Versatile Connolly hits spotlight with long return

Posted Dec. 23, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 24, 2010, at 12:51 a.m.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Dan Connolly took a seat at the bar of the fancy French restaurant where his brother was the chef and started digging in.

One by one, the portions disappeared during that meal three years ago in Boston’s financial district.

“I felt like I exhausted my efforts on him, both quantity-wise and creatively, and he still had room,” Patrick Connolly recalled. “I would say it was about 12 portions. He’s always been a pretty experimental eater. He’s open to trying anything, even when we were kids. I served him plenty of raw fish, shellfish, stuff like that.”

From his palate to the playing field, versatility is Dan Connolly’s strong suit.

He’s played left guard, right guard, center, tight end and fullback in just three seasons with the New England Patriots.

And, of course, he returns kicks.

Speeding and swerving despite his 313 pounds, Connolly ran a kickoff back 71 yards in Sunday night’s 31-27 win over the Green Bay Packers, the longest by an NFL offensive lineman since at least 1976 when the league started keeping complete records.

Does that worry Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey as he prepares for Sunday’s game with the Patriots?

“I hope we don’t kick it to him, to be honest with you,” Gailey said with a laugh.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t buying it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I bet Chan’s really worried about that.”

It may not be an issue since Connolly could miss the game. A victory over the Bills (4-10) would make the Patriots (12-2) the AFC’s top-seeded playoff team, but Connolly sat out the entire second half Sunday night with a concussion and skipped practices on Wednesday and Thursday.

He stayed in the game for three plays after his return ended at the 4-yard line with 2:04 left in the first half — blocking at fullback then right guard on the first two plays. He stayed at right guard for the next play, Tom Brady’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez as the Patriots trimmed Green Bay’s lead to 17-14.

“He just said he’s fine,” Patrick Connolly said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Dan, who has not spoken with the media since his run, seems to take everything in stride.

Undrafted out of Southeast Missouri State, Connolly played four games with Jacksonville as a rookie in 2005. He spent the next season on injured reserve and was cut by the Jaguars on Sept. 1, 2007, the day before his 25th birthday. The Patriots signed him 11 days later to their practice squad, where he spent the rest of the season.

Connolly appeared in just one game in 2008, then started four of his 14 games in 2009.

“Dan’s always well prepared,” Belichick said. “He kept working, kept getting better. He’s developed a role for himself and has been a very productive player for us.”

When left guard Logan Mankins stayed away in a contract dispute at the start of this season, Connolly started all seven games at his spot. Then he handled Mankins’ return calmly.

“There’s no telling what’s going to happen once the game starts,” he said then. “I may be right back in there, so I’ve just got to prepare myself for all those positions.”

Connolly came off the bench in the next game but has started the six since then at right guard in place of Stephen Neal, who is on injured reserve.

“He’s always thankful for what he has and works really hard,” said Patrick Connolly, an award-winning chef in Boston and now chef at a restaurant in New York City’s West Village. “He’s still the same as when he was undrafted and on the practice squad at Jacksonville.”

But he’s famous now.

The kickoff return was the longest for an offensive lineman since Larry Tearry’s 30-yarder for Detroit in 1978. Atlanta’s Mal Snider had a 48-yard return in 1969 before complete records were kept.

The video of Connolly’s run has received about 500,000 views on YouTube. The reigning AFC Special Teams player of the week is no longer just a big, anonymous body in the trenches.

But his teammates never viewed him that way.

“I had a lot more faith in Dan Connolly than you guys did before the season started,” Mankins told reporters after returning to the Patriots. “Dan is a great friend of mine and he’s done a great job. It was fun watching him play and get the opportunity to play to prove to everyone that he could do it.”

The Patriots practice handling short kickoffs and it paid off against the Packers.

Mason Crosby wanted to keep the ball away from Brandon Tate, who has scored on two kickoff returns this season. So he hit a low drive that Connolly fielded cleanly on two hops at the 25-yard line and clutched to his stomach with two hands. At about his own 40, he found an opening and cut to the left.

Near the Green Bay 35, he stiff-armed safety Charlie Peprah and kept rambling along the sideline. Near the 13, he smoothly cut back toward the middle, eluding two defenders. Finally, Connolly was pulled down at the 4. He got up with a huge smile, surrounded by ecstatic teammates.

Some 200 miles away, Patrick Connolly and his wife were watching on television at their Manhattan home.

“I was laying on the floor. I just get as close as I can to the TV because I pretty much just watch him,” said Patrick, who is four years older than Dan. “I think I probably screamed some curse word. We were jumping up and down.”

His kid brother just had the thrill of a career.

“I think we felt just total exhilaration and shock,” Patrick said. “That’s pretty much the ultimate dream for a lineman.”

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