FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Because he plays for a franchise which disdains public levity the way professional golfers abhor noise during backswings – and because he plays for a unit that got brutalized in the biggest game of the NFL season – New England Patriots tackle Matt Light isn't someone you'd expect to mine Super Bowl XLII for comic value.
But there Light was late last month in a restaurant near Gillette Stadium, breaking down the Pats' shocking 17-14 defeat to the New York Giants and turning that unpleasant memory into a twisted Hallmark moment.
"Having four rings would be phenomenal, but realistically, I'm not going to wear the three I have," Light said, pausing to take a swig of his cold, microbrewed beer. "The worst part about losing that game was looking at the guys on the team who haven't won one – Junior Seau, Randy Moss, Wes Welker – and not knowing if they'll ever know that feeling. Because when it comes down to it, it's not about the jewelry; it's about being able to sit around the campfire with those guys years from now, having a beer or two, talking about how we can't get out of bed in the morning and remembering what we accomplished together.
"Hell, I don't know, maybe every Feb. 4 I'll send those guys cards with a gravestone on the front to commemorate our performance, year after year. Even when it hurts, you've got to keep laughing."
If the Patriots are the No Fun League's least overtly merry franchise, don't blame the aptly named Light. Whether he's executing a well-planned prank that provokes a prolonged locker room celebration, filling Tom Brady's car with peanuts or doing a spot-on Moss impersonation in a meeting room, the Pro Bowl left tackle rebuffs the robotic behavior preferred by coach Bill Belichick the way he typically repels opposing pass rushers.
In an era in which superstar players, overbearing head coaches and even former video assistants turned informants tend to take themselves too seriously, Light is a refreshingly unpretentious presence. How many other NFL players can claim, with a straight face, that they "don't even know what channel ESPN is, to be honest with you" and actually sound believable?
Believe it, for the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Light truly is a player who, upon reporting to the Patriots as a rookie in 2001, literally couldn't have told you the difference between Brett Favre and Brent Musburger.
"When I heard I got drafted by New England, I didn't know where I was going," Light swears. "I had never watched an NFL game until I played in one. I never watched a college game until I played in one, either."
Growing up in Greenville, Ohio, a small town in the western part of the state, Light was raised as an outdoorsman long before he hit puberty. He got his first gun at 13 and behaved as though "Turn Off Your Television Week" was on an endless loop.
"There's at least somebody in everybody's family that watched football – except mine," Light says. "Actually, I remember spending Thanksgiving at one of my cousin's houses, and they were showing games on this little old TV that was easily 30 years old. I mean, it was a relic – it had the UHF dial and the regular dial, the rabbit ears, everything. Instead of watching we went outside and ran around the whole time."
Even as he grew into a very large high school football star, Light remained almost endearingly naïve. He didn't grasp the concept that he could earn an athletic scholarship to college until his senior season at Greenville High. After a standout career at Purdue, most of it spent protecting the blindside of All-American quarterback Drew Brees, Light prepared for the pros by "renting out this huge hillbilly bar by the Purdue campus on draft day, drinking beers with everyone I knew and turning off the TV sound so we could play some music."
So it was long before Spygate that Light found himself in the middle of what would become the NFL's nastiest feud. "It was the middle of the second round, and we were actually a good amount of beers into it," he recalls. "I got a call from (Patriots personnel chief) Scott Pioli, and he told me they had a pick coming up and that they definitely wanted to take me. I hung up and a couple of minutes later I got a call from someone at the Jets basically saying the same thing. Then Scott called back."
"Are you talking to anybody else?'" Pioli asked.
"Yeah," the guileless Light replied. "A guy from the Jets."
Minutes later, with Pioli still on the phone, the Patriots traded up to acquire the 48th overall pick, moving New England one spot ahead of its AFC East rivals. "You're going to see the trade go across the screen," Pioli told Light, seconds before it happened.
Once the pick became official, Pioli added, "Congratulations. You're going to be going from one Drew to another."
Recalls Light: "I had no idea what he was talking about, but I played along and said, 'Oh, yeah, that's great.'"
Light quickly learned about the other Drew, who happened to be the Pats' star quarterback. "Drew Bledsoe is an evil man," Light says, laughing. "I call him Osama bin Bledsoe. When it comes to pranks, that man is a genius. He once moved all the furniture from a teammate's entire house into the basement."
Early in his rookie season Light became suspicious one afternoon and snuck out to the parking lot where he spotted Bledsoe "filling my car vents up with confetti, glitter and all kinds of crap. I knew I had to get him back, so I followed him home for like a week straight and got him patterned out pretty good. He would stop at this little gas station every day around the same time, so there was potential there. I was gonna advertise for a yard sale at his house. But I never did pull it off."
