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Connolly starting but still centered

Dan Connolly may draw more media interest at this Super Bowl than the last time the Patriots were at the big game. Dan Connolly may draw more media interest at this Super Bowl than the last time the Patriots were at the big game. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 31, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - The number of times Dan Connolly has heard “You can’t’’ in his athletic career? Way too many to count.

“Oh yeah, tons,’’ Connolly said. “Of being undersized, [from a] small school, not having the experience. I’ve heard it a lot.’’

For the record, the undersized (6 feet 4 inches, 313 pounds) small college product (Southeast Missouri State) who was released by the Jaguars and joined the Patriots as a practice squad player will be New England’s starting center in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI.

Surrounded on the line by multiple Pro Bowlers and high draft picks, Connolly’s journey from afterthought to Super Bowl starter might not be the most improbable of any of the Patriots getting ready to face the Giants. Then again, it might be.

“It’s kind of been a hard road: Playing small college football, being undrafted, just trying to make a team, then being released from that team, trying to just be on somebody’s practice squad,’’ said Connolly, a 29-year-old St. Louis native. “I assume that my hard work over the years has paid off.’’

That and his versatility. Connolly has started for the Patriots at three offensive line positions over the past two seasons. He spelled Logan Mankins at left guard last season when Mankins was injured; took over for right guard Stephen Neal later in the season when Neal was hurt; and has logged 11 starts this season at center in place of Dan Koppen, who fractured his ankle in the season opener.

Because of injuries, the Patriots have been forced to move players around on the offensive line all season, with right guard Brian Waters the only one to start every game at the same position. Given an opportunity, this season and last, Connolly has seized it.

This isn’t Connolly’s first trip to the Super Bowl. After spending his first two years in Jacksonville (spending 2006 on injured reserve), he signed with New England on Sept. 12, 2007, and was with the Patriots throughout that season, which began with 18 victories and ended with a painful, last-minute loss to the Giants in the Arizona desert.

But Connolly spent that season on the practice squad, getting his teammates ready during the week, standing on the sideline out of uniform during games.

To be so close to perfection, without ever appearing in a game?

“It was great to be there,’’ Connolly said. “I would have wished that I was playing, but it was fun to just be a part of it.’’

He was part of the Media Day frenzy at the Super Bowl four years ago, when he estimated that only four or five questions came his way. The entire time. This morning, when he and his teammates spend an hour talking to the media at Lucas Oil Stadium, Connolly’s assigned spot figures to generate a bit more traffic.

Many Patriots fans still remember Connolly for his 71-yard kickoff return last season against the Packers, the longest ever in an NFL game by an offensive lineman. He’s reminded of it often, including yesterday.

Asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t an NFL offensive lineman, Connolly didn’t hesitate: “Kick returner, right?’’

It’s doubtful the Patriots will need him there come Sunday, but Connolly has shown the ability to transform himself into anything his team needs him to be. That flexibility is a big reason he’s still with the team.

“I think I’ve shown I can play all those positions, being able to step in when needed,’’ Connolly said. “It’s really helped me stay here, I think.’’

Fortunately for Connolly, he’s landed on a team that’s developing a reputation for finding undrafted or discarded players and turning them into dependable, serviceable pros. Including Connolly, the Patriots have 18 players on their 53-man active roster who were never drafted; nine are starters.

In Connolly, Bill Belichick found exactly the kind of player he looks for, said Mankins.

“He looks for people who can fit his program. He looks for guys who work hard,’’ Mankins said. “To make the team and stay in the NFL . . . those are the kind of guys he finds.’’

That undrafted bond has created a kind of brotherhood.

“The more I talked to people they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, you were on practice squad too,’ and I noticed that people work their way up the ranks and became starters,’’ Connolly said. “It’s good to have other guys around that have been through the same things I’ve been through. I think it builds team character, to have guys that have really had to work hard to get where they are.’’

Especially those who have seen what it’s like when the spotlight wasn’t on them, or in places where the spotlight doesn’t even reach. Asked by a reporter yesterday about his years at Southwest Missouri State, Connolly quietly corrected. “It’s Southeast; you’re not the first.’’

Connolly takes unintentional slights like that in stride, and why not? Overlooked by big schools, then by the NFL, then released when he finally did crack the league, he knows what’s important. Film work, practice, preparation. And above all, personal belief. It’s gotten him this far.

“It’s a very thin line,’’ Connolly said. “It’s very easy to end up working at a bar. I guess it’s not as easy to be the center at the Super Bowl.

“What drove me? I guess the love of playing the game. I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I’ve always had to prove myself.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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