wayzata High.
There, defensive coordinator Matt Lombardi noticed a young kid with a fire for the game that was quickly becoming a blazing inferno. Young Laurinaitis couldn’t get enough football and he found himself constantly asking questions and looking for ways to get the upper hand.
So Lombardi introduced Laurinaitis to the inanimate object with which he has become inseparable in the years since: the film projector.
“The more mentally you are ready in your game plan and what you’re doing and what the other team will throw at you, you can anticipate certain plays and when they come up you are faster to get there,” Laurinaitis said.
Lombardi and Laurinaitis would spend a couple of hours after school studying opponents and focusing on the nuances of the game. Many times, Laurinaitis would find himself studying film alone while his friends were out doing what high school kids do.
If an upcoming opponent ran the ‘Wing T,’ Laurinaitis would know to watch the pulling guards because that’s where the ball was going. If the team ran a lot of stretch plays, his eyes were now trained to follow the running back.
All of that work led to his first scholarship offer from the University of Minnesota following his junior season. After an impressive senior year, the offers doubled when he got the one he’d eventually accept to Ohio State.
Upon arrival in Columbus, Laurinaitis fell even deeper in love with the game as he was overcome with the passion of Buckeyes fans and buoyed by the leadership and dedication of linebackers Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter and A.J. Hawk.
Again, Laurinaitis didn’t have many designs on playing past college until his junior year when he started to see the NFL as a real possibility.
That became a reality when the Rams used their second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and promptly threw him into the fire at middle linebacker.
“I look at my rookie year and I laugh at how many mistakes I’ve made and how patient the coaching staff was with me,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s a complex defense.”
While Laurinaitis chuckles at the thought of his rookie errors, his coaching staff knew right away that Laurinaitis had the goods to be the literal and figurative centerpiece of the Rams defense for a long time to come.
“James has done a good job for us,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “I wish you guys could step up in our meeting rooms and see the volume of mental things that we put on the young man to manage the game. I think when you see those types of things, you’d have a greater appreciation for how much we count and rely on him. He’s done a nice job for us and he’s a great manager in the middle for us.”
Much of that goes back to the relentless film study that Laurinaitis has made a part of his daily routine. During the average week, Laurinaitis watches about 10 hours of film, a number that might make Roger Ebert blush.
Even during the offseason, Laurinaitis can’t put down the iPad, as he meticulously studies himself as well as other middle linebackers such as San Francisco’s Patrick Willis and Baltimore’s Ray Lewis to see what makes them so successful.
On Tuesdays, the reserved day during the week when players are supposed to be off, Laurinaitis is at the Russell Training Center by 7:30 a.m. He promptly gets in a workout in the weight room, gets his iPad loaded with film of the upcoming opponent and spends about three hours studying the nuances of the next team on the schedule.
Laurinaitis even makes it a point to pop into the defensive coaching staff meetings where Spagnuolo, Flajole and linebackers coach Paul Ferraro will break down the base calls, blitzes and rules for that week’s game.
Make no mistake, Laurinaitis still finds time on those days to attend a Bible study and go to breakfast as well as playing with his pet Rottweilers and a few video games, but for the most part, a day off for him is a bit closer to a few hours than a full day.
“I’m a note taker,” Laurinaitis said. “Early in the week it’s note taking. What are their favorite runs, what do they like to do off of it? What’s their play action game? What are their favorite route combinations? What’s the cadence look like? Does the running back like to cut when you blitz or block you high? Little things that will help your throughout the course of the game.”
Coming out of Ohio State, Laurinaitis heard the whispers. Heck, he believed the whispers. Despite an All American career that was among the most prolific in collegiate history, he still wasn’t projected as a surefire first-round pick.
The reason? According to draft pundits and wannabe draft pundits, Laurinaitis couldn’t cover if you gave him a blanket. They said he was a two-down linebacker who would be a liability on third down.
Unfazed by that criticism, Laurinaitis took the opposite approach and set out to improve in that area the most.
“A lot of it was just ‘Will he be able to handle the passing game?’ ‘Will he be a three down linebacker?’” Laurinaitis said. “I wanted to be a three down linebacker. I would never want to come off the field. That was my goal and I will make it my goal for the rest of my career.”
Once again this season, Laurinaitis is on track to lead the team in tackles for the third straight season but his coverage skills continue to improve. He has an interception and five passes defended through eight games. Last year, his seven passes defended were third on the team only to starting corners
As the middle linebacker, Laurinaitis has plenty of responsibilities. From play to play, it’s his job to make sure the calls are given to the rest of the defense as well as getting everyone else lined up properly and making any checks if he sees something in the offense that requires a change.
It’s a lot to process and to communicate. If you aren’t built to lead, it’s a job that can be overwhelming. For Laurinaitis, it’s a job he takes great pride in.
“You can see the difference on the field and in the huddle,” defensive tackle
Ever the perfectionist, Laurinaitis is never happy with how he’s performed. Week in and week out, Laurinaitis consistently grades out the highest of all the defenders on the team. Based on how many responsibilities he has from play to play, that consistency is hard to fathom.
What’s even more difficult to grasp is that Laurinaitis doesn’t believe he’s anywhere near a finished product. He doesn’t believe he’s arrived in any sense and when you ask him what he wants to get better at, he gives a simple answer.
“Everything,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s not cliché, that’s just the truth. The day you think you are good at everything or you’ve arrived at most things, you probably should stop playing. I’m a perfectionist. I just want to keep improving a little bit, a small percentage each and every day. You are either getting better or you are getting worse. I want to get better but even more than that I don’t want to be getting worse.”
By staying in the weight room for the extra repetitions or watching extra film when everybody else is gone, Laurinaitis continues to work to find an edge. He’s made it a point to learn how to take care of his body, noting that in the NFL recovery is half the battle because it doesn’t matter how mentally sharp or strong you are if your body isn’t up to the task come Sunday.
Laurinaitis turns 25 on Dec. 3 and has trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that it’s already his third season in the NFL. Time seems to fly in this league and while the idea of his football mortality is still probably a long way into the future, every day that goes by is one less day he gets to do the thing he loves the most in the world.
“To me, this isn’t a job,” Laurinaitis said. “It is a job but it’s not. To me, this is playing football like I have since I was in fourth grade. There’s a lot more people paying attention, maybe more people writing about it and it gets more complex here and there, but as far as ‘Do I want to be the guy that works the hardest in the weight room?’ Yes. ‘Do I want to be the guy that is dependable on the field?’ Yeah. There’s nothing better than letting your teammates know they can depend on you to do your job.”