Brady, who took over for Bledsoe during that '01 season and vaulted to superstardom while launching the Pats' run of three Super Bowl triumphs this decade, didn't get off so easily: One day late last season he left the Pats' facility to discover that his Lexus had been completely filled with those pink peanuts used for packing.
"Somebody filled his car up from sunroof to floorboard, and I'm told it takes exactly five bags of packing peanuts to do the job," Light says. "I don't know, maybe he asked someone to ship his car, and they thought it meant 'wrap it up and ship it'?"
Light's most impressive work occurred last summer, when he broke up the drudgery of training camp by buying $200 worth of $2 scratch-off Massachusetts lottery tickets and "unfolding them like an accordion" in front of teammates. He told them he was "trying to bring some luck to the locker room"; what Light was really doing was setting up a ruse that would play out two weeks later.
"After that guys on the team became totally addicted to those tickets," Light says. "With all those little grey shavings, you could've probably filled up the hot tub in the training room."
Having hooked his potential victims, Light began casually mentioning that he had also purchased some "county tickets" at a local convenience store. One day he was displaying them in the presence of a young Patriots defender – Light doesn't want his teammate's name used, hoping to spare him the public embarrassment he suffered among his peers – when the kid finally seized the bait. "Curiosity killed him," Light says. "He picked up the (county) tickets and said, 'How do you win?' and scratched off the numbers. He was looking and looking at the numbers and his eyes got big and he screamed, 'Light, dawg – you just won $100,000!"
Light looked up and rolled his eyes, which only made the teammate more animated. "He said, 'Light, you ain't hearing me dawg. You won a hundred grand!' He was slamming the table and hitting me, and everyone came over and started going nuts. It was hysteria for the next five minutes. Guys formed a train and were chanting 'Whoot Whoot' and screaming at the top of their lungs. It reminded me of when my son was 2 ½ and he got his Christmas present and he was running around playing with the box it came in. I haven't seen that much joy in a grown man since my days at the club."
When things calmed down, Light asked the teammate who was still walking around with the fateful ticket, "Hey, where do I go get the money? I think it says it on the back. Read it out loud so everyone can hear."
The prank victim dutifully turned over the ticket and read the text: "To redeem, visit the North Pole and see Santa, his elves, the Tooth Fairy …" Finally, he said softly, "Oh no. Light, man, is this fake? Did you set me up?"
Uh, does Santa live in the North Pole?
Light was similarly frustrating to opponents in '07. As the Patriots rolled to an unprecedented 16-0 regular season, racking up offensive records that included Brady's 50 touchdown passes, Moss' 23 receiving TDs and 589 total points, the offensive line was consistently dominating. Much of that was credited to Light, who'd made his first Pro Bowl the previous year as an injury replacement and was voted into the '08 game as an AFC starter.
Even the most successful offensive linemen are destined to have lower Q-ratings than their skill-position counterparts, but after winning a pair of tight playoff games to advance to the Super Bowl, Light and his fellow blockers were on the verge of collective and individual glory.
It all fell apart in the Arizona desert three months ago. The Pats had just put up 38 points against the Giants in the regular season finale, but this time New York's formidable defensive line played at a scarily high level. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora consistently beat Light around one edge while his future Hall of Fame counterpart, Michael Strahan, toyed with Nick Kaczur on the other, and Justin Tuck wreaked havoc in the middle. The Giants sacked Brady five times and knocked him down on at least a dozen other occasions. The Pats scored just seven points until Brady drove them down for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 remaining – only to watch Eli Manning guide New York to the winning score.
The Patriots, who often come off as joyless in victory, were predictably miserable in defeat. "It was brutal sitting on that (team) bus for like two hours after the game, waiting for it to leave," Light says. "Guys were getting their exit physicals in the locker room, and it seemed like we stayed there forever."
He says he hasn't watched a replay of the game and isn't sure exactly why he and his linemates struggled. "Obviously, it didn't go well for us up front," Light says. "I think we can all agree that New York was a different team in the playoffs and Super Bowl than they were in the regular season, and their (defensive) line was playing extremely well. I haven't watched the film, and I can't even tell you where the breakdown was. The thing was, on that last touchdown drive, we felt like we had it under control. I wish we would've done that about six times before that, but (expletive), life ain't perfect. I'm pretty sure all of us on the line learned from that game, and we've just got to get better."
As he prepares for another potential title run, Light is doing what he enjoys most (other than making his teammates feel like fools) – running the Light Foundation, which is dedicated to empowering young people through grants, scholarships and outdoor activities, and hanging out with his wife, Susie, and their three young children (sons Collin and William and daughter Gracie).
