FOXBOROUGH - Matt Light wasn’t thinking tenure when he turned up here 11 years ago as Purdue’s most oversized export.
“I never really thought about it,’’ said the Patriots left tackle, who is so entrenched on the premises by now that he could serve as a stadium stanchion. “I always live in the moment.’’
In a season when the offensive line has used eight different combinations, the 33-year-old Light has been his usual steadfast self, starting all but one game.
“Matt has had an outstanding year following up on last year,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “He’s really had a great career for us. Matt goes up against some of the best pass rushers in the league at that position, really on a weekly basis. He’ll certainly see another great one this week in [Terrell] Suggs.’’
This season, Light has grappled with the likes of Tamba Hali, Trent Cole, Dwight Freeney, Brian Orakpo, and, most recently, Elvis Dumervil to keep them from putting his star-spangled signal-caller on his rear. In this afternoon’s AFC Championship clash with the hard-beaked Ravens, he will be doing it with a fifth Super Bowl on the line.
“That left tackle position is so important to the passing game to protect the backside of the quarterback,’’ testified Tom Brady. “And there’s nobody I’d rather have back there than Matt.’’
Stability and longevity have been the hallmarks of a performer who has played 155 regular-season and 16 playoff games since 2001 (an ankle injury cost him all but three games in 2005) and who has started all but two.
“He’s been a real stalwart for us all season and, really, for a decade,’’ said Belichick. “He’s been here a long time and done a great job.’’
Light’s tenure here coincides with that of his charitable foundation, which he established when he entered the league and which he plans to continue after he retires.
“This doesn’t end when I stop playing football,’’ vowed Light, who could have several more productive seasons if he stays healthy. “This won’t be a flash in the pan.’’
Light always has taken the long view, which is why he banked a big chunk of his seven-figure signing bonus and enrolled in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial program after he signed a six-year contract extension. He had seen other players make wrong decisions when presented with business opportunities, Light said during his week at Harvard five years ago, and he didn’t want to do the same.
“I have a fairly good sense of what it takes to make it in the world,’’ he said.
Helping young people make it has been at the center of the Light Foundation, which emphasizes hard work, goal-setting, honesty, and accountability, the values that Light learned growing up in Greenville, Ohio, a rural city not far from the Indiana border whose population is less than a fifth the capacity of Gillette Stadium.
The foundation’s centerpiece, a 400-plus acre camp named Chenoweth Trails, is located there, where Light still has a home.
“We want to have a presence wherever I’ve been,’’ he says. “Obviously growing up in Ohio I wanted to help out there and do something with the camp.’’
But the foundation also stages events in West Lafayette, Ind., home of his alma mater, and in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Light’s celebrity shoot-out, featuring numerous teammates, raised $400,000 for the foundation last year and he sponsors a scholarship in the memory of Danny Pires, the New Bedford Standard-Times sportswriter who covered the team.
Hard to miss
When Light says “presence,’’ he means it literally.
“Matt doesn’t just put his name to it,’’ said foundation administrator Cindi Mitchell. “He’s an active participant and mentor to these kids.’’
At 6 feet 4 inches and 305 pounds, Light is impossible to miss when he turns up, as he did at last autumn’s auction, which grossed $40,000 for Foxborough’s Burrell, Igo and Taylor elementary schools.
“His name being on the ticket drew a good amount for us,’’ said Juliette Petrillo, who co-chaired the fund-raiser. “He was worth his weight in gold.’’
Light, who autographed six footballs that went for $300 apiece, did a bit of emceeing himself.
“He just did a great job of getting people involved,’’ said Petrillo. “He poked fun at himself. I can’t say enough about how kind and warm and wonderful he was.’’
Not that Light is a stranger around town. He lives here, and his children attend local schools. When Light is back in Greenville, he’s the same guy everyone knew back when.
“Matt’s just a real down-to-earth person,’’ said Mayor Mike Bowers, who knows Light well enough that he can jokingly call him a “slacker.’’
“The genuineness you see goes a long way with his friends. He doesn’t flaunt his status as an NFL player. He doesn’t say, ‘I’m a Pro Bowl lineman and I have three Super Bowl rings.’ He’ll say, ‘I’m Matt Light, you want to go out and hunt?’ ’’
Light, who comes from the same county as sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Moses to her friends), is a passionate outdoorsman whose foundation believes that fresh-air activities foster self-reliance, accountability, and respect for the environment.
“Matt connects well with the kids,’’ said Bowers. “He has a real heart for them. It means a lot to the kids that he always puts himself out there.’’
When Light began his foundation after signing his first contract, he wasn’t sure how long he’d be in the league, so he and wife Susie bought a modest condominium not far from the stadium. But the Patriots, who had drafted Light in the second round as the 48th overall choice, quickly installed him as a starter on the squad that shocked the Rams to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl crown.
Two more rings soon followed, as well as a $27 million extension in 2004 that took Light through last season.
“It was huge for me and my family,’’ he said. “It gave us stability. Obviously I felt comfortable here with the players and the coaching staff and Robert [Kraft] and his family. That was a no-brainer.’’
His current two-year contract, which came after last year’s lockout when Light was a free agent, was less of a done deal.
“Ultimately this is where we wanted to be,’’ he said. “It’s a business sometimes. It was a crazy time for everybody.’’
But Light once again has been an anchor for an offensive line that has been pockmarked by injuries.
“We lost [Dan] Koppen in the first game of the year,’’ said Brady. “We’ve had four centers. All the tackles have played. We have guards that have played fullback. We’ve had tackles that play tight end.’’
Except for an ankle injury that kept him out of last month’s Miami game Light has been at his post every week.
“Matt is very professional,’’ said Belichick. “He works hard. He’s in good condition, always has been. Knows our game, knows our opponent’s tendencies, studies film very well, practices well, is a very durable and dependable player.’’
Only Kevin Faulk and Brady have been here longer. In the Patriots Pro Shop, Logan Mankins is the only other offensive lineman to rate a personalized shirt, although Light’s version doesn’t come close to fitting him.
By size and demeanor, he is the team Falstaff.
“Jokester, funny guy,’’ said Faulk. “We can keep going on about that.’’
But Light, who is a player representative, also is designated morale booster.
“If a teammate is down,’’ observed Faulk, “he knows how to pick him up in an instant.’’
Helping others is part of Light’s DNA, as is continuity and commitment. While his foundation, whose endowment approaches $1 million, has a board and several paid staffers Light is religious about staying closely connected.
“I don’t like to do anything with my name on it where I’m not completely aware of all aspects and involved with everything,’’ he said.
His approach always has been all-in. If Light devoted half as much time to a for-profit enterprise as he does his foundation, he’d likely make a pile of cash. But money long ago stopped being a concern.
“I’m definitely not a flashy guy,’’ he said. “It doesn’t take much to keep me happy.’’
His one foray into flash was an extensive Globe-chronicled makeover, complete with facial and pedicure, that transformed Light from “alpha male to metrosexual’’ to help promote his foundation in 2004. His spa sheen may have faded, but Light’s charitable commitment endures.
“Matt would give you the shirt off his back,’’ said Bowers. “He might even give you the jersey off his back for a fund-raiser - and I think he’s done that.’’