|Dan Connolly wasn’t the first in his family to settle down in Boston . . . (File/Robert E. Klein/For The Globe/2009)|
Connolly gets his fill
Connolly’s been a busy lineman
FOXBOROUGH — Patrick Connolly, then the acclaimed chef de cuisine at Radius, was proud of the sumptuous meal he had prepared for a special guest one evening three years ago at the trendy Boston restaurant. It was a feast fit for a king. But for a professional football player? Not so much.
It was not nearly enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of Connolly’s guest of honor: his not-so-little brother, Dan, a strapping 6-foot-4-inch, 313-pound offensive lineman. Dan, who originally signed with Jacksonville before the 2005 season as an undrafted rookie out of Southeast Missouri State, had come to Boston for a tryout with the Patriots a week after being released by the Jaguars Sept. 1, 2007.
Dan’s arrival meant a reunion with his older brother, whose own stardom took a meteoric path when he won the James Beard Foundation Award as the best chef in the Northeast in 2008.
So Patrick, who was thrilled to have the youngest of his two brothers in town, treated Dan to dinner.
“I tried to blow him away,’’ Patrick said. “There were something like 13 courses. He appreciated it. He’d always been the most adventurous eater of all of us, even growing up.’’
Like most opposing defensive linemen he’s faced since then, Dan made quick work of the meal his brother painstakingly prepared.
“He just demolished it,’’ Patrick said, laughing at the recollection during a recent phone conversation from New York, where he is chef at Bobo in the West Village. “He went through all 13 courses and loved it all, but he was like, ‘I could still eat,’ and this was soon after dessert. So I was like, ‘Well, forget it, eat all you want,’ so I just sent over a bowl of short ribs and potatoes and something like that.’’
There was no need for a digestif after the 14th course.
“You got to realize that a ‘course’ at a fancy restaurant like that is something that big,’’ Dan said, forming his hands into a circle the size of a tea cup saucer. “So you’re talking about 13 side dishes that I ate. Anyhow, I was a little hungry at the end. It didn’t satisfy me, so he brought me some ribs. He was bringing me all fish and stuff and I needed something to stick to my bones and fill me up.’’
As he’s proven this season, Dan Connolly is a meat-and-potatoes guy. A bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work guy. Connolly’s blue-collar approach to his job has helped him assimilate with the four other like-minded individuals on New England’s offensive line, where he’s worked as Dan Koppen’s backup at center and played a career-high 14 games last season, making four starts at right guard for the injured Stephen Neal.
“I don’t think it was that big of a deal to go from one side to another,’’ said left tackle Matt Light. “He’s done that the whole time he’s been here. It’s kind of been a normal mode for him since he’s been here. He definitely understands all the moving parts, that’s for sure.’’
This season, though, Connolly has been called upon to fill the void at left guard with Logan Mankins out in a protracted contract dispute.
“I didn’t really follow the ins and outs of it,’’ said Connolly, when asked how Mankins’s situation has affected him. “I came in with the intention of playing the role that I did last year, backing up those spots, always with the thought in mind that I’m going to work as hard as I can and if the opportunity presents itself and I can fill in that spot, then I’m going to make myself as ready as I possibly can.’’
And what if Mankins were to return this season?
“I don’t really think about that,’’ Connolly said. “It’s the coaches’ decision for whatever they want to do. I’ll be prepared for whatever happens. If I go back to being the backup guard and center, that’s fine. Whatever keeps me having a job.’’
Connolly seems to have adapted quite well to starting.
“This is my fourth season being with team,’’ he said. “I’ve gotten reps at all those three inside positions. I feel like the reps that I got last year at right guard are only helping me this year. I know I’ve moved to the opposite side, but the experience definitely paid off.’’
