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Early on, he was keen on McCardell

FOXBOROUGH -- Before and after almost every workout, P.K. Sam is on the Patriots' practice field running routes, dreaming of the day he will become a star NFL wide receiver.

Sam's pride took a hit two springs ago, when he was a lowly fifth-round pick out of power Florida State, and it suffered a standing eight count when he played just two games in 2004 and was suspended for the Super Bowl. Sam admits that a few weeks back his ego was knocked to the canvas when the Patriots released him.

Imagine the tomato can Keenan McCardell's pride must have felt like early in his career. The wideout was a 12th-round pick out of noted basketball school Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991, and he has been released five times.

Yet McCardell, 35, arrived here yesterday with the San Diego Chargers for tomorrow's contest with 772 receptions, 14th in NFL history.

And he is not limping to the finish line of a storybook career. Through three games, McCardell is fourth in the AFC in receptions (17), third in receiving yards (257), and his four touchdowns trail only one player in the conference -- teammate LaDainian Tomlinson.

No one is more impressed with McCardell's career than Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who as coach of the Cleveland Browns asked McCardell to turn in his playbook on four occasions.

''I have so much respect for Keenan and I'm really proud to have coached him," Belichick said. ''I'm not saying that I developed his career or anything, I don't mean it that way, but I mean just what he brought as a player, his work ethic, his attitude . . . He's really a special guy."

Far from a special athlete in terms of size and speed, McCardell makes up for it with tenacity and grace.

''He really understands route techniques and has a very good understanding of the passing game and has great hands," Belichick said. ''So, wherever you throw the ball to, Keenan, he's going to catch it. It could be behind him, low, high . . . it doesn't really matter.

''He has one of those bodies that can twist and turn pretty fluidly. So he makes a lot of those catches look pretty easy, even though a lot of guys wouldn't be able to make them because they'd just be too stiff to get around."

Though it took some time for him to stick in the league, McCardell credits Belichick with believing in him.

McCardell spent his rookie season stashed on Washington's injured reserve list before being signed by Belichick after the 1992 draft. Treating the practice squad like a farm club, Belichick promoted McCardell three times during that season, but never for more than a week.

A 1993 release led to McCardell spending a three-week stint on the Bears' practice squad, but Belichick brought him back to Cleveland late that season.

Two years later, with Belichick in his final season as coach of the Browns, McCardell was his leading receiver. The next year (1996), with Belichick an assistant with the Patriots, McCardell became the first Jacksonville Jaguar to be named to the Pro Bowl.

Since then, McCardell has virtually followed a rags-to-riches movie script, from being named the Jaguars' NFL Man of the Year, to catching two touchdown passes for Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, to even being selected to Mr. Blackwell's Best Dressed Athletes list.

After a bitter contract dispute with the Buccaneers last year, McCardell was traded to the Chargers, who signed him to a contract that will pay him more than $5 million this year, and last week his 26-yard touchdown reception on a halfback option pass from Tomlinson put McCardell over the 10,000-yard receiving mark (23d all time).

''I think that has to be really one of the great stories in the NFL," Belichick said. ''To come from where he came from, 10,000 yards in his career, and within a year, he'll probably be in the top 15 all time? I don't know, whatever it was, a 12th-round draft choice? Are you kidding me?

''But it wasn't like he did it all in '92 or '93 or like this was some big diamond in the rough. It took McCardell a long time, kind of like it took Troy Brown a while to get to that level and get that kind of recognition."

Brown, an eighth-round pick of the Patriots in 1993, had just two receptions as a rookie and was cut before the 1994 season. Eleven years later, he is one of the most beloved players in Patriots history.

Brown said there is a kinship among players who work their way into the league from the bottom.

''Keenan went through a lot, jumping around from team to team early in his career," Brown said. ''It doesn't seem fair. That's the way things go, but he eventually made the best of his opportunity. Look at him now.

''I tell the young guys all the time not to be discouraged. You're still out here, so you still have the opportunity to do some things. It doesn't matter where you are on the roster, you have a foot in the door."

Sam, who is on the Patriots' practice squad but may be an injury away from the active roster, says he may not be where he would like to be today, but what happened to players such as Brown, Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith, and McCardell early in their careers give him hope.

''Those are feel-good stories and you never know how my situation is going to turn out," Sam said. ''A lot of it is timing, being at the right place at the right time. As long as I keep a good attitude and work hard, stories like that could one day, hopefully, 10 years from now, be my story."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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