Matt Light will forever be a protector.
173 starts at left tackle out of 175 career games; 11 seasons; nine division titles; six conference championship games; five Super Bowls; four Pro Bowls; three Super Bowl championships; one All Pro season; zero seasons with a losing record.
He wasn't supposed to have this impact in New England; in fact there was a chance he'd never make it to New England in the first place.
"It was the middle of the second round, and we were actually a good amount of beers into it," Light relayed to writer Michael Silver back in 2008. "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," 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.
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 spent three seasons protecting Drew Brees as an undergraduate at Purdue before protecting Drew Bledsoe in the National Football League. Upon Bledsoe's injury, Light was charged with defending Tom Brady's backside.
Not a bad trio of quarterbacks by any measure, but that's been the easiest part of his journey. Light's impact and value cannot be measured in titles and accolades, but instead must be relayed as a story of community, compassion, and heart.
If you look at Light's stats at Purdue, you'll see a career total of 1 catch, 16 yards. You'll also notice that he was a freshman tight end, the position at which he was recruited out of Greenville High School.
Light's trajectory wasn't clear. He was a two-way player for three seasons in high school, earning all-county and all-district honors at linebacker as a senior. On offense, he lined up at guard as a sophomore, tackle as a junior, and tight end as a senior, picking up four receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown.
He earned a scholarship at tight end with the Purdue Boilermakers and competed for a starting role by the end of his freshman year. Unfortunately for Light, his original coach was fired and his the new coach wanted the tight ends to be able to catch the ball- and "requested" that Light move back to the line. In 1997, as a true sophomore, Light converted back to offensive tackle for a redshirt season and became the cornerstone for success that would follow him the rest of his career.
If you look even more closely, you'll see the model tight end that Bill Belichick has wanted in all of his offensive tackles in the Patriot era. Both current tackles, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, were athletic and lengthy tight ends when they were recruited to their respective universities and both have been molded into some of the best tackles in the entire league. You'll even see Belichick stash and develop former tight ends to see if they can make the transition to tackle.
Perhaps more importantly you'll see players willing to follow their coaches guidance and able to sacrifice what might be considered personal glory for the benefit of the whole team.
At Purdue, Light learned to grow as a teammate and as a person. "I was upset [at being asked to switch positions], but it never really crossed my mind to go someplace else," Light reflected as a senior back in 2000. "I just decided to give [the new role] a shot."
Light was developing off the field, although if you asked his wife Susie he wasn't developing fast enough.
He behaved "like a jerk," Susie said, probably with the same laugh that follows every story about Light. He picked on her, teased her, and even had the gall to tell her mother that he was going to marry Susie- before they were even dating. He finally asked her out after eight months of hanging around her work and they were married soon after graduation.
If you asked his teammates, they would all laugh and call him a jerk, too. He was a renowned prankster and no one was off-limits.
There was the time he filled Tom Brady's car up with packaging peanuts. Or the time he convinced his teammates that he won $100,000 on scratch-off tickets. Or the time he wired up Belichick's computer mouse to shock the head coach whenever he used it- and causing him to accidentally delete a file he had been working on. Or the (multiple) times he put dead animals from his hunting trips inside people's cars and lockers. Or when he made the whole team t-shirts with the picture of Brady holding a goat.
And then there was the time he tricked rookie wide receiver Buddy Farnham by involving the police, a child, and their mother, to stage an arrest for Farnham accidentally injuring the kid at a football camp.
Some might say he went too far; for Light it was just another day of bonding with his brothers at the office.
The best stories involved teamwork and a little help from Belichick, who loved to share the story at Light's retirement.
One of the best ones that he had I was involved in with, it was actually a lot of fun. We were, [in 2010], going through the usual grinding part of the season in November, December, and we had a big game with the Jets coming up.
There were usually two or three times during the season when I would go to the team after a win, Sunday in the locker room, and say I'm going to give you Monday and Tuesday off, but I want you to watch film, know them inside and out. There are questions on Wednesday, they're not easy. You really have better done your homework or it will be a long week.
Matt comes in on Tuesday and he's in watching film. He comes into my office and says 'As a prank between me and you, what do you think about throwing a question out there tomorrow that nobody will know the answer, but I'll nail it, and that will just send a great message to team about studying and being prepared and really being ready for this game against the Jets.'
I'm like, 'come on,' but he talked me into it, so we went with it. I go into the meeting the next day, and said 'okay, let's talk about the Jets sub defense. What have we seen them run?'
Brady's [says], '2-4 nickel, 3-3 nickel.' [I say], 'have we seen them in dime?'
Hoyer says, 'yeah we saw them in 3-2 dime, but not that much.'
I say 'have we seen them in another dime package? No other dime package?'
Light sticks up his hand. 'Coach, I thought I saw them in that 1-5 dime one time, I think,' [he says].
