FOXBOROUGH - With a chance to reflect at Matt Light’s retirement celebration Monday, Bill Belichick thought about the moment 11 years ago when he rocked back in his chair in the Patriots’ draft-day war room and told one of his assistants to pull the trigger on Light.
First, he had to make it clear whom he was talking about.
“That’s the offensive lineman,’’ Belichick said.
Then, Belichick had to make sure they called him an “offensive lineman’’ and not an “offensive tackle.’’ He didn’t want to put a label on Light.
“Don’t put a position on him,’’ Belichick said.
Belichick had well-laid plans. At least that was what he figured.
Light had carved out a nice career at Purdue as a left tackle, but Belichick figured in the NFL he’d be better suited on the right side.
At training camp, Light was playing right tackle, and a bunch of bodies ended up in a pile with Light at the bottom.
Belichick walked over and said, “What’s wrong with you?’’
Light said, “Coach, I’ve got a high ankle sprain.’’
Belichick couldn’t believe it. Not that his second-round pick was injured - he apparently had drafted “House.’’
He said, “Matt, how do you know you have a high ankle sprain? Your ankle hurts. Don’t give me an instant diagnosis. You just go out there and run the plays. Don’t start playing doctor here.’’
Light was out five weeks.
“We kind of got off to a rocky start,’’ Belichick said, but as Light made his retirement official Monday at the Hall at Patriot Place, Belichick smiled, laughed and confessed he admired Light.The feeling was more than mutual.
“For all the demanding, just hard-headedness and just genius that you bring to every day - and even though we’ve had some differences in the way we look at things - I can’t begin to tell you how great this has been,’’ said Light.
“For taking that chance on me, for sticking with me through some of the rough times, through the sickness, through the injuries, through the many issues that I’ve had, I appreciate it.’’
In his time in New England, Light turned out to be a Hall of Fame prankster, a locker room pundit, and Tom Brady’s bodyguard. He was also a three-time Pro Bowler, a three-time Super Bowl champion, and a team leader who came to be identified with the Patriots’ renaissance.
It long had been assumed that Super Bowl XLVI would be Light’s last dance.
Logan Mankins, who has lined up next to Light in the trenches the past seven years, said the two of them had several late-night, heart-to-hearts about retirement.
Still, Mankins said, “It’s a little weird. It’s a little surreal still. You don’t believe he’s leaving yet. It’s hard to imagine going to practice or playing in a game or not having Matt sitting behind me on the bus or sitting next to me on the plane.’’
In a video tribute to Light, Brady, who wasn’t seen at the ceremony, half-joked he will continue to try to talk him out of it.
Light said, “He threw out there a year’s worth of KitKats, which he knows I’m a little partial to. And I thought that was a low blow. But I turned it down. I’m trying to lose a little weight, so it was probably easier.
“I’m sure that once he reconsiders it, he’ll realize that his life will be a lot less chaotic and he won’t have to look over his shoulder to figure out what me or anyone else is going to try to pull on him next.’’
On the field, Brady rarely had to look twice. The 2009 season, when Brady was sacked just 16 times in 16 games, is one example of how well-protected Light and his linemates kept their quarterback over the years.
As much as Light was a prankster, he was a professional. He missed just 21 games in his career.
“He’s had the model career and a lot of guys would love to have one like that,’’ Mankins said. “Guys usually follow guys that have been through it and lead by example. Everyone can see that Matt, he’s been through it. The way he carried himself and the way he played and the way he worked out and trained, it’s easy to look at someone like Matt and follow him.’’
Still, the locker room will lose its wildest card.
Light was the kind of guy who got his kicks by going into Belichick’s office and replacing the coach’s mouse with one that jolted out 400 volts of electricity when touched.
“For whatever reason,’’ Light said. “I thought it would be comical to put that in Bill’s office.’’
The stunt led to one of the longest meetings at the offices of Gillette Stadium.
Belichick shocked himself not once but twice trying to work on his notes (“He doesn’t give up easy,’’ Light said), but lost all his work. The rest of the day, coaches and staff were warning Light that he had gone too far.
“He was always the suspect,’’ Belichick said. “Even if it wasn’t him.’’
Belichick said the electricity Light brought to the franchise would be missed.
“That’s the way it is with Matt,’’ Belichick said. “He had a great sense of when to lighten up and when to tighten up.’’
In an organization known for strict discipline, Light was opinionated.
“A lot of them aren’t very well-founded,’’ said Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. “So he’s like that burr under the saddle, he irritates you, you know? Once you realize what he’s all about, and once he realizes that his way isn’t always the best way, it becomes a lot easier deal.’’
Light had causes, and he used the Matt Light Foundation to support them.
Last year, he took the lead in commissioning a painting by Brian Fox as a gift to team owner Robert Kraft in honor of his wife Myra, who died of cancer in July.
“It was a touching tribute,’’ Kraft said. “And something I’ll never forget.’’
And as much as Light’s personality pulsed through the Patriots, he said he’s leaving the game with the franchise’s ideals ingrained in him.
“It’s always ‘Do your job,’ ’’ Light said. “We hear it 5,000 times a week. ‘Just worry about yourself.’ ‘Don’t try to do somebody else’s work.’ ‘Make it part of your routine.’ ‘Keep striving to do it better and better.’
“So I think that the excellence that we all shared as an organization, teammates, friends and everything else, it’s not just an act. It’s a habit. It’s how we try to live our lives. It’s what we try to do day in and day out and I hope that habit continues.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.