Rams Laurinaitis brings high-energy leadership

ST. LOUIS – His motor rumbles, because James Laurinaitis’ chase knows no end. His motor rumbles, because the St. Louis Rams linebacker knows no other way, the passion part of his pursuit as he grows in his career.  

The motor is physical: Tight end Lance Kendricks catches a pass in the middle of a practice field early in a training camp session Wednesday at Rams Park. Laurinaitis hones in on the target and pops Kendricks in the chest, and the 6-foot-3, 247-pound target tumbles to the ground soon after cradling the ball.

The motor has finesse: Laurinaitis tracks wide receiver Steve Smith long after a play in drills has ended. The two men are the lone players on the opposite side of the field, with Smith racing toward the end zone a short distance away. Laurinaitis pokes and prods for the ball with each step of his ripped 6-2, 250-pound frame, trying to pry the prize loose.

The motor knows no rest, because it knows no other speed.  

“I take pride in having a high motor,” Laurinaitis, now in his fourth NFL season, tells FOXSportsMidwest.com. “I take pride in finishing every play. A lot of plays are made when you’re hustling to the ball, and you don’t really expect them to happen. Maybe someone pops a ball out, and you’re the first guy hustling there, and you pick it up. You’re that guy. In order to get everybody else to do it and everyone else to come along and run to the ball, you have to lead it every time.”

This training camp feels different for the high-energy quarterback of the Rams’ defense. The former 35th-overall selection enters his fourth NFL season. He’s tied for the third-longest tenured St. Louis player, behind running back Steven Jackson (ninth year) and defensive end Chris Long (fifth year). He’s expected to sign a rich contract extension sometime in the coming weeks, one that would preserve his role as a face of the franchise. He’s transitioning into a veteran.

Time has brought change to the Minnesota native’s stature within the locker room. But Laurinaitis’ style that has produced 310 tackles, eight sacks and five interceptions has stayed consistent. Watch him after a snap. He’s as focused as a red-tailed hawk when a running back bursts through the line of scrimmage or when a wide receiver glides across the middle after a catch.

Laurinaitis is cerebral for age 25, but sharp instincts make his smart play possible. He’s part tank, part stealth fighter jet, part field general. The son of Joe Laurinaitis, a member of the WWE Hall of Fame as “Road Warrior Animal,” has a mean streak that allows him to manage the nuances of each role.

In recent years, the linebacker has become an animal in his own right. The motor keeps rolling.

“He’s the perfect middle linebacker for this defense,” says Dave McGinnis, the Rams’ assistant head coach. “The ultimate linebacker for this defense when it started evolving was Mike Singletary. I was with Mike Singletary for seven years. The quarterback of the defense is the middle linebacker, and in this system he has to be so in tune – I mean he has to be right in the defensive coaches’ skin. He has to understand it and know it from a lot of different angles. We could not have asked for a more perfect middle linebacker to install this system than James Laurinaitis.”

Adds Long: “Without him, we’d be running around there like chickens with our heads cut off. … He’s one of those hard-working guys who trains hard and loves football. He eats and sleeps football. Just for him to get out here, it’s his dream to play football everyday. You can tell, because he has that infectious-type energy.”

There’s a funny thing about that energy. Laurinaitis learned to channel it as a leader only after he reached the NFL. He was a three-time consensus All-American at Ohio State, but it wasn’t until after he arrived at Rams Park that he became comfortable with the platform that comes with his position. He told himself, “You know, this is the same situation as college. How do I do the same things up here?”

Jim Tressel, Laurinaitis’ college coach, passed along advice years ago that remains relevant as the player progresses in his career. Laurinaitis recalls it this way: When you establish yourself as someone who can be trusted and is accountable for actions both good and bad – if you don’t seek blame elsewhere or throw anyone under a proverbial bus for your errors – then teammates will start listening to you more. Your voice will carry more weight.

Take Tuesday as a sign that those words have value. It was nearing midnight. About six hours after players broke practice for the evening, Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar dialed up his friend. Pads and helmets were long packed away, but the day’s business was far from over. Dunbar and Laurinaitis chatted about football late in the night, about strategies and shared vision with anticipation that the preseason allows. A common bond energized the men less than a month before the season opener against the Detroit Lions.

The motor always had vigor. But with time, its intensity was fine-tuned.

“I’m still hungry to learn,” Laurinaitis says. “Having a coach like Coach McGinnis who has been around since – gosh, he was Mike Singletary’s linebacker coach. That’s a lot of knowledge. But you have to show up each and every day. You have to be consistent. The more consistent and the longer you do it, the more respect you get.”

The process continues. It’s Wednesday evening, and Laurinaitis has scribbled his last autograph and completed his final interview request. No other player is left on the field. The sun is setting in the horizon, another day of his pursuit over.

The motor knows no rest, because this is its life. Laurinaitis walks toward the locker room, his helmet in his left hand and his pads in his right.

He is smiling. This is the only way he knows.