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Danny Amendola's rise from undrafted receiver to Patriots hero

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was the kind of detail lost on many, but which delights coaches. Jeff Fisher noticed it immediately while he watched the AFC Championship Game last weekend, Danny Amendola at midfield to receive a punt with the New England Patriots trailing with five minutes remaining, waving his arms in front of him as if he were signaling an incomplete pass. The result was immediate. The Jaguars' coverage team hesitated for a moment -- was that a fair-catch call? -- and Amendola burst through his opening, returning the punt 20 yards down the sideline to set up a short drive for the Patriots' game-winning touchdown pass, which Amendola caught in the back of the end zone.

"The signal he gave on the last return -- it was typical Danny," said Fisher, who coached Amendola for one season in St. Louis, where the receiver spent four years after going undrafted out of Texas Tech. "I was a punt returner, and Danny was a guy you never really had to tell anything about. He knew how to do it. He knew (in the AFC Championship Game) the hang time was not great, the ball was on the low side. That signal -- get away -- is totally legal. It doesn't happen often because most returners are concerned about decision-making back there, not getting an advantage as subtle as that. That sums up Danny. I think it's gone overlooked."

Not much about Amendola has been overlooked this postseason, as he finally has been embraced for his Patriots star turn after a rocky New England start in which he battled injuries and fan discontent that he had replaced the beloved Wes Welker.

Amendola, the son of a Texas high school football coach, already had all the trappings of football celebrity: the modeling contract, the offseason Montana workouts with Tom Brady, the Miss Universe girlfriend and -- a reminder -- multiple previous postseason heroics. But during these playoffs, he has emerged as Brady's go-to weapon, leading the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards, receiving first downs and touchdowns, and, perhaps most critically, having a fourth quarter for the ages in the AFC Championship Game after Rob Gronkowski left with a concussion. It was Gronkowski who, one week earlier, had christened his teammate Danny "Playoff" Amendola. And in addition to the punt return Fisher admired, Amendola caught the winning 4-yard touchdown pass that those who have watched his career felt summed up what he is.

"He just knows how to play football," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "You see the guy go up, make sure he catches the ball. Somehow he's aware he's close to the back of the end zone, looks down, makes sure he gets two feet in, as he hits the ground, he takes the hand without the ball and wraps it around the ball, so he secures the catch. That just sums up who he is. That's just a football player. You see all the natural instincts that he has."

If Amendola has dwelled in the shadows of Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, he has long been the kind of player who catches coaches' eyes because of his willingness to do anything that is asked. The 5-foot-11 receiver spent his first two seasons on the Cowboys and Eagles practice squads. Welker, who preceded him at Texas Tech, was already in the NFL, and Amendola credits Welker for opening the door for undersized receivers to play in the slot.

"I've always looked up to Wes and admired the player he is," Amendola said at his locker in Foxborough last week. "He played relatively injury free except [for his ACL injury] for six years here, caught a lot of balls. He did a lot for my position -- no question. A smaller guy, he's done great."

Amendola got his chance in St. Louis because Pat Shurmur -- now the New York Giants coach -- saw something in Amendola when he was on the Eagles' practice squad and Shurmur was the quarterbacks coach. When Shurmur became the Rams' offensive coordinator, the Rams signed Amendola as a multi-use player (receiver and returner), and his former teammate, Eagles defensive end Chris Long, tabbed him "White Lightning." In 2010, his second season in St. Louis, Amendola caught 85 passes for 689 yards, still his career highs. The next season, Amendola met the offensive coordinator who replaced Shurmur, Josh McDaniels. Amendola played just one game in 2011 after he tore his triceps in the season opener and needed season-ending surgery. McDaniels was back in New England after one year with the Rams, when Fisher arrived in St. Louis. Amendola caught 63 passes for 666 yards in 2012, a year that had the potential to be his finest. He played in just 11 games, suffering a broken clavicle during a game in October that came close to puncturing his trachea and aorta. Amendola missed just three games, but the injury halted what's been his best chance at a 100-catch season.

"Danny was relentless," Fisher said.

Fisher wanted to keep Amendola when he became a free agent in 2013, but the Rams were in rebuilding mode and allowing players to leave in free agency to accumulate compensatory picks they could use to draft younger players. With Welker's own future in New England uncertain, McDaniels had already recommended Amendola to Bill Belichick. What did he tell Belichick? McDaniels recently called Amendola "one of the all-time great teammates." The Patriots swooped in and signed him away.

"At that point when Wes was in his prime with Tom, everybody was looking for inside, uncovered, keep-the-chains-moving guys," Fisher said. "That's what Danny was for us. For whatever reason, the prevailing thought was you can find these guys anywhere. And you can't."

Fisher recalled hearing Amendola on a radio show the day after the Patriots won the Super Bowl last year. Even then, he sounded exactly the way a coach would want: all business and already focused on what is next.

"It was 'We'll enjoy this for a couple of days, get our bodies back and we're coming back to work.' I thought, That's Danny. That's the New England way, but Danny was that way before he went to New England. Just business."

Still, Amendola has never quite reached the regular-season level even he hoped for when he signed with the Patriots. He had hoped to have around 100 catches each season, like Welker did before him, like Julian Edelman has done when he is healthy. In New England, he has never caught more than 65 passes or caught more than four touchdown passes. In 2016, Amendola played in fewer than a quarter of the Patriots' snaps. When Edelman suffered a season-ending knee injury this preseason, there were legitimate questions about how much of the workload Amendola could absorb without risking injury. He caught 61 passes for 659 yards in the regular season while continuing to return punts.

Amendola hinted last week that he wished his role was bigger in New England.

"Since I've gotten here, I've always tried to do everything I can to expand my role, whether doing more on special teams or doing more in the offense," Amendola said. "I've never really settled. As much as maybe the coaches have settled me into a role, I've always wanted to expand it."

There is an undeniable incongruity to this moment in Amendola's Patriots stint. His profile has never been higher and appreciation for his postseason performances (six touchdown catches and 557 yards in 12 games over five playoffs) never greater. It has even inspired the Boston radio station, 98.5 The Sports Hub, to release an ode to Amendola set to the tune of the Kinks' "Lola" that includes lyrics like "Rob got bumped and Brandin was cooked/ But then Brady said I can always find Amendola/D-O-L-A, Dola/Danny Amendola."

Amendola, though, has taken significant pay cuts in each of the last three seasons to remain in New England, in part because of the opportunity to play in the biggest games in which he thrives. His future with the team is unclear, but in the last two weeks, the normally taciturn Belichick, who takes pains to avoid singling out players for praise, has gushed about Amendola, noting his smarts, his hands, his dependability. Amendola said he has not read much of what Belichick said, preferring to focus on the job in front of him.

"Danny's such a good football player," Belichick said after the AFC Championship Game. "When you look up 'good football player' in the dictionary, his picture is right there beside it. It doesn't matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery -- whatever we need him to do. He's just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration."

Amendola said he has felt no additional pressure this season -- from the outside or within -- to produce in Edelman's absence. He has not reflected on this season.

He has, though, pondered what is next. At 32, Amendola has completed his ninth season and will be a free agent. He recently tweeted a photo of his old Eagles practice jersey, (displayed just below a picture of John Lennon), a reminder of how very far Amendola has come. Brady will surely try to find him this Sunday, but after that, even Amendola can't say where he will be.

"I definitely thought about that, just in terms of my family," he said. "I'm going to take that into the offseason when I get done playing the last game of the season. Whatever happens, happens. I'll talk to Bill one more time after the season, we'll see where that conversation goes."

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