Matt, who remains devoted to outdoor pursuits, plans to take Collin, who is three, on a turkey hunt in the coming weeks. "My other one (William)'s one-and-a-half," Light says, "and I'm tempted to take him, too."
Light, who butchers his own deer, views himself as somewhat of a naturalist. He and Susie are raising organic beef on their farm in Ohio and have adopted principles of the Maker's Diet espoused by Jordan Rubin, which boasts that it is "based on Biblical principles."
"We're going green," Light says. "Of course, that applies at both ends. If you're going green, you're probably blowing green. Trust me."
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The uproar over the Bills' price-gouging in Toronto will subside when it becomes painfully clear that plenty of our Canadian friends are willing and able to pony up. … Getting Michael Vick to return the favor, however, won't be quite as easy. … Despite the inevitable attempts to portray Pacman Jones as a sympathetic and misunderstood figure on HBO's "Hard Knocks" this summer, I will still think he's a menacing con artist (though it'll definitely be good television).
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Maria Sharapova has a rough, rough life, and we can't possibly understand the pressures she faces as an international tennis superstar, celebrity endorser and WTA indentured servant.
2. Impressed by Cedric Benson's alleged behavior on the "party cove", the Vikings inquired about trading for the underachieving Bears halfback, reasoning that he could help plan their annual rookie party.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Did you see that North Carolina congressman Heath Shuler, a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention, pledged his support for Hillary Clinton despite her lopsided defeat in his state's primary earlier this week? OK, but who is Gus Frerotte backing? "Obama all the way, baby," says the Vikings' 37-year-old backup quarterback, who beat out Shuler when they were Redskins newbies back in the mid-90s. "At this point, I think the writing's on the wall." Frerotte wasn't moved by Shuler's reasoning that the majority of people in his district voted for Clinton, saying, "What different does that make? It's about the big picture. Look at (former Sen. George) McGovern – he was a Clinton supporter for how many years, and he switched. The funny thing is that back when Heath and I were teammates and used to talk politics, he was a hard-core Republican. I guess he adapted his views."
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Marley shot sheriff live
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Back in late October, when I decided to adopt an English Premier League team, I suppose I understood that relegation was within the realm of possibility. However, as an American fan unfamiliar with the practice of losing teams being forced to drop down to lower divisions, I understood this only in a theoretical sense. Now, with one game left in the season, the notion that my team may be headed for an embarrassing sendoff after two years of battling the big boys has very much hit home. The Royals enter Sunday's final day of action below the drop line and, because of goal-differential tiebreakers, are likely doomed if Fulham – the team with which they're tied for 17th in the standings – defeats Portsmouth on the road. If Fulham ties or loses, Reading can assure itself of another Premier League season by winning at last-place Derby County. There are other unsavory scenarios involving 19th-place Birmingham, which trails the Royals by a point and could overtake both Reading and Fulham, but I'll spare you the sordid details. How does a team which finished an inspired eighth place last season fall so hard, so fast? By going winless over a 10-game stretch (one an FA Cup match) between late-December and the end of February, then enduring another six-game string without a victory down the stretch, including, most recently, a 0-0 draw at Wigan Athletic and last Saturday's disheartening 1-0 home defeat to Tottenham Spurs. With all of that said, I have faith that the Royals will pull it off, because the thought of them being booted is too damned depressing.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
If horses could sing – insert your own Celine Dion joke here – then Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown surely would belt out this ode to fallen rival Eight Belles (to the tune of AC/DC's "Hells Bells") after last Saturday's tragedy at Churchill Downs:
I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain
I'm coming on like a hurricane
Runnin' you down on Kentucky dirt
I'm gonna win but it's gonna hurt
I beat back your challenges headed for home
Then I was galloping alone
Bad circumstance and a big ambulance
The strain gotcha, needle gotcha
Eight Belles, unlucky lady
Eight Belles, the barn's a mausoleum
You battled back like a champion
Then your legs cracked just like Ruffian
See the white light flashing past the finish line
Cause if the bones are shattered then it's glue-factory time
Don't mean to make light of a friend's demise
I hate to see you euthanized
You went down, I'm gonna get the Triple Crown
And dedicate it to ya, missy
Eight Belles, brave-hearted baby
Eight Belles, and PETA's enraged
Eight Belles, NBC just blew the story
Eight Belles, talkin' to my gloatin' owner
Eight Belles, up in horsey heaven
That Eight Belles, she ran the race of her life
Eight Belles, wish I'd have made her my wife
Eight Belles, at least she didn't go slow
Eight Belles, you know, like Barbaro
Eight Belles, that's the way that it goes
Eight Belles, you'll be with me at Pimlico