Perfