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Why one Red Sox prospect was elated when Pats drafted Ryan Mallett

04.30.11 at 2:12 am ET
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Red Sox prospect Will Middlebrooks was elated to see his close friend Ryan Mallett drafted by the Patriots. (Salem Red Sox)

There is no doubt that the Patriots did plenty of homework on Ryan Mallett before drafting the quarterback in the third round on Friday. Even so, it is likely that a member of the Red Sox organization had even more far-reaching knowledge of the rocket-armed 22-year-old.

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, currently playing with Double-A Portland, met Mallett in grade school, when both were growing up in Hooks, Texas. Both were the sons of high school football coaches in Texarkana. Though they went to different high schools (Middlebrooks to Liberty-Eylau, where his father Tom is the coach, and Mallett at Texas High to play for his father Jim), but they remained constantly in each others’ company. Both were talented quarterbacks who were tall and athletic with powerful arms and big ambitions.

“We’re very close. We’re like brothers. … Basically all through high school, we lived at each others’ houses,” said Middlebrooks. “Ever since the time we were in seventh grade, at the time, we said we’re both going to end up in the NFL, we’ll be neighbors and on the same team.”

Middlebrooks is regarded now as a terrific all-around prospect, one whose defense receives raves in no small part because of his bazooka arm. But even as they were working out in high school, Middlebrooks recognized that on a football field, his arm strength could not compare to that of his close friend.

“He can throw a football 80-plus yards. I used to run routes for him in high school. A lot of guys at his high school would wear two pairs of gloves. He threw it hard, but I guess since I grew up around him, I got used to it. It doesn’t bother me,” said Middlebrooks. “He was just a powerful guy. He was a leader. Everyone looked up to him. He’s always had a cannon. He’s always been able to throw the ball. It was just the higher up he’s gone, the better he’s gotten because guys an actually catch it. In high school, he threw so hard that guys couldn’t catch the ball.”

Given that increased success — and a storied career for Arkansas — it was natural for both Mallett and Middlebrooks to anticipate that the quarterback had a strong chance to be a first-rounder. In their regular conversations leading up to the draft, there was uncertainty about the landing spot, but hope that Mallett would go early.

“He did,” Middlebrooks said of whether Mallett thought he would be a first-rounder. “He’s a top-notch athlete. I thought he had the talent to go there, but what do I know? I’m not an NFL scout. I think he could have, but he’s happy where he went. He’s really happy with the team he’s on.”

That said, it is fair to suggest that given his physical gifts, Mallett likely would not have been available to the Patriots in the third round without the character questions that have hovered over him during the build-up to the draft. The way in which Mallett has been portrayed did not mesh with what Middlebrooks knows of his friend.

“Given my history with him, he’s a leader. His teammates have always looked up to him. He’s a good guy,” said Middlebrooks. “I don’t have much to say about the histories that have come up, but I know Ryan for Ryan, and I know how he is. I can’t say I agree with any of that.”

Instead, Middlebrooks emphasized that Mallett is a leader, someone who is wildly competitive and determined to get the most out of his talents on the football field. While the Patriots presumably drafted Mallett with designs on having him be a clipboard-carrying understudy to Tom Brady in the coming years, Middlebrooks — who had a text from Mallett waiting when he got into the clubhouse following the Sea Dogs’ loss on Friday night, and who talked to his friend after the game — said that the New England QB will embrace his role.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” said Middlebrooks. “Coming in with Brady and being able to learn from one of the greatest, that’s a pretty good setup: Come in, learn the system and hopefully by the time he’s ready, it’s his time. It really worked out pretty well.

“I can tell you he’s a fierce competitor. He would want to come in on day one and want to play. He’s going to try to beat him out for a spot, I can tell you that. But he’s not unrealistic. He knows what the plan is. I’m sure they’ve told him a plan. Like I said, it’s really perfect for him.”

Middlebrooks said that Mallett will be flying up to New England soon. When in the region, the quarterback will try to get to a Sea Dogs contest.

Assuming that happens, it was suggested that Mallett could throw a football for a ceremonial first pitch at Hadlock Field.

“I’ll catch it,” laughed Middlebrooks.

If and when the two get together, they will have the opportunity to reflect on an unexpected convergence of paths. Middlebrooks had been recruited to play football and baseball at Texas A&M, but left behind his gridiron ambitions when the Sox took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft and signed him to a $925,000 bonus.

The career choice has worked out well, as Middlebrooks is currently within shouting distance of the majors. He is considered one of the top prospects in the Sox system, a label that has fit well through the early stages of a 2011 season in which he is hitting .338 with a .384 OBP, .647 slugging mark, 1.031 OPS and four homers in 18 games.

He is, he hopes, moving closer to Fenway Park, where a shared childhood ambition with Mallett could be realized now that the quarterback is with the Patriots.

“Growing up, saying, ‘We’re going to be professional athletes; we’re going to be neighbors,’ saying that was like a fantasy world,” said Middlebrooks. “For it to have a chance of happening is pretty cool.”

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