SUMMERVILLE - One play away.
Former South Carolina star Jasper Brinkley found out how true the adage as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings.
Taken in the fifth round of last year's NFL draft, Brinkley knew getting on the field was going to be difficult playing behind Pro Bowl middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. But in training camp, Vikings linebacker coach Fred Pagac stressed the importance of preparation, making sure the rookie would be ready.
"It gets kind of drilled into your head from day one," said Brinkley, who was in the Lowcountry recently filming a commercial for McElveen Hummer. "It doesn't matter where you are on the depth chart, you need to be prepared to play. You've got to work hard in practice and know the game plan, because you never know when you're going to get your opportunity to play."
That opportunity came in against Arizona in Week 13 when Henderson broke his left leg while trying to make a tackle. Brinkely, like most of his teammates, was shaken by the injury.
"I was in shock, to tell you the truth," Brinkley said. "It's not an injury you see every day. I know a lot of the other guys were pretty shaken up by the whole thing. You didn't think something like that could happen to E.J. It shows you how quickly things can change. One play you're on the sidelines and the next you're in the game making the defensive calls. It can happen that fast."
Up to that point, Brinkley had played sparingly, making 10 tackles in the first 12 games. He made his first start in Week 14 against Cincinnati and finished with three tackles and broke up a pass.
"You never want to see anyone get hurt," Brinkley said. "But I realized with E.J. out of the lineup, this was my chance to show the coaches that they hadn't made a mistake in drafting me."
The following week against Carolina, Brinkley had the best game of the season, recording seven tackles.
"I had a lot of family in town," Brinkley said. "I think that was the first game where I really felt comfortable out there. It takes you a couple of games, but I felt like I was able to react to things out there a little quicker that game.
"There's so much more off-the-field preparation in the NFL than in college. You have to know what kind of plays they like to run with different personnel packages they have on the field. That's why the film study is so important."
The Vikings made it to the NFC championship game, losing 31-28 in overtime to New Orleans.
"Getting that close to the Super Bowl and not getting there was tough," said Brinkley, who finished with 31 tackles. "Playing in the NFC championship game was a great experience and something I'll never forget, but we're not satisfied with the season we had last year. We want to get to the Super Bowl this season and win it."
Of course, the return of future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre will determine a lot about the Vikings this fall. Favre waited until after the middle of August to sign with the Vikings last season.
Brinkley said Favre's late arrival was not a distraction.
"He's earned that right to call the shots," Brinkley said. "We were just happy to have him on our team."
Henderson is expected to make a full recovery, but Brinkley knows anything can happen.
"You never know what's going to happen," Brinkley said. "I learned that last season. You really are just one play away from starting."