FOXBOROUGH — When it came to football, Ryan Wendell never dreamed beyond college.
A native of Diamond Bar, Calif., near Los Angeles, Wendell’s mother, Lorraine, wouldn’t let him play football until he got to high school because she was afraid he’d get hurt; instead, he was the “fat, big kid” running around on local soccer fields.
But once Wendell got the green light to start playing, he picked up the sport quickly: As a junior, he was named to the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section first team as an offensive lineman, and as a senior he was honored as a defensive lineman.
That led to him taking the next step, as he headed to Fresno State.
“When I was a high school player all I ever wanted to do was play college and when I got there I was like, ‘This is awesome,’ ” Wendell said. “Of course, everybody looks at the NFL and hopes to be there, but I was just happy to have the opportunity; I didn’t think much past that. So I just tried to focus on that and take advantage of it every day.”
Playing for former Bill Belichick assistant Pat Hill, Wendell played guard and center with the Bulldogs, earning All-WAC honors for his play and his academics.
And then the Patriots came calling.
With Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Stephen Neal entrenched on the offensive line, Wendell’s biggest job was simply to learn.
“Being on the practice squad here was more than I ever imagined. But once you get that taste in your mouth, you just want something more,” Wendell said. “Then it’s being on the active roster, then it’s being a dressed guy, then it’s being a starter, so there’s always something more out there for you to attain.
“I never was displeased with being a practice squad guy because it was a dream come true for me to still be playing football after college. Of course, you want to be playing as much as you can, so you just work hard to try to do that.”
He put in the work. Under the tutelage of position coach Dante Scarnecchia, able to learn from the veteran linemen in the meeting room with him and pushed on the practice field by Vince Wilfork and the other defensive linemen, Wendell played in 15 games in 2010, and 14 last season, with three starts.
This season, with Dan Koppen released and assumed starting center Dan Connolly bumped to right guard when Brian Waters opted not to rejoin the team, Wendell became the team’s top center.
He has proven to be far more than a fill-in; he has excelled. Wendell missed just six offensive snaps during the regular season and adding in the special-teams reps he took, he led the NFL in total snaps.
“He’s done a great job; he’s really done a great job since he got here,” Tom Brady said. “He fought for his opportunity and once he got it this year, he really took advantage. He’s been healthy and durable, consistent.
“Playing center on our team is not easy. There are a lot of adjustments and calls that we have, both the communication I have with him and what he relays on to the rest of the offensive linemen. He’s done a great job. He’s a tough, hard-nosed football player that loves the game and loves to compete.”
Belichick was also complimentary of Wendell and his intelligence.
“ ‘Wendy’ has been here for a while, and he’s had a solid year for us; played a lot of football,” Belichick said. “He’s virtually played just about every play as well as some plays on the kickoff return team and on the field goal team. He’s been a solid guy for us, a real smart player.
“I think everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He’s a tough kid, has good balance, low center of gravity, plays on his feet, plays strong. He’s smart, he handles things like a good football player would — just making good decisions, seeing the game, doing the right thing when there are two or three different things that could happen but just instantly doing what’s best for that play. He’s an instinctive player.”
The center of an offensive line that paved the way for Patriots running backs to total 2,184 yards, the highest for the team since 2008, Lorraine Wendell is a big fan of her son’s work, and his father, Don, not much of a football fan before Ryan started playing, is fully into the game as well.
Like any competitor, Wendell would have loved to have had a larger role from the beginning of his time with the Patriots, but he knows that learning and developing was time well spent.
“I do think it was an advantage to be here and to have time to develop and to work on my technique and my craft and to learn from Coach Scarnecchia,” he said. “As much as I would love to say it would be great to be starting since Day 1, it was a great advantage to me to be able to be around all those influences.”