FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For Andre Carter, it came down to one thing: Play for the New England Patriots, or retire after 12 NFL seasons.

He’ll have to wait a little longer to find out what retirement is about.

New England, its young defense weakened by the loss of veteran leaders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, signed Carter last Wednesday, looking not only to add a pass rusher but a veteran presence on the field and in the locker room.

Carter played for the Patriots in 2011, recording 10 sacks before suffering a season-ending leg injury. New England let him walk as a free agent the following offseason and Carter signed with Oakland, which released him in training camp this year.

But his thoughts, and heart, were always with the Patriots.

Asked last Wednesday if he was hurt the Patriots didn’t bring him back in 2011, Carter said it didn’t matter.

“I think what hurt is that we didn’t win it all (losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants),” he said. “But that’s the past. At the end of the day, business is business. I still kept in contact with Mayo, Wilfork and a lot of my teammates. I told them we’d continue to be brothers. The game moved on, but the Patriots will always be in my heart.”

Carter, 34, had a workout with the Patriots last month. It didn’t lead to anything then, but laid the groundwork for his return.

“Me and my wife (Bethany) were talking and this place holds a special meaning,” he said. “Not just for what I did but for the camaraderie I had here in 2011. The town, the city of Foxborough, the state … I mean it was very memorable.

“At the end of the day, after I did my workout with the Patriots, the mind-set was either it’s the Patriots or retirement. And that’s what it was. The Patriots called me and I’m here today.”

The call came Monday at his home in California, asking if he could take a red-eye flight to Boston. Carter packed, arrived at 5:40 a.m. Tuesday, signed a contract, met with his coaches, studied the scheme, took notes and “asked questions, constantly asking questions.”

Bill Belichick, the Patriots head coach who seldom tosses out praise, seemed giddy with Carter’s return.

“You know, we have a lot of respect for Andre,” said Belichick last week. “He’s a hard working guy that’s given us great leadership in the past and is a good teammate. I mean, everybody loves Andre.

“But in the end, it still comes down to performance on the field and all that. So we’ll see.”

Offensive guard Logan Mankins was pleased to see Carter at practice. “He’s a hard-working guy who listens to the coaches,” said Mankins. “He knows what to do when he’s on the field.”

Will he play much Sunday against the Miami Dolphins?

“That will depend on how the coaches feel,” he said. “I’m just constantly learning this game, trying to have an understanding of how everyone fits. It’s 100,000 miles per hour here. I’m just trying to learn.”

Carter, 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, will provide some versatility and a pass rusher to the defense. He has 66 sacks in 175 career games. More important, he will provide a veteran mentor for rookie defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. They have been thrust into pivotal roles in the middle of the defense with the loss of Wilfork for the season and the knee injury to Tommy Kelly.

Carter made it a point to talk to both rookies when he arrived.

“I told them they were representing something special,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re representing your last name, your family and this organization. Make a name for yourself. This is an opportunity, have fun with it.’

“I know at times when the next man comes up there’s a lot of pressure on him. Can that be motivation? Or can that be your own worst enemy? I think it depends on the individual.”

He knows what they’re going through and wants them to relax so that they can perform when the time comes.

“You’ve got to grow up fast,” he said, of the rookie linemen. “This is a grow-up-fast business.

“I will do my best to help them in any way possible … Everybody has to be accountable for their job. Just as we get paid for Sunday, so does your opponent. So, as an individual, you better be on your notepad, taking notes and understanding what you have to do and what’s your objective every Sunday.”

The best thing he can teach them, he said, is what it means to be a professional player.

“It’s not just about my experience,” he said. “Practice what you preach. I’ve always been big on that. I’m going to go out there and give them what I have. I may not know everybody by name, but just as long as you wear that jersey, I’m your teammate and we’re in this together.”

Carter said it was tough coming here and seeing empty lockers where Mayo and Wilfork once dressed.

“Those are just guys who you love to play with and play for,” he said. “And I will continue to play for them, even though they’re not on the field.”

After the Patriots passed on Carter following the 2012 Super Bowl, he signed with Oakland after the next season began. He finished with 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 12 games for the Raiders. Then he was cut in training camp this year.

So he went home and began thinking about life after football. He continued to work out, but also began working toward a possible future in television as a commentator. He watched the Patriots season unfold from afar, wincing when his friends went down with injuries.

“I focused on other career avenues in case nothing did happen in terms of returning here,” he said. “Lo and behold, I’m here now.”

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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