FOXBOROUGH — Matt Lengel has one of those birthdays — Dec. 27 — that falls right around the holidays. Most kids would dread a minimized present haul or having their special day overshadowed, but Lengel always liked it. He knew he’d have the day off from school so he could spend it however he chose, and December is a big birthday month in his family.
This year, however, Lengel had to work on his 26th birthday. He had to spend Tuesday in the Patriots’ facilities watching film, but he did get to pick up a pretty good present: the ball he caught from Tom Brady for his first NFL catch — and his first NFL touchdown.
“It’s just in my bag right there,” Lengel said. “I just got it today and it’s going to go in a special place.”
Lengel’s fiancée was also taking him out to dinner to celebrate. He’d probably try to keep his phone away no matter what, but this year he’s had to turn it off entirely. Since Saturday’s 41-3 win over the Jets, when Lengel caught the unexpected 18-yard TD pass, it has been going off like crazy.
“It was just the amount of people,” Lengel said, explaining what had surprised him the most about the flood of messages he’s received. “Obviously, everybody’s wondering who the heck I am.
“I don’t listen to the phone, I don’t listen to Twitter, I don’t listen to that stuff, so for me it’s just been kind of crazy the amount of people who have reached out, or where I’ve seen my name, or family sending me an article I hadn’t seen before, or whatever. But then at the same time, I’m sitting there with my fiancée and we’re still figuring out where to go to dinner and nothing really changes.”
There are plenty of reasons Lengel was an unlikely candidate to be catching a touchdown pass from Brady. Lengel initially enrolled at Northeastern in 2009 only to see the Huskies football program cut after his redshirt freshman year.
When Lengel came out of Cumberland Valley High in Mechanicsburg, Pa., the only college to offer the 6-foot-7-inch tight end a full scholarship was Northeastern. He was worried that he wouldn’t get a second shot after getting no exposure as a freshman until Eastern Kentucky expressed interest. Lengel transferred and got to play, but struggled with injuries, tearing the ACL in his right knee in 2012 and 2013.
Lengel went undrafted in 2015, but the Bengals quickly signed him to their practice squad where he spent all of last year until the Patriots called in November.
Lengel’s odds obviously improved after that. New England had stellar tight ends ahead of him in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, and Lengel has never been much of a pass-catcher, anyway. He was primarily a blocker at EKU, where he had a career-high 139 receiving yards in 12 games in 2014.
The Patriots however, wanted a little more out of him.
“Matt has worked hard since he got here,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on a conference call Tuesday. “He’s demonstrated the ability to compete and do things at the tight end position that can help us win, whether that’s running up the field, catching the football, blocking, pass protection.”
Even given all that, Lengel’s touchdown still didn’t come off a play designed for him. Bill Belichick thinks there was some miscommunication within the Jets defense because both New York safeties rotated down to the flat, leaving the middle of the field open. Lengel may not normally run 18-yard go routes, but he reacted quickly enough to take advantage of the Jets miscue and catch Brady’s attention.
Even though it wasn’t by design, Belichick said he wasn’t too surprised that Lengel flashed some wheels. Belichick said that Lengel is faster in-game than his 4.94 40-yard dash time because of the player’s long strides.
“He’s able to cover ground getting down the field,” Belichick said, “but again, length is definitely a part of that because when you’re throwing to a big guy, whether it’s a guy like Randy [Moss] or Rob [Gronkowski] or [Matt] Lengel, it’s just a lot bigger target so you don’t have to get as much separation or get as far behind the player that’s covering you.”
Lengel knows he’ll covet his touchdown ball forever, he just doesn’t know where he’ll put it. He’s spent the past year knowing he could get cut at any moment. He usually sends mementos, like his first game-worn jersey, home to his parents for safekeeping.
That’s another reason why, this year, Lengel likes having all his celebrations come at once. Even just a couple days off for Christmas provided a welcome chance to let the exciting events sink in.
“That’s actually the good thing about having the holidays and two days to kind of sit back and reflect on things,” Lengel said. “For a few days I’ve been — for the past couple months it’s always been high energy, high anxiety, high stress — and the past two days sitting around with my family and everything, we just sat around the lobby of their hotel and kind of reflected on things and thought about it.
“That’s the thing about being an athlete and being in the NFL it’s, whatever the day is today, you’ve got to come in and — I forget what day it is — you’ve got to come in and it’s a new week, it’s a new opponent, everything is new. Unfortunately it’s not, ‘I catch one touchdown pass and I can stop, I can afford to stop working at something.’ You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to have a short memory — good or bad.”
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @NoraPrinciotti.