That was evident in the Patriots’ 38-30 victory over the Bills in Week 3. Connolly factored in a series of four plays at the end of the first half that helped swing the momentum New England’s way. He helped spring Brandon Tate on a 32-yard kickoff return, then provided Tom Brady with the protection to complete passes of 29 and 13 yards that set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 43-yard field goal that enabled the Patriots to take a 17-16 halftime lead.
And none of it was lost on coach Bill Belichick, who singled out Connolly for his extraordinary effort.
“On a kickoff return, he’s right at the point of attack on the wedge,’’ Belichick said. “And then the two pass plays and then a field goal where they overloaded the rush and came right over his side. [He was] the only guy really that was on the field for all four of those plays and was kind of right at the point of attack on all four of them. That was a big series in the game.’’
But Belichick wasn’t done. He continued listing Connolly’s attributes.
“Dan is a versatile player. He works hard. He’s a real smart guy,’’ he said. “I think he has really improved over the time he’s been here. He came from a real small school, but his whole career he has improved and then worked hard here. Dante [Scarnecchia, the Patriots’ offensive line coach] has coached him well. He’s blended in with the offensive line. Those guys work together pretty well.
“I think he’s made a nice career and he’s steadily improved in all phases of the game.’’
There was a point, however, during his time at Southeast Missouri when Connolly wondered where football would lead him. After all, not many Division 1-AA offensive linemen drew attention from NFL scouts. But Connolly said he was fortunate to play alongside one such player who did, center Eugene Amano, now with Titans.
“They played for me at the same time,’’ said Mike Chavez, Southeast Missouri’s former offensive line coach. “I knew Eugene would make it just because of what he could do. But Dan’s work ethic and his approach to the whole game, I felt it would carry him through his lack of height or the lack of arm reach to a point where I thought he could do something with himself and make money with it.’’
It wasn’t until after his junior year, when he participated in a pro workout with Amano, that Chavez enlightened Connolly, telling him, “Hey, you’ve got a shot.’’
“I had no aspirations, really, to play after college until that came up and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a whirl,’ ’’ said Connolly, who started all four years at Southeast Missouri.
The only plan Connolly had before getting his sports management degree was to inquire about a fifth year of eligibility to throw the shot put on Southeast Missouri’s track team. Failing that, there was a thought about playing on the school’s club rugby team. “It was just an idea,’’ Dan said. “I really didn’t have any plans. I was just going to see what my future brought with finishing my degree.’’
But two other events seemed to change the course of Connolly’s uncertain path. The first was when he was invited to participate in an all-star game in Las Vegas, where he worked with former NFL offensive lineman Carl Mauck. “I knew Carl from some camps we had worked together in California and he told me that he thought Dan was the best offensive lineman at the all-star game,’’ Chavez said.
The other was when Connolly was invited to the NFL’s scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“He’s been kind of steady and focused the whole time, through high school and through college,’’ Patrick said of his brother. “In college, he played every single game and started when he was a freshman, and when he was invited to the combine it was like, ‘Whoa, he’s really that good,’ and ‘This is a real possibility.’ ’’
That notion was reinforced when Connolly landed in Jacksonville. He was one of two undrafted rookies to make the squad (and one of 15 in team history to do so).
He played four games that season, making his NFL debut Dec. 11 against Indianapolis, but wound up spending the next season on injured reserve and was released in 2007 when he got signed to the Patriots’ practice squad. He was signed to the active roster Feb. 5, 2008, then released Oct. 20 and, two days later, was re-signed for a second tour on the practice squad. Two months later, Connolly was signed to the active roster, cementing his place as a role player on the offensive line.
Asked if he ever contemplated how he arrived at this place, Connolly looked around the locker room and replied, “Oh, all the time. I’m blessed to be where I’m at. I mean, five, six, seven years ago, I would’ve never thought that I’d be here.
Like I said, my junior year, before that, this was the last place I thought I’d be, so I feel blessed to be here.’’
The greater blessing, of course, is that it has given Dan Connolly a seat at the table in Foxborough.
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.