FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) -Michael Boley has bigger concerns than his next contract.
As one of the NFL's best young linebackers in his third year with the Atlanta Falcons, Boley seems destined for a lucrative deal.
Nothing drives him more, however, than the condition of his 7-year-old autistic son, Mikey.
``He's gotten a whole lot better the last two years,'' Boley said Thursday. ``You just hope that at some point he can learn how to function as best he can in society, but you've got to give him every chance to help him succeed.''
Boley's namesake has given his father a greater responsibility than beating blocks and making tackles.
Every day brings another challenge, but Mikey is improving. Thanks to some help from the Falcons' front office, Boley has enrolled his boy at the Marcus Institute, an Atlanta center that specializes in educating children with developmental, neurological and behavorial disorders. Mikey also attends a public school that works with autistic kids.
Boley's wife, Chantelle, plays a big role in Mikey's life even though she has lived out of state. Boley, a native of Gadsden, Ala., won a custody battle two years ago after proving to a judge that he could provide a better life for Mikey.
Though he embraces his role in Mikey's life, Boley acknowledges that autism causes frustrations for everyone involved. That's why football is so important, and not just because it pays a huge salary.
Unreleased emotions are taken out on opponents, and Boley plans to do the same when Atlanta (2-6) visits the Carolina Panthers (4-4) on Sunday.
``I'm reaching for the stars, man,'' Boley said of his career potential. ``Ever since I played this game, a personal goal of mine was to be the best.''
According to statistics kept by Falcons coaches, in Boley's first 40 games the former standout from Southern Mississippi has 230 tackles (164 solo), three sacks, four interceptions, 13 passes defended, four fumbles forced and three recovered.
Stats, Inc., credits Boley with 68 tackles this year, which ranks him eighth in the NFL, but the player's versatility is what makes him special.
A hybrid linebacker from his strongside position, Boley has the smarts, quickness and skills to work as effectively in coverage as he does against the run. Disrupting a receiver's route gives Boley as much satisfaction as hitting a quarterback or running back.
He lacks the name recognition of comparable linebackers like Derrick Brooks or Julian Peterson, but Atlanta teammate Keith Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker, believes Boley is good enough to warrant consideration.
``The thing that impresses me about Michael is the way he plays the game and prepares,'' Brooking said. ``The guy goes all out every snap, and he's always willing to take extra time in the film room or in practice to make sure he understands what we're trying to do as a defense.''
Boley's current contract expires after the season, at which point he can become a restricted free agent and negotiate with any team. The Falcons will likely place a tender on Boley that would reward him with his first contract exceeding $1 million, but the big payday would come as unrestricted free agent in 2009.
``I really haven't thought much about it,'' Boley said. ``For a while, growing up, I thought to get to the NFL would be great. To get paid for it, would be great, too. Honestly, true enough, everybody loves the money. I'm no different, but when it all boils down to it, I just want to play ball.''
The Falcons drafted Boley in the fifth round of 2005, a month after he graduated from Southern Miss with a degree in coaching and sports administration. An injury to former linebacker Ed Hartwell gave Boley his first start in Week 6 of 2005. He's worked with the first-team defense ever since.
``My first few weeks of starting was still kind of a learning process,'' Boley said. ``But once you learn where you're supposed to be and how you fit in the scheme, then it becomes just a matter of going out and playing football.''
No doubt that it's a lot easier than watching your child battle autism. For some reason he really can't explain, Mikey's difficulties give Boley clarity on the field.
``At this point, I don't know if I will be the best,'' he said. ``But I'm going to strive to get there because I feel like I can always go one step more.''

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