FOXBORO -- For Alfonzo Dennard, surviving the NFL's cutdown dates inspired a sigh.
"It feels good just to be on a team, you know?"
He barely ducked into the NFL draft to begin with.
Dennard was arrested April 21, 2012 on suspicion of assaulting a police officer. The 22-year old got in a fight outside a Lincoln, Nebraska bar at 2 a.m. that Saturday. When an officer tried to intervene, Dennard allegedly punched him in the head.
Dennard's future was quickly eclipsed by doubt.
The All-Big Ten corner who received defensive back of the year honors became the Nebraska DB who got arrested.
"Character concerns," that bright red flag, was quickly hoisted in scouting reports.
Projected earlier by some as a second-round pick, Dennard's stock plummeted.
"My agent was like, 'No matter where you go, it's still going to be exciting.' But I was like, 'No, man, I don't think so.'
"I wanted to go higher."
At first, he struggled to cope. How did everything get so out of control? Who would take a risk on the alleged Kid Who Hit a Cop?
Dennard needed bracing. Luckily, he got it.
"I have a lot of people who supported me," he said. "My family -- that's the most important. Without my family I don't think I could have gone through the whole situation. I've never been in a situation like that before so it was kind of hard for me, but my family stuck by my side."
The clan had plenty of loving hands to extend; Dennard has 10 brothers (including a twin, Lorenzo) and three sisters.
He smiled when illustrating the breadth of his family tree, to see his listener absorb the strength of their numbers. And he was grateful to consider it himself, as he does every day.
"That's why I say my family, they're everything," he said.
New England selected Dennard in the seventh round with pick No. 224 -- a triple-digit measurement of how far he had fallen.
"It just humbled me," he said. "It humbled me a lot because I felt like I was supposed to be at the top. But since I went in the seventh round I have to work harder. I have to prove the doubters wrong."
He started with the legal fallout.
There were court dates to make, pleas to enter. Unlike the other rookies, there was no gushing post-draft conference call, no celebratory meet-and-greet. During what was supposed to be the most exciting time in a young football player's life, he was largely removed from the public eye.
In the meantime, people from Dennard's past came out in the media as character witnesses.
"For four years, I didn't have a problem with that young man in any way," Cornhuskers coach Bo Pellini told ESPN Boston. "He did things exactly how we asked him to do them here, and the way we handle our kids, we don't make it easy on the kids in our program. We hold them to high standards every single day."
The court proceedings were eventually put on hold. Dennard's lawyer, Terry Dougherty, was granted a continuance until December.
Great, right? Time to focus on football.
Dennard missed 16 practice sessions after suffering a hamstring injury on Day 2 of training camp. He didn't return to action until the Patriots traveled to Tampa for preseason Game 3. One forced fumble in the preseason finale against the Giants was the highlight in a sample size too small to judge.
But the final word, since April, has come from the Patriots. The coaching staff has thus far felt him worth keeping among the select 53. And his teammates support the decision wholeheartedly.
"I think a great thing, when looking at 'Zo, is how hard he's worked," said one of 2011's captains, Devin McCourty. "He's a guy who was limited a little bit throughout training camp with injuries, but he's worked hard just paying attention when watching film and working hard in the weight room to get back on the field. I think it was exciting to watch him get back into practice and into the game and kind of just pick up where everyone else is. Whenever you see a rookie able to do that, I think it's encouraging."
Just what Dennard needs.
"I'm ready to just get everything over with and just have my mind on football," he said. "It's kind of hard right now, I have my mind on both things, I'm just trying to stick on football."
Dennard's rough-hewn road to the NFL's Week 1 has given him a unique perspective. It may not be one he wanted, but it's what he got.
Cutdown day? A hurdle cleared. A leap in the right direction.
"It's pretty rough, but it kind of woke me up, though," Dennard said. "You never know where you'll be the next day, so you just have to, don't get complacent. Just have fun for the day and don't worry about what's going to happen tomorrow. Stay focused on what's going to happen today."
A lesson learned the hardest way.