BY BILL COATS Friday, September 10, 2010 6:00 am

Joe Laurinaitis made his living as a professional wrestler. His avocation was coaching kids sports teams mostly the ones on which his son, James, played.

It didn't matter what sport: Joe "drafted" James No. 1.

"He kind of put the pressure on me. He made it known to the rest of the guys that he thought I was the best player," said James, the Rams' second-year linebacker. "When that's your father as coach, you have to go out of your way to prove it. You've got to be a leader."

Thus were planted the seeds of leadership that blossomed throughout Laurinaitis' football career at Wayzata High in Plymouth, Minn., then Ohio State and now with the Rams.

"I was voted captain my senior year in high school, and then at Ohio State I was voted captain by (coach Jim) Tressel and the guys when I was a junior," Laurinaitis said. "It's something that's just natural."

Laurinaitis, 23, isn't a Rams captain yet. But make no mistake: despite his youth, he's recognized as the clear leader of the defensive unit.

"He accepts that role really well," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "When he was here in his first (spring practices), it was like, 'Wow, he really gets it; let's see what happens in training camp.' And he didn't skip a beat."

Still, Laurinaitis was determined not to barge into anything. He vowed to "talk very little and learn a lot" during his early days with the Rams.

"When you're a rookie, you don't want to step on anybody's toes; you want to earn your respect," Laurinaitis said. "But as a middle linebacker, you have to take control sometimes. ... You have to really know how to approach each guy. Some guys, you might be able to get in their face and tell them, 'Let's go!' Other guys, they'll want to be alone when they're having a rough one. It's a happy medium."

Student of the game

Laurinaitis has long had a knack for recognizing the offense's intentions. Some of that, he surmises, comes from playing quarterback in his younger days. But it's also a by-product of a ton of off-the-field study, a task that Laurinaitis, who graduated from Ohio State with a 3.28 grade-point average, always has embraced.

"I like (running the defense), because I think it forces you to study more," he said. "You don't want everyone pointing at you, 'Well, he made the wrong call.' You've got to be on your game."

Laurinaitis' game always was football, even though as a hard-hitting prep hockey defenseman, he had NHL scouts drooling. He was projected a second- or third-round draft pick.

"Hockey was my hobby," Laurinaitis said. "Football was my love."

Even before he was old enough for organized leagues, Laurinaitis was into the game. "I remember being in Minnesota, putting snow pants on, going out in the backyard," he said. "My sister and I would play each other, and my brother would be the quarterback. We'd go one-on-one, in the snow, tackle, just get after it."

Proving himself

The Rams took Laurinaitis in the second round (No. 35 overall) of the 2009 draft. Three other linebackers were selected ahead of him, and Laurinaitis came to town determined to verify his value.

"I knew I was drafted here for a reason," he said. "I looked as it as, they have a defensive head coach who had coached linebackers (in Philadelphia), that they made this pick and I had to come in and prove to them that it was a good pick for them."

Laurinaitis set a franchise record for tackles by a rookie; his total of 144 led the team. He also won over his teammates with his work ethic, his dedication to detail and his quick understanding of the defensive calls and alignments, a challenge that typically falls to the middle linebacker.

"They put a lot on his plate," said defensive end James Hall, an 11-year veteran. "He played with a lot of poise, and he rarely made any mistakes. For a young guy, that's pretty impressive and you appreciated that, the vets did. He gained a lot of respect, coming in and doing that."

Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole has seen Laurinaitis grow as a leader.

"I was impressed with him the first year, but he's really taken hold of it," Flajole said. "Some guys, you put that on them but they don't really like that responsibility; they do it out of obligation. He really relishes it."

Cornerback Ron Bartell, a sixth-year pro, stressed to Laurinaitis during the offseason that he had carte blanche as the linchpin of the defense. "We told him, 'Don't be afraid to get on us older guys, because this is your defense now,'" Bartell said.

While appreciative, Laurinaitis really wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's an honor to have guys who are veterans on this defense, the guys that you play with, the guys that you go to battle with, see it like that," he said. "It's also a big responsibility.

"But I like the role of being in control, because I think it holds you to a higher level of accountability. And when you have that accountability, knowing that you're the guy making the checks and the calls, you can't blame anybody else. It's on you."

Just as he learned from Joe Laurinaitis.