By Bill Burt
INDIANAPOLIS — It's the first thing you notice about Matt Light, other than the 300 pounds of muscle and facial hair.
It's wide and it's real.
"I don't know why I smile so much," said the New England Patriots left tackle. "Maybe it's because I like my life."
There's a lot to like about Light, too, besides his penchant for one-liners: "I feel horrible about (missing Media Day on Tuesday because of the stomach flu). I do. And I love spending time with you guys."
One thing that isn't funny is Light's mark on this franchise. Tom Brady has been one of the NFL's most durable quarterbacks under Light's watch.
While coach Bill Belichick and Brady are forever linked as the cornerstones of the Patriots dynasty — five Super Bowl appearances in 11 seasons — the bond on the field between Brady and Light can't be overlooked either.
"It's incredible when you think about it. Matt's been there as long as I have," said Brady, who arrived in New England in 2000, one year prior to Light. "I trust him. I always have. He's just a great guy and a hard worker. I've been very lucky to have him at left tackle."
Left tackle might not sound special, but behind quarterback it might be the most important position in the game. The fact the Patriots drafted Nate Solder in the first round attests to that. When you find one you hope to write his name in the starting lineup for a decade or longer.
At Belichick's introductory press conference back in January of 2000, he was asked about his philosophy in rebuilding the Patriots.
He said nothing about a young, handsome franchise quarterback.
First and foremost, he said the "new" Patriots needed to be tougher and the offensive and defensive lines are where he would start.
Enter a country kid from Purdue University named Matt Light in the spring of 2001.
A lot has happened since the Pats drafted the native of Greenville, Ohio (population 13,227) in the second round. Owner Bob Kraft, Belichick and Tom Brady became future Hall of Famers. And the left tackle position, on Brady's blind side, has been protected by Light the entire time.
"You make good decisions and some not-so-good decisions on players," said Belichick. "Choosing Matt was one of our very good ones. He's a professional. He's smart. He works hard. He's consistent. He's tough. And he's been playing one of the toughest positions in the game at a high level for a long time."
In the bland, buttoned-down world of the Patriots, Light's candor and sense of humor are a breath of fresh air.
When asked about the recent claims by Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora that he and Light seem to have fistfights every time they play, he smiled and said: "Can you have an individual rivalry? I thought rivalries were between teams in general. It's football, not tennis."
That's not entirely accurate. Football may be a team sport, but it consists of many individual matchups/rivalries. And it seems nearly every week, every season there's a superstar opposite Light waiting to knock Brady silly.
The names are a who's who of the game's elite: Dwight Freeney of the Colts, ex-Dolphin Jason Taylor, ex-Bill Aaron Schobel, Terrell Suggs of the Ravens, Jared Allen of the Vikings, DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys, James Harrison of the Steelers, Julius Peppers of the Bears and, yes, Osi Umenyiora.
They all combine exception size with freakish speed and strength. If that's not pressure, then what is? How about the pressure protecting the "greatest" quarterback of his generation?
"I've never looked at it like it's my responsibility," said Light, who sometimes has troubles with the real speed merchants. "I think we've always looked at like it's the offensive line and it's the offensive line's job - not any one guy in particular. We've had a lot of things - a lot of moving guys - up front, and I think everybody has done a good job of sticking together and working hard and playing as a unit."
Light, who was a tight end as a freshman at Purdue, isn't the biggest, quickest or strongest left tackle, but he seems to find ways to adjust to the strength of each pass rusher he faces.
"That guy does not get the credit her deserves," said Freeney, who has faced off against Light eight times in 10 years, accumulating only three sacks. "He's the toughest (left tackle) I face. I'm serious. He's just a tough matchup. He's strong and he moves his feet really well. I don't know if people in New England realize how good Light is."
Not a lot of people thought Light was returning to the Patriots this season. His contract was up and they drafted a behemoth of a left tackle in 6-8, 319-pound Nate Solder. Light, however, signed for two years, $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed.
"We're lucky with the way things worked out with injuries that we signed Matt," said Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. "He's been a stabilizing force for us ... Hasn't he always been?"
Light smiled at the comment.
"I love the guys I work for, like Dante, and the guys I work with. And that accounts for something," said Light. "This really is a great organization. Here it's about accountability. In the end, there was no other place I wanted to be."