FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As Kevin Faulk hobbled across the field at New Meadowlands Stadium last Sunday, the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee torn and his season — perhaps his career — with the New England Patriots over, several members of the New York Jets came over and tapped him on the shoulder pads and the helmet.

It was the ultimate sign of respect from a fierce rival, and it meant so much to Faulk.

“That’s what you play the game for, ” said Faulk. “You play the game to win but at the same time you also play for respect, respect for you, your teammates and the team you play against. That’s what you play for.”

In that regard, Faulk may have been the most respected player in the Patriots’ locker room. No, he isn’t Tom Brady or Wes Welker or even Randy Moss. But it will be hard to imagine a Patriots team without Kevin Faulk.

He has been here since 1999, arriving a year before Coach Bill Belichick, and has become one of the team’s most dependable running backs. Beyond his third-down proficiency, he provided a calming influence to the younger players.

“I’m lucky he was here when I got here,” said Belichick, who then ran off a lengthy list of Faulk’s qualities as a player and a person. “What’s there not to like about Kevin Faulk?

“He’s really a special guy.”

Faulk earned much of his respect by always facing the media. Win or lose, hurt or healthy, he could always be counted on to explain his actions or what the team needed to do. And that’s why on Wednesday afternoon, he stood at his locker surrounded by a phalanx of media and patiently answered every question.

“I respect a lot of you all in this locker room and I feel like you all respect me,” he said. “I felt I needed to come out here and speak on it.”

Often, players vanish after a season-ending injury. Brady did two years ago after tearing his ACL in the season opener. Welker did last year after tearing his ACL in the regular-season finale. Faulk doesn’t plan to.

He said he was elected a team captain in the preseason and plans on fulfilling that role.

“I’ll be doing pretty much the same thing I’ve been doing, except I’m not playing now,” said Faulk. “I’ll answer any questions I can give the guys and just be that guy when they need someone to talk to.”

Faulk has had his share of injuries before — a broken ankle, a broken heel — but never a season-ending injury. He knew immediately he was in trouble. With 13:20 left in the fourth quarter, Faulk took a handoff from Brady and ran left. He was tackled by cornerback Drew Coleman after an 8-yard gain.

“When I got hit I kind of knew something happened,” said Faulk. “It didn’t feel normal.

“This offseason we worked out a lot as a football team to get back where we need to be and the body felt good. And when that hit came it was instant. I knew.”

He cried and spoke to running back Sammy Morris on the plane trip home.

“It’s tough, not just as a teammate, but as a friend,” said Morris.

Spending time with his family and friends has helped Faulk keep his injury in perspective. He knows how blessed he is to have played 12 seasons in the NFL.

“I’m not sad anymore,” he said. “When it first happened I was sad, cried a whole lot, but that’s life. You’ve got to deal with it. You get knocked off the road sometimes; it’s how you get back on that’s who you are as a person.”

Faulk learned a lot about himself when his mother passed away five years ago. Football began the healing process.

“A lot of guys asked me why did I come directly back from her funeral to work,” he said. “Well, football was my brace. Now I can’t play football. My family is going to be my brace.”

Once the swelling goes down, once he regains some range of motion, Faulk will have surgery on the knee. Then he will attack his rehabilitation head on.

“Kevin’s a fighter, a warrior,” said Brady. “It’s all about hard work and he’ll come back from it.”

Whatever happens, the 34-year-old Faulk has earned the respect of everyone in his locker room — and everywhere else. In the last couple of days, he has received phone calls and text messages from former teammates, coaches and players across the league.

Those messages speak of the legacy he will leave when his career is officially over.

“That what you want as a person, not just as an athlete or a professional football player,” said Faulk. “As a person, you want that respect. That’s who you are.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]