FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady played on his recently-injured left knee in Friday night’s 25-21 exhibition win over the Buccaneers, and his flawless performance will once again steal the headlines Saturday morning.
But the best stories of the preseason aren’t really about superstars such as Brady. They’re about no-name guys overcoming long odds to make a name for themselves and live their dream by winning one of the final spots on the 53-man roster.
The Patriots have a couple of great stories in tight end Zach Sudfeld and defensive end Marcus Benard. They have been standouts in camp and are enjoying every minute of the ride.
“My heart is very thankful for the Patriots and Coach [Bill] Belichick for seeing potential in me and giving me a shot,” said Benard, 28.
Benard has emerged as one of the top backup defensive ends during camp, and on Friday night he replaced starter Tommy Kelly on passing downs with the starting defense. He had five tackles and a sack in the preseason opener against the Eagles, two more tackles plus a special teams tackle against the Bucs and looks like a good bet to take Jermaine Cunningham’s spot as a nickel pass rusher.
“Marcus Benard has made some nice plays tonight. Has a pretty good nose for the football,” team radio analyst Scott Zolak said during Friday’s broadcast.
But Benard isn’t just thankful for getting his chance with the Patriots — he’s thankful to be alive. Benard, an undrafted free agent out of Jackson State in 2009, had a promising start to his career with the Browns, finishing with 3½ sacks as a rookie and leading the Browns with 7½ sacks in 2010.
But his career came to a screeching halt on Oct. 10, 2011, while riding his motorcycle on I-71 toward downtown Cleveland. Benard hit the middle divider and was tossed 280 feet from his bike. He broke his right hand and suffered other, undisclosed injuries.
“I flew 280 feet. You don’t just do that and wake up like everything’s peachy,” he said.
Fortunately, he landed on a strip of grass.
“The crazy thing about it was that was like the only patch of grass,” he said. “There’s nothing but train tracks, rocks, bridges, and that 280 feet of grass is probably the only strip.
“Definitely somebody looking out for me.”
He missed the rest of the 2011 season, and was set to regain his spot in the lineup last year, but dislocated his elbow toward the end of training camp. The Browns put him on injured reserve and eventually cut him in October, and he is now playing for the Patriots on a veteran minimum salary of $630,000. If he gets cut — which seems unlikely — the Patriots won’t owe him a dime.
“It’s life — you always question yourself when tragic things happen,” Benard said. “There was definitely a reflection period. Not bitter to anybody or anything. It’s a business, and life had to hit me sometimes. But it’s definitely a blessing to still be playing, to be alive, to have this opportunity to be here.”
Benard isn’t the only one pinching himself about his good fortune. Sudfeld, 24, entered training camp as an unknown after being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Nevada, but he might be one of the team’s fan favorites when camp breaks in two weeks.
An athletic 6-foot-7-inch tight end with a mane of curly hair flowing from his helmet, Sudfeld makes acrobatic circus touchdown catches seemingly every day in practice, and seems to have a roster spot locked up after working his way into the first unit on offense during camp.
Against the Eagles, Sudfeld had a nice 22-yard catch-and-run in which he broke a couple of tackles, and also had a key downfield block to spring LeGarrette Blount on a 51-yard touchdown. He was even better against the Bucs, making another one of his patented circus catches for a 22-yard touchdown, diving over the middle, bobbling the ball and then corralling it while being drilled by two defenders. He also caught a jump ball from Tom Brady over two defenders for a two-point conversion.
Patriots fans still love Rob Gronkowski, but Sudfeld is looking like a nice replacement until he gets back. Fans are already starting to call him “Studfeld” or “Baby Gronk.” His teammates at Nevada called him “Flint,” because he was the spark of the offense.
“He’s doing everything an undrafted guy needs to do — making plays, gradually gaining trust from the coaches to do the right thing and producing on a consistent basis,” tight end Jake Ballard said. “You can obviously see in his face he’s having fun out there.”
That’s because Sudfeld, like Benard, has taken a long road to get here today. In his first five years at Nevada, he spent more time in the hospital than on the football field.
After redshirting in 2007, Sudfeld missed all of 2008 with multiple shoulder surgeries, a wrist fracture, and knee surgery. He spent 2009-10 as a backup, and 2011, supposed to be his breakout year, was wiped out after suffering a gruesome broken leg in the season opener.
Sudfeld successfully petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, and became the Wolf Pack’s best safety valve and red-zone threat in 2012. He had 45 catches for 598 yards and nine total touchdowns in 2012, earning recognition as a Mackey Award semifinalist.
Sudfeld went undrafted because of his injury history, and got a modest $12,000 signing bonus from the Patriots after the draft.
Sudfeld is quickly becoming a household name among fantasy football enthusiasts, but he’s trying to stay humble. He wears a dog tag inscribed, “never never never give up.”
“There are a lot of things I need to improve on, and I can see that every day, because it’s a long process and it’s a long season,” Sudfeld said Friday, channeling his inner-Belichick. “It was just a great experience to be out there and be able to compete as part of this organization. The whole experience is great and obviously that touchdown was cool.”
So cool, in fact, that he stayed down on the ground for an extra minute. It looked like he was hurt, but that wasn’t the case.
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment I think,” he said, “just bask in it for a second maybe.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin