Before he was a mere glint in the eye of the New England Patriots, standout Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo was already forging his own path and proving the doubters wrong.
One might say the future Pats head coach was in pursuit of his ‘north star.’
Having completed three standout seasons with the Volunteers, Mayo relinquished his final year of eligibility by declaring for the NFL Draft. Projected as a late-second or early-third round selection by the NFL Advisory Committee, many believed that the then-21-year-old would be best served by remaining in school another year to improve upon his stock.
However, Mayo made his declaration public in January 2008 — just weeks after earning his degree in sport management at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. While he remained proud of his accomplishments on the gridiron, Mayo equally valued his educational achievement, while remaining cognizant of the opportunities his diploma could provide.
“At the end of the day, my main goal was to get my degree,” Mayo expressed to utk.edu shortly before the 2008 NFL Draft. “I have that piece of paper, and nobody can take that away from me. I have my degree, and now I’m ready to start a new chapter.”
Simply put, Mayo had accomplished one goal and was ready for a new challenge — one which would keep him chasing the brightest star in the sky.
“He Knows the Game of Football Very Well.”
Thanks, in part, to an enhanced confidence he gained along with his degree, Mayo parlayed his strong pre-draft performances into a first-round grade heading into April’s draft. New England selected the the All-SEC first-teamer No. 10 overall, commencing a career in which would take him from Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year to a team captain by his second season — a distinction he would hold from 2009 through 2015. Though injury prematurely derailed his playing career in 2016, Mayo earned the distinction of retiring as a Super Bowl XLIX champion, with two Pro Bowl selections and one first-team All-Pro honor to round out an impressive resume.
Still, Mayo’s lasting legacy from his days on the field is tied as much to his vast knowledge of the game as to his playing prowess. Despite his final three seasons being marred by stints on injured reserve, Mayo was a constant presence in the locker room and in the work room — mentoring future star linebackers such as Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, Mayo’s new linebackers coach. He also captured both the attention and respect of offensive stars such as former Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski — who remains impressed by several of their hard-fought practice battles.
“He’s very intellectual. The guy knows the game of football to a T,” Gronkowski recalled to USA Today in February. “I remember playing against him, and he’d make some mess-up on the field, but he knows how to make that adjustment just like that. He was the captain of that defense, and every time I put my hand down, he was getting all the guys in place around him… because he knows what he’s doing, and he knows the game of football very well.”
Growing as a Leader
After retiring, Mayo took leave of the gridiron by accepting an executive position in finance at Optum, a healthcare company. It was role he would hold for three years. Though the private sector was uncharted territory, the Hampton, Virginia native quickly realized that the board room was not entirely dissimilar from the locker room. Whether it be a teammate or employee — peer, subordinate, or superior — Mayo saw that people respond to leadership. In essence, they will follow the ‘north star’ of those capable of harnessing its light. In March 2021, he spoke about his experience and the leadership skills he acquired at Optum.
“Being at Optum allowed me to learn a lot about inclusion and diversity … You grow, right? You grow as a leader, you grow as a person.” Mayo told nasdaq.com. “This is not like you just come in, born leader, right? I think this is a muscle you have to exercise as well, right? So, you got to be able to take essentially a ‘north star’ put out there by the head coach, right, or the CEO of the company and illuminate it. We [leaders] are all focused on this ‘north star.’”
The Student Becomes the Teacher
Having joined the Patriots coaching staff in 2019, Mayo served under former head coach Bill Belichick as inside linebackers coach from 2019-23. As such, Mayo quickly became one of Belichick’s right-hand men. During that span, the Pats defense finished in the top-10 in total defense four times — with the 2019 unit finishing No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (275.9 yards per game) and scoring (14.1 points allowed per game). On average, New England has allowed 19.2 points per game (third in the NFL), generated 136 takeaways (second) and held opponents to a 35.8 third-down percentage.
Despite operating without the title of “defensive coordinator” throughout his tenure in Foxboro, Mayo’s role and responsibilities grew annually for each of the past five seasons. He has been intricately involved in the defensive play calling strategy, essentially carrying out the duties of an unofficial co-defensive coordinator. His ability to communicate and mentor has earned him the respect of his peers and players alike.
Pulling upon his experiences as a former player, Mayo has found an ease in communicating with his on-field pupils. While there remains a time and place for authoritative instruction, the 37-year-old brings a vitality to a room, which is often in need of such levity.
"He understands the monotony of training camp and the grind of football and the football season," linebacker Matthew Judon told Patriots.com last season. "Every day, he finds a way to make the room fun, make watching film fun, make going over corrections [and] going over your mistakes fun and bright. And that's hard because he's sitting there telling you, 'Well, you did this wrong. And this is why you did it wrong. And this is what we need it to be.' But it's not in those words. How he does that is amazing."
The New ‘North Star’
Nearly 16 years removed from being drafted by the Patriots, Mayo is now the 15th head coach in franchise history. Not only is he replacing an organizational legend in Belichick, but he is also embarking on the journey of rebuilding a franchise which has failed to taste playoff victory since 2018.
As the sun sets on the 2023 NFL season with the playing of Super Bowl LVIII, both Mayo and the Patriots know that they have miles to go before returning to championship contention. Still, both team owner Robert Kraft and Mayo are seemingly on the same page as they turn their attention to building the personnel to improve their on-field product. It is certainly a daunting task. Yet, Mayo’s confidence, constant drive and innate ability to both teach and communicate make him proper choice for the role.
“I’m a huge believer in developing people,” Mayo told reporters at his introductory press conference on Jan. 17. “My calling is to be a teacher. I don't like echo chambers. I want people around me that will question me and the way we’ve done things in the past, so we can move forward into the next generation.”
In the final analysis, it is a new era for the New England Patriots.
For Jerod Mayo, the quest for his next, and perhaps greatest, “north star” has only just begun.