'Damnit, Light, you did. They've been it one time all year. I don't imagine you remember the game, since you went through the whole entire film,' [I say].
'I want to say it was the Houston game, the opener right before the half,' [Light said].
'Alright Light, you have all the answers, you know everything,' [I said].
I break the meeting up, the offensive linemen walk out of the room, they're like 'Jesus Light, you're killing us, you're really putting us to shame here.'
For Light, humor was a chance to lower the mental guards of his teammates, even if they raised their physical guards whenever they were around him. "It always comes back to the people," Light would say.
That's why even though he's retired from football, Light's journey is far from over.
"He's a football player, but first and foremost I think community and family is important to Matt. His foundation is No. 1," Susie Light said. "I think football is a vehicle for him to reach out to other people."
Light has always been a blue collar human being, enjoying the simple things, like hunting, beer, and butchering his own deer. No coach or wife would ever change that. But Light's passion for people wouldn't let him keep his hobbies or his way of life to himself. He wanted to use his passions to help better the lives of those in need.
Throughout his career, Light has shown his passion with his namesake foundation through assisting at-risk youth on his 400+ acre ranch in Ohio. His goal is to teach them responsibility, accountability, and hard work and to help them achieve their potential.
"A lot of these kids are looking for someone to say, ‘Hey, that’s not the way to do it. Here’s the right way.’ And they pick up on that," Light says about campers. "They’re all good guys who have committed to this program for four years. That in itself tells you a lot about their character."
Light takes his campers for ten days and teaches them hunting, metalwork, fishing, archery, canoeing, and dirt biking. He takes them on tours of local companies to expand their horizons and has them assist at a local retirement center to teach the tenets the camp is based upon. Nights include fireside chats to set goals and expectations for the campers.
"This camp changed my life dramatically," one camp senior said. "When I first came here I was socially awkward. I was angry all the time. Just angry at the world. I’d get kicked out of school a lot. Then they took me in here. This camp built up my confidence and self-esteem. I’m making good grades and haven’t been in trouble for two years. I can’t say enough about Matt Light. He had faith in me even when I didn’t in myself."
The camp is sponsored by other charity events, often frequented by other Patriots figures- and each of these charity events has a Light-leaning theme.
"I remember when he started the Light Foundation in his second season," Team owner Bob Kraft said at Light's retirement. "Always creative and thinking outside the box, Matt came to me and came to asked for my support and endorsement for his inaugural fundraiser, the Matt Light Celebrity Shootout. Light's plan was to arm dozens of his teammates with shotguns deep in the woods of Rhode Island. What could possibly go wrong? But ten years later, the shootout and all of its participants have survived, and [it] has funded a number of great programs that Matt has supported though his foundation."
Kraft presented the team's community service award to Light in 2005 for his exemplary service to the community.
Last year's "Celebrity Shoot-Out" raised nearly $600,000 and was attended by players like Brady, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Joe Andruzzi (of course Mankins won the shoot-out). The proceeds are reinvested into his camps and into the organization's operating budget.
He was a football player, but first and foremost, Light cared about the community. He cared about the community of teammates and the New England community. It was community that made him fall in love with New England and it was ultimately his most important community that made him retire.
Matt and Susie are the parents of three children and they couldn't take the annual strain any longer. Light kept a secret while he played and only shared it once he decided to retire; he didn't want to be judged while he was on the field; he didn't want an excuse. Light has battled with Chrohn's disease throughout his career.
In 2004, Light lost over 50 pounds and was unable to attend the Super Bowl ring ceremony because he was hospitalized. They had to remove over a foot of his intestines. He went through numerous complications with surgery in the month of June.
The Patriots extended him to a six year deal a month after he was released from the hospital. He was back in camp by August. They won their third Super Bowl that season.
There's no cure for Crohn's disease, there are just treatments that make it easier to manage. Those suffering have major abdominal pain and weight loss- both major issues when playing such a physically intensive sport.
Light had to make a decision. He could either play one more season of football, or he could start taking care of himself. He had nothing to prove. He had a specific medication that reduces bone mass- making it even harder to sustain weight levels- that was showing positive results.
He opted for health. Light retired so he could be with his kids. It was a community he could no longer ignore.
Patriots recently retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is a man of few words and fewer compliments. He was effusive in his praise of Light.
"I think the greatest thing you could ever say to someone that leaves you is that you’ll be missed," Scar said upon hearing Light's retirement. "He will be missed in a lot of ways."
Light has moved on from protecting Brees and Brady and onto protecting himself, his family, and the at-risk campers for whom he lives every day. He is still an active member of the community that has grown to love and appreciate his contributions.
He was a cornerstone of the franchise's renaissance. He was a brother, a friend, a teammate, and he was a player stronger than you could have previously imagined.
Light already has been missed in many ways. His impact, however, will continue to be felt in the communities he's touched.