Today over in Foxboro, Mass., Patriots LT Matt Light received a retirement send-off, the kind the Patriots reserve for special players. Tedy Bruschi, for instance, got one. And Light, an 11-year Patriots stalwart who protected QB Tom Brady's valuable backside during five Super Bowls, deserves one, too.
Light's retirement is not exactly a surprise. I mentioned it was heading that way on Feb. 21, and the Patriots are well-prepared for this move. First-rounder Nate Solder and second-rounder Sebastian Vollmer (if healthy) should serve the team well into the next decade. But that doesn't mean everyone is happy.
QB Tom Brady tried to persuade Light to play one more year by offering him endless KIT KATs, Light told reporters at Gillette Stadium today. I'm sure that made him reconsider. I doubt Brady was joking, though. He loves to be comfortable, which is why he pushed hard for both Light and C Dan Koppen to return. He was 1 for 2.
Anyway, with Light officially stepping out of the game while he's still upright, he said, I wanted to take a few moments to offer some of my reflections on his career.
It was one that few expected:
It should be noted that the person most surprised with his successful career was Light himself. As he beautifully wrote in a guest appearance in today's Monday Morning QB by Peter King, Light never expected a pro career. Just like he never expected to even be able to earn a scholarship to Purdue, let alone make a living at it. He played football, he was good at it, and he simply followed the road and where it took him. It took him to Pro Bowls, Super Bowls, and to one place on the Patriots line for a long time.
Light earned the supreme respect of his teammates, both for his on-field actions that included tangling with the game's best pass-rushers week-after-week, and for his charitable efforts with the Matt Light Foundation. It was no surprise that Brady always showed up at Light's events in Middle-of-Nowhere, R.I. to serve as the MC for the auction. It was meaningful to Matt, so it was meaningful to Brady and the rest of the Patriots.
And just think, Light only became the left tackle by accident. Coach Bill Belichick tried him at right tackle, realized he wasn't good at it, and kept him on the left side. A few games into his rookie season, the second-rounder was inserted into the lineup and he never left. He wasn't imposing or quick or absurdly talented. He was just really good at keeping his guy from the quarterback.
But Light was an odd type of veteran. I never got the sense he loved football. Like, really loved it. He didn't watch football during his down time, he rarely went back and reviewed games, and he wasn't much of a fan of the sport. That was strange to me. I didn't understand how a player who was so dedicated to protecting the team's most important player could not love what he did. But that was Light.
He didn't really crave the Xs-and-Os part of football. He wasn't interested in which team was good or which player ignited which storyline or which coach was hired or fired. He may have known some of the game's history, but he didn't have time for its present. Ask him about the Jets adding players in the offseason or the Bills being really hot (at one point they were) and he'd shrug. He didn't care.
Yet this is the same Light who invested his time as a player rep. It was the same Light who spoke about player safety and players' rights, and making sure his team was educated - he even had a lockout breakfast to educate the public. Even now, he's on the union's executive council. How could he not be interested in the intricacies of the game, but intensely interested in his fellow players and the game's future?
Well, that's who he was.
Light loved his teammates. He loved the on-field challenge of his individual task, which was shutting down the game's best. He worked incredibly hard at it. Yet Light brushed away getting beat better than any player I've talked to, often saying, "Yup, I screwed up. It happens." He had other parts of his life that were important - his family, his faith, his charity - so he never took it to heart. That made him so productive. He didn't dwell on mistakes.
The first time I walked into L Street Tavern, a South Boston staple and my favorite bar in the history of the world, I ran into a Patriots fan (who knew). The first thing he told me after I had just taken the job covering the Patriots for the Boston Herald? You need to write about how Matt Light sucks. He'd given up some sacks in 2008, like every left tackle, and so many just formed that opinion. It was, thus, no shock when I found how under-appreciated he was. Only now are fans embracing his success. Light didn't seem to mind. It was part of the deal, just like getting beat was. He didn't live and die by football, so it doesn't seem he lived and died by criticism. He didn't listen to talk radio, anyway. Football was just his job.
And so, Light was complicated and simple. Like I said, a paradox.
He invested his time and energy - his professional life for 11 years - into his teammates. His team. Into owner Robert Kraft, eventually commissioning a painting commemorating his wife, Myra. Into coach Bill Belichick, so much so that Light found himself saying to his children, "Just do your job" as if he were Belichick himself. He was a prankster and a great teammate. He was great for reporters, always hilarious and insightful and full of jokes. And he was a pain in the butt, only speaking on his terms over the past three years. Some thought the veteran should be a team spokesman. He wasn't.
He was just himself. A guy who was great at football, but who was his own man. Even his retirement was strange. There were whispers he'd leave the game, he didn't address them, the team put him on the reserved/retired list, and then Light eventually came back to Gillette for a press conference. As if he did it all with a smirk and a shrug.
Light played football, he didn't live it. That's why, I'll be surprised if Light misses the game when he's retired. I don't think this will be a guy who will be back in a year. He'll probably head out to the woods, find another hobby, and be fine. He'll walk away at peace. As his own man.
That's what he always was, anyway.