Wednesday, August 24, 2011 12:15 am

Quintin Mikell grew up in Eugene, Ore., and dreamed of playing in the Pacific 10 Conference, specifically for his hometown Oregon Ducks. But he wasn't recruited by any Pac-10 schools.

Instead he starred at Boise State, earning conference defensive player of the year once and sharing those laurels another year. But he went undrafted.

In the NFL, he didn't become a full-time starter until his fifth season with the Philadelphia Eagles.

So this is a player who has had to prove himself every step of the way. Nothing has been simply handed to him on the football field. To say he plays with a chip on his shoulder because of that may be overstatement, but there's no doubt he is driven.

"Obviously, it makes you look at the whole game completely different," Mikell said. "When you have to work for everything you get, it makes you appreciate what you have. And it also makes you realize that if I don't keep working, there's going to be somebody else that's going to outwork me."

As a result, Mikell says playing football particularly at the NFL level is a gift, not a birthright. And he approaches it as such.

His eight-year run with Philadelphia ended this offseason. Mikell turns 31 on Sept. 16, and the Eagles have a distaste for 30-somethings, so they didn't try to re-sign him in free agency.

"The writing was on the wall, so to speak," Mikell said. "I kind of had a feeling."

But for once in his football life, Mikell didn't have to wait his turn, prove his worth, lower his sights or swallow his pride. The Rams came after Mikell immediately once the lockout ended, and came after him hard. On July 26, the first day teams could negotiate with free agents, Mikell agreed to a four-year, $27 million contract with St. Louis. The first two years, which total $14 million, are guaranteed. In financial terms, it's the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award for Mikell. But it also symbolizes his journey in football.

"Me and my wife had talked about it," Mikell said. "It was very emotional, because it was a long, hard road. It's not over yet. But it definitely was a lot of heartache, a lot of ups and downs, going down that road.

"Feeling like you should be playing, and dealing with a whole bunch of different things. To finally feel appreciated was probably the biggest thing. I'm not saying I wasn't appreciated in Philly, but to feel like I was wanted once I hit the open market, it was just perfect."

The Rams needed a safety to replace Oshiomogho Atogwe, and Mikell had a history with coach Steve Spagnuolo in Philadelphia.

"He's grown and matured from when I had him as a rookie (in 2003)," Spagnuolo said. "He was just a young puppy, his head was spinning all over the place. He didn't even know what direction he was going in. But he went fast. That's what he did. Even when he was a rookie."

Mikell earned his spurs as a special teams player, twice being named the Eagles' special teams MVP. For most of those early years in Philly, Mikell bided his time at safety, backing up Pro Bowlers Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis. As a young player, Mikell looked up to Dawkins in particular, watching everything he did.

"Playing behind Mike and Brian for those years, I think helped him," Spagnuolo said. "Sometimes you get in this league and you get thrown into the fire too soon, and kinda get knocked back. But he was lucky in that he had time to grow."

More time than he wanted. But in 2007, the year Spagnuolo went to the New York Giants as defensive coordinator, Lewis signed with San Francisco in free agency, opening up a starting job for Mikell in Philadelphia. Mikell made his mark almost immediately, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2008 and 2010 and making the Pro Bowl in 2009.

When the lockout finally ended, and the free agency period began at the end of July, the first phone call Mikell got was from Spagnuolo. Suffice it to say, Spagnuolo didn't have to give Mikell the hard sell.

"Once Spags called me, I was like, 'Yeah, let's go,' " Mikell said. "I was very excited. Because I know the defense, I know what he brings to the table, I love the way that he coaches. It'd be nice to help a program, an organization like the Rams, kinda get back to where they used to be."

Mikell, 5-10, 203, can play both the free and strong safety positions and is a sure tackler. The Spagnuolo system seems to blur the distinction between the two positions anyway. But in effect, Mikell is replacing Atogwe, who not only was one of the most productive players on defense, but one of the more popular and well-respected ones in the locker room.

No one was closer to Atogwe than Rams cornerback Ron Bartell. But even Bartell already gives Mikell a stamp of approval.

"I don't think there'll be that big of a dropoff if any," Bartell said. " 'Q,' he brings a totally different style. He's physical. You can play him deep. He's very versatile. Honestly, I think he's one of the more underrated safeties in the NFL. Great locker room guy. He's been a pleasure to work with so far."

Although the basics of the Rams' defensive scheme are the same as what Mikell learned in Philadelphia, it has evolved since then. He's picking things up quickly, but Mikell said the scheme has more differences than he expected.

Nonetheless, he says: "I felt like I was molded for this defense. I can move around. I can cover. I can let the corners play. I can play man-to-man. I can coach. So I can do a lot of different things. I think I'm just a rounded player for it."

Which explains, after all, why he's here.