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A DREADED ROUTE TO A STARTING SPOT ATARI BIGBY'S HAIR HAS STIRRED UP PLENTY OF CONTROVERSY ON HIS JOURNEY INTO THE NFL.
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A DREADED ROUTE TO A STARTING SPOT ATARI BIGBY'S HAIR HAS STIRRED UP PLENTY OF CONTROVERSY ON HIS JOURNEY INTO THE NFL.

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If only he'd have just cut the hair. If only he'd have compromised. Everything might have come so much easier. And it's not like it wouldn't have grown back.

But that would have meant Atari Bigby would have lost more than just the long, flowing dreadlocks he's been growing since he was 15. He'd have lost who he is, what he stands for.

"And you have to stand for something," the Green Bay Packers safety said Thursday. "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

When it comes to Atari Bigby, where he is - starting for the Packers in Sunday's regular-season opener against Philadelphia at Lambeau Field - has nothing to do with his hair. And yet, who he is, or at least the long, out-of-the-way route he took to get here, is all about his hair.

Appearance is everything?

When Bigby was starring at Miami (Fla.) Senior High School, a coach suggested he get a haircut, just for appearances.

While understanding the importance of Bigby's roots - a Jamaican-born Rastafarian, he moved to Miami at age 4 - the coach also knew the judge-a-book-by-its-cover mentality of college recruiters, including the coaches for the Miami Hurricanes, who required all incoming freshmen to shave their heads.

Sure enough, while Miami was interested, Bigby wasn't - not if it meant cutting his hair. So Bigby decided he couldn't play there, and he couldn't play at North Carolina State, either, because new coach Chuck Amato didn't want a kid whose looks might make the Wolfpack's boosters nervous. So Bigby landed at Central Florida, where he could let his hair down - literally - playing for Mike Kruczek.

But when Kruczek was fired and the next coach took over during Bigby's senior year, the hair became an issue again. That new coach? George O'Leary.

"You know, the guy who lied on his resume with the Notre Dame job," Bigby said. "When he came, my whole world started falling apart. He came in with the attitude that he had to clean up the program. He had the notion that I needed to cut my hair because I looked like a thug. ... I was never ineligible, I never missed a meeting or a practice, I don't have a (criminal) record. I'm not a bad person.

"I felt like, 'If you don't want me because of the way I look, then you don't want me. You want somebody else.' "

Bigby believes O'Leary and his staff badmouthed him to NFL scouts going into the 2005 draft, which led to him going undrafted and signing with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent.

"The way I found that out was when I went to the Dolphins, (then-coach) Nick Saban sat me down and was like, 'This is what I hear. I don't know if I can trust you,' " Bigby said. "And all I asked him to do was judge me off the time he saw me there."

That's exactly how Packers coach Mike McCarthy judged Bigby this year in camp, and what McCarthy saw was enough to make Bigby an opening-day starter and lead to former starter Marquand Manuel's release.

"It's 2007," McCarthy said following practice Thursday. "Just like everybody else, I care about professional behavior. There's a dress code on the field, there's a dress code at times in our business, but as far as the way someone wears their hair, trust me, (it doesn't matter).

"We feel very good about Atari or we wouldn't have done what we've done. I really appreciate the way he's earned it. He's worked his way up, he fought his way through. It's nice to see people earn it. And long-term, he'll appreciate it and I think he'll play a lot better."

Potential, but inexperience

He's definitely earned it.

Although versatile enough to play safety, cornerback and linebacker coming into the league, the Dolphins released Bigby in July 2005, and the New York Jets picked him up but waived him on the final cutdown. The Packers signed him to their practice squad that November, moving him up to the 53-man roster for the final two games of the year before sending him to NFL Europe in the offseason.

Last year, Bigby broke his hand during the annual Family Night Scrimmage and was waived on the final cutdown before being re-signed to the practice squad. Once his hand healed, Bigby was promoted to the roster again and saw action in five games, primarily on special teams.

And yet, the Packers saw enough from him to enter camp thinking he was a viable candidate to replace Manuel, a free agent disappointment. Midway through camp, they moved him into the No. 1 defense, and Manuel's days were numbered.

Now, Bigby is the guy, despite his inexperience.

"He's got two snaps of experience playing back there (at safety) in the National Football League. Two snaps - in the Chicago game (at the end of) last year," secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. "So we're going to see. But he's going to keep getting better and better all the time.

"It took me two or three days to realize the potential of the kid, but I really liked him, even when he came here last year. He has no real limitations, other than experience. That's going to be the key thing. Whatever he is in Game 1, we're anticipating he'll be better at the end of the year and into the future."

The 5-foot-11, 211-pound Bigby, who turns 26 Sept. 19, may lack experience, but he doesn't lack confidence. He plans on proving all those coaches - Amato, O'Leary, Saban and Herman Edwards - wrong, and doing it the way he has throughout: His.

"It was harder, but I knew I was doing it my way," Bigby said. "My thing is, I was going to show them that they made a mistake. I wouldn't do it any other way. Of course, it humbled me, but I always felt I was a good football player. Now, I just have to keep going, as far as I can go. How far is that? I don't even know. I think the potential is there. But potential can get you fired. So who knows?"

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