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Brady, offensive line, hold mutual respect

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There's a lot more to Tom Brady than magazine covers, television commercials and paparazzi photos. It lies behind the things that most of us see. There's Brady the leader, Brady the teammate and Brady the friend.

And through the eyes of those closest to him -- particularly his offensive linemen -- you get a sense that between the time he entered the league until Sunday's Super Bowl XLII, he hasn't changed. From start to finish, he's still just Brady.

Brady may be as much Hollywood as he is throwback. There certainly are the magazine covers, the appearance on Saturday Night Live, the constant attention from the media and, oh yeah, the supermodel girlfriend, too.

"There's quite a different perception when you're not around me," admitted Brady on his public perception. "You can probably say whatever you want."

Yet there's also the Brady that these guys know. The Brady that frequently throws admiration and respect toward his linemen during interviews. The Brady that initially refused to do interviews at the podium outside of the Patriots locker room for fear of distancing himself from his teammates. The Brady that head-butts teammates before every game. The Brady that takes the criticism and shares the praise.

His linemen, a group he is especially close to, see it all. And they know Brady.

"He doesn't try to be anyone he's not," said guard Logan Mankins. "Tom, he tries to be consistent with how he acts everywhere. I think he doesn't want to be bigger than the team, even though some people might try to put him as bigger than the team. He feels that he's one more piece to the puzzle. He's not bigger than anyone."

The offensive linemen have much more in common than the playoff beards they're sporting this week at the Super Bowl. They share common interests and similar perspectives, as well as the same job description -- Brady's protectors. They're a different group -- or odd, if you prefer -- in their outward style and persona, but a group of players who trust each other to do their jobs.

And they do it well. They have cohesion, continuity and talent.

From left to right, there is Matt Light, Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur. The group has started the majority of games together for the last three seasons.

The comical Light has the serious business of protecting Brady's blind side, which he has done for the last seven seasons. Koppen has snapped to Brady for all five of his NFL seasons. Neal, a collegiate wrestler who didn't play a down of college football, is a four-year starter who joined the Patriots in 2001 -- the same year as Brady. Mankins and Kaczur, high draft picks in 2005, have been starters practically since Day 1.

During a record-setting season for Brady and the New England offense, the line allowed just 21 sacks in 586 pass attempts. Three of the members -- Light, Mankins and Koppen -- were rewarded with trips to the Pro Bowl.

They also have a mutual respect for Brady, as a teammate, a leader and a friend.

"I wouldn't want to play for any other quarterback," says Koppen. "He's a special guy. He's a great competitor on the field; he's hard working; he's everything you want in a quarterback. And off the field, he's just a great friend."

It's not to suggest that most quarterbacks don't have a close relationship with their offensive linemen. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Some of Brady's best attributes -- his quick feet, ability to feel pressure, decision-making and willingness to throw the ball away before getting sacked -- make the jobs of the line easier. But it's also their success that keeps Brady upright and healthy, which allows him to be successful.

It's not lost on Brady.

"There is no glory on the offensive line," Brady said. "It's just a dirty job. Someone has to do it. And I think we have five guys who relish that opportunity. They don't get the ball. They celebrate in the success of the team and the success of the offense. Whatever their job is, what they're supposed to do, they go out and do it the best they can. We've got a group of five guys who do that as well as anyone in the league."

One wouldn't blame Brady if he stopped being Brady. Success can change people. He's arguably the league's best quarterback on the league's best team aiming for the perfect season, a media darling and two-time Super Bowl MVP about to appear in his fourth Super Bowl in the last seven seasons.

Plenty of other players -- very few as talented as Brady -- weren't able to withstand the change that follows success. Not Brady.

"We've been asked that before this week," Light said when asked if the team has to keep Brady in check. "You don't have to keep a guy like Tom humble. He humbles himself probably every single time he watches video. He's harder on himself than anyone could possibly be. He gets it. He comes from a great family, and a lot of things that were important to him when he was growing up are still important to him now I'm sure. He just has a great attitude on life."

The facts that come to life when the Patriots linemen reflect on their quarterback start to paint a clear picture. In his eighth season, Brady has developed into an exceptional leader. He is the heart and soul of the team, regardless of the circumstances.

His exceptional level of play this season earns respect, but it's who he is -- and more importantly who he has not become -- that earn the most respect from his teammates.

"There are a lot of things that define a leader," said Light. "I think that first and foremost, you have to trust the guy. And we all trust him. Secondly, you have to feel good around him. Tommy does a great job of communicating with all of us.

"Whether it's the way he talks about us or even when we have a bad game, he doesn't put anything on us. He usually takes most of that on his own shoulders. He's not a selfish guy. He's very selfless. ... He cares a lot about us and the relationship and all that. I don't think that's unique in any way -- a lot of quarterbacks take care of their offensive line -- but he goes above and beyond."

He's real to them, and if he wasn't, he would quickly become transparent.

"He plays the game for Sunday," said Koppen. "He plays the game the way it should be played, and he plays the game for all the right reasons. He's just a tremendous competitor. ... Tom in the locker room is a guy you can have fun with, and on the field he's a guy you want to play with. He doesn't change when he leaves the field."

Brady is still the same guy. And he's their guy.

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