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Not a big deal: Koppen stays grounded

FOXBOROUGH -- Dan Koppen had choices.

The Patriots center had agreed to a lucrative contract extension that would help shape his future, the type of financial deal most players covet. So with the next four days off, how would Koppen celebrate? An elaborate dinner on the town? A plush weekend getaway?

Hardly.

For starters, Koppen attended Boston College's football game against Virginia Tech, cheering with the raucous crowd as his alma mater, BC, recorded a victory. The next night, he was at a high school football game in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C. Then, over last weekend, Koppen attended NASCAR's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte's Lowe's Motor Speedway.

That, in a nutshell, is Dan Koppen.

"He's just a guy who doesn't try to be something that he's not," said former BC offensive line coach Dave Magazu. "He's not a big-timer, not a show pony or whatever you want to call it. He's just a regular guy who happens to be a very good player."

And he is now being paid as one of the best players at his position.

When the Patriots inked Koppen to a five-year extension Oct. 12, the deal signified that the team viewed him as an elite center. With a pact that included a $7.5 million signing bonus and could potentially be worth as much as $20 million, Koppen is now among the league's top centers in average salary per year, trailing only LeCharles Bentley (Browns), Matt Birk (Vikings), Jeff Hartings (Steelers), and Olin Kreutz (Bears).

Just don't expect him to change his ways.

"He's the type of guy who comes in every day in a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt," said former Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, one of Koppen's close friends. "I don't see him going out and buying new suits."

Indeed, the tobacco-spittin' Koppen shrugged his shoulders when asked about his new contract and what he might do with the money.

"I don't know," he said. "There's so much going on right now, I'm just happy it's done. If I plan it right, and I will do that, I should be pretty secure and that's the main thing. But now it's football season. I'm here to win games."

Work pays off
Sometimes two people just hit it off, and such was the case in 1999 when Koppen met Magazu.

Magazu, a Taunton native and Springfield College alum, was entering his first year as the Eagles' offensive line coach. Koppen was in his redshirt freshman season, a year in which he played mostly with the second team behind a captain, Butch Palaza.

"Dan was a spot player, waiting in the wings, and he took that opportunity to learn," said Magazu, now in his fourth season as the tight ends coach for the NFL's Carolina Panthers. "He was very knowledgeable and had an outstanding ability of learning the concepts and understanding the concepts. He was just waiting his turn."

That turn came in 2000 as a sophomore, and Koppen had a hold on BC's center spot for three years. He was named to the All-Big East second team all three.

"He came to work every day, studied, and had a true understanding of what we were trying to get done," Magazu said. "It became second nature to him and he didn't have to think about playing the game. I think that allowed him to take his game to the next level."

Still, NFL scouts had their questions about the Whitehall, Pa., native leading up to the 2003 draft.

"There was always a concern about his size," Magazu said. "He's not the biggest guy in the room, and he'll probably kill me for saying this, but he doesn't have the best body either. But what he has is a knack for playing with leverage, being intelligent, and playing with balance. If you play with balance and leverage, and you're smart and tough, you can play a long time."

The 6-foot-2-inch Koppen, who is now 296 pounds, was selected in the fifth round with the 164th overall selection. When he arrived in the New England locker room, Andruzzi took him under his wing.

"You take a look at what Joe did -- entering the league as a rookie free agent -- and seeing how he stayed in the league and made a success of himself, he was a good player to model myself after," said Koppen, now 27. "When you come in the first year, you have a lot of things on your mind, a lot of concerns. The guys around here, especially Joe, helped me come along and fit in."

Much like Magazu did at BC, Andruzzi saw parts of himself in Koppen -- a single guy entering a new phase of his life.

"He was a young buck, a late-round pick just trying to make it," recalled Andruzzi, now in his second season with the Cleveland Browns. "I know how it is trying to be a young guy, scrounging from the bottom. Me and my wife [Jen] took him in. He was like another kid in our family. He'd come over for dinner, our kids would be jumping on him on the couch. It got to the point where he'd be calling my wife asking, `What's for dinner?' "

On the field, Koppen didn't have the luxury of waiting in the wings as he did in college. When starting center Damien Woody was injured in the first game of the '03 season, Koppen was thrust into the starting lineup the next week. He stayed there the rest of the season, with Woody returning to the lineup at guard in place of the injured Mike Compton.

In his typical steady fashion, Koppen started 46 straight games before tearing his rotator cuff in the ninth game of the 2005 season. He's returned to full strength this year, starting all five games, and if all goes according to plan, he'll have the center spot locked down in New England through 2011. He might not have imposing size, but his functional strength and smarts have helped him become one of the league's top centers.

"Each year I've gotten more and more comfortable," said Koppen, who is single and sports a large tattoo with a bald eagle on his upper right arm. "The thing you want to try to do is get better each year, and I feel like I've done that, striving for that improvement each day."

A regular guy
Rewind to last weekend, with Koppen sitting alongside Magazu at a football game at Providence High in North Carolina, where Magazu's son plays. Does this look like a player who just signed a lucrative NFL contract extension?

"He walks in with old jeans, a T-shirt, the hair hanging out of his baseball cap, which he's wearing backwards, his tennis shoes on, and he's excited as heck because they're selling five hot dogs for $1," Magazu said.

"From a personality standpoint, he's had a lot of success, through high school, college, and even now in the NFL, but if you didn't know who he was and what he did for a living, you'd meet him and say, `That's a nice guy.' I think he's just a regular guy, everything he does is up front."

Well, not everything.

"We had a lot of jokesters on the team and he was one of them," Andruzzi said. "He'd give it to [Tom] Brady, but those are the things that keep you going."

All jokes aside, Magazu and Andruzzi believe that Koppen's contract extension was well deserved. Both say it was a case of hard work paying off.

"He's a dependable guy, someone you can count on," Magazu said. "He shows up and goes to work every day, just a regular guy working hard for the money."

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