When the New England Patriots drafted Matt Light out of Purdue in 2001, the offensive lineman couldn’t really even call himself a fan of the sport. He had other interests, but it was a steady job.
An outdoorsman growing up, Light never liked sitting in front of the television watching sports. That was for other people. “The first time I saw an NFL game,” Light says, “I was on the field playing in it.”
He certainly saw plenty of games during his 11 seasons, though, becoming one of only five players in league history to have started five Super Bowls, winning three of them. He spent each of those games protecting Tom Brady’s blind side. To most of the outside world, he was an unknown cog in the incredible machine that was the Patriots offense. But inside the locker room, he was valued as a hard worker and depended on for leadership-by-example.
The truth is fans and many teammates never knew the half of Light’s stoic professionalism. If only things had worked out slightly differently, he might not have been around for the team’s entire dynasty. Early in his time with the Patriots, Light was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a painful inflammation to the lining of the digestive system that affects as many as 700,000 Americans. Virtually every day of his career, he dealt with not only the rigors of playing one of the most demanding positions in sports, but also excruciating internal pain. The long struggle began as a rookie, when he noticed bleeding from his bowels.
“Obviously I knew there was something wrong,” Light says. “I definitely went through the process of Why me? Why this? Why now? And how did this happen? What did I do that caused this? Then you educate yourself and try to find ways to deal with it. I just went about that stuff all matter-of-fact, got the bleeding stopped, which was really important; I think I only missed like a week.”
Even as the bleeding instances recurred, Light and the Patriots medical staff kept his health problems under wraps. The issue was uncomfortable to share, but just as much a concern, he didn’t want to create an excuse if his play suffered. Astoundingly, that didn’t happen much, as Light fought through the pain to win a starting job as a rookie—a job he would keep his entire career—and helped New England win its first championship in 2001. But after winning a second Super Bowl at the end of his third season, Light almost—and probably should have—died the following summer.
“I’ll never forget, I answered the phone—and I don’t even know who it was to this day—the pain hit me and just knocked me off my feet, and I was just lying there on the ground in almost like a seizure. My daughter crawled over—she was a 1½ at the time, maybe 2, and laid her head on my stomach, and my wife found me.” Rushed to the hospital, Light’s appendix and 13 inches of his intestines were removed. There were complications, though, and for 28 days he couldn’t eat or drink anything, living on an IV drip. He lost 50 pounds, and was down to 265, far too lean for an offensive lineman. But through hard work in the weight room and with the help of a special nutritionist, Light was back in playing shape in time for the season. Miraculously, he started all 16 games that year and helped New England win a third Super Bowl.
“I battle it every single day,” Light says. “The disease sucks. You think you have it kicked, and then it comes back with a vengeance.” Even without Crohn’s, the life of an NFL lineman isn’t easy. Light endured 13 surgeries during his college and pro career. Still, he was always there, blocking the blind side of two of the most successful quarterbacks the game has ever seen, Drew Brees for three seasons at Purdue and Brady with the Patriots.
Light is also a disciple of one of the NFL’s most legendary coaches, Bill Belichick, who like Brees and Brady is headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When asked about their secrets, about how great leaders can rub off on and push those around them to achieve the seemingly impossible, Light’s answer was simple.
“Successful people aren’t successful just because,” he says. “There are random acts of violence, random acts of genius…. There are not random acts of success. It happens for a reason; there are ingredients. Some of that is just being relentless in your pursuit and having some intelligence. None of it matters, though, if you don’t have the ability to work harder than others around you.”
Through his hard-fought career and into retirement, Light has outworked most athletes to forge a legacy on and off the field. Considering the personal nature of his battle with gastrointestinal disease, he’s encouraging those with symptoms to educate themselves at the website of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, CCFA.org, and to be honest with their doctors and seek the right treatment.
But as an everyman, Light also wanted to contribute to the greater good and established his own charity for youth outreach a decade ago. The Light Foundation is geared toward creating leadership in a new generation by exposing teens to outdoor learning programs.
Along with a turkey hunt, celebrity shootout and scholarship awards, the foundation presents an annual 10-day Youth Leadership Program at Camp Vohokase in Greenville, Ohio, where Light grew up. In 2008, The Light Foundation financed, built and opened the $6 million facility, which sits on 400-plus acres and is also used for community events for the YMCA and Boy Scouts.
“I’m big on ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ ” Light says. “I talk to the kids in our foundation all the time about legacy. Your legacy is people’s viewpoint of what you did or the impact you made. I think in my position, the success I had on the football field, the money, the Super Bowls, I don’t know how it would all be worth it if we didn’t create this foundation.”