FOXBOROUGH — The first thing you’ll notice is the hair. The billowing, blonde locks flowing from Chase Winovich’s helmet as he chases quarterbacks are impossible to miss.

Then there is the energy. Winovich was famously one of the most relentless players in college football — his official NFL scouting report included phrases like “zombie blood” and said he plays like he’s fueled “by a chip on his shoulder and a gas tank full of energy.” 

And last, but not least, there is the unmistakable talent.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound edge rusher was a Third-Team All-American as a senior at the University of Michigan, and since being drafted in the third round (No. 77 overall) by New England this past spring, Winovich has emerged as the most productive Patriots rookie of the 2019 class and one of the top defensive rookies in the NFL.

Put it all together, and you have a player who has earned favorable comparisons to Clay Matthews III, another high-energy pass rusher with a legendary head of hair.

But what you won’t see is that beneath his Thor-like exterior, Winovich is a profoundly introspective and intelligent person who — while laser focused on football — is willing to go to great lengths to better himself as a person.

“I’m always looking to expand my horizons and my knowledge,” Winovich said. “I like to think of myself as an evolving human being, and with that being said I’m always trying to grow and look for anything that I feel can help take my game to the next level.”

Unapologetically himself

Throughout his career Winovich has always followed his heart, even if it has meant doing things some might consider odd.

For starters, back when he was a star high school linebacker and quarterback outside of Pittsburgh, Winovich was a hardcore Ohio State fan living in Penn State country. He even had an offer from Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. But when the time came to make a decision he did the unthinkable. He committed to Michigan, he said, because he felt an authentic connection with then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

While Hoke wound up getting fired after Winovich’s freshman year, Chase stuck around and became a beloved Michigan Man, one defined as much for his standout play as his larger than life personality.

During college, Winovich switched from linebacker to tight end before finally settling in on the defensive line as a redshirt sophomore. To help improve his game, he began practicing jiu jitsu, yoga and even ballet to learn skills he could apply to football. 

By his junior year, Winovich was one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten and a genuine campus phenomenon in Ann Arbor. But rather than let his celebrity get to his head, Winovich put it to good use and embarked on a series of highly successful charitable endeavors.

Winovich teamed with Tammi Carr and the ChadTough Foundation to raise more than $200,000 for research on diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a form of brain cancer that affected Carr’s son Chad, the grandson of former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr who died of DIPG in 2015 at age five.

He also befriended Larry Prout Jr., a teenage Michigan superfan who has battled illness and disability throughout his life and who joined the Michigan football team through the Team Impact program. Winovich went above and beyond to help make sure Prout was more than just a teammate, but like a brother.

“This is a tremendously caring individual, a friend to everybody, and he uses his Michigan platform in a smart way,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, one of Winovich’s college coaches. “I don’t think people know that much about him that way, but that’s the thing that resonates the most with me.”

“I view it as — it’s like a tax for being human and being in this position in some way,” Winovich said. “If you’re given these certain blessings then it’s up to you to give back and help the world.”

A force of nature

Since his arrival in New England, Winovich has kept a low profile and dedicated his entire focus to earning his place in the professional ranks.

Yet while he’s put most of his off-field pursuits on pause until the offseason, his irrepressible passion and personality has still shined through, and he made an immediate impression upon meeting his new teammates in the spring

“He looked like a miniature Clay Matthews,” said fellow defensive lineman Deatrich Wise. “That’s what I first said, with his long hair and stuff. He’s a cool guy who just loves to be here and loves football.”

Though he hasn’t seen significant playing time, Winovich has made the most of every opportunity. Despite playing only 28.5% of New England’s defensive snaps, he is tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. He also has 10 tackles, three tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits and scored a touchdown on a blocked punt during his team’s Week 6 win against the New York Giants.

Winovich is also tied for third in sacks among all NFL rookies, and if he continues at his current pace, Winovich won’t finish far behind the sack totals Matthews compiled in his rookie year (10) with the Green Bay Packers in 2009.

“The guy does things that don’t get coached in terms of converging and running to the football,” Brown said of Winovich. “The way he plays the game, you can teach it, but very few guys have that high motor on the field like this guy.”

Family never far

Winovich hasn’t done it all on his own. From a young age his family has been a constant presence in his life, and throughout his rookie year he’s frequently credited them for their role in his development.

His father Peter, a 6-foot-7 former basketball star at Bethany College in West Virginia, and his mother Nina, a presidential fitness award recipient, have attended nearly every football game he’s ever played. The pair regularly travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles for their son’s games, a commitment that has meant the world to the Patriots rookie.

“They’re my number one supporters and I love them to death,” Winovich said.

Winovich’s grandparents have also played a crucial role in his life. During the preseason Winovich told reporters that his paternal grandmother used to reward him with $5 and a chocolate bar if he played hard and didn’t get hurt during his games. His maternal grandmother, who has passed away, was also a huge supporter and had always told Chase that after she died, she would come back as an orange butterfly. When Winovich saw an orange butterfly fluttering on the field in Miami back in Week 2, he said he got emotional and knew something big was about to happen.

Moments later, Winovich was celebrating his first career sack.

The Winovich family has had plenty to celebrate throughout Chase’s rookie year, and at this point the Patriots surely love what they’ve seen too. A smart, driven football player who has embraced his role without losing sight of the bigger picture, Winovich has the look of a star in the making. 

And against all odds, he’s made it more than halfway through the season with his hair intact.

“They tried to cut it but the scissors couldn’t cut through the hair, it was too strong,” Winovich said with a laugh.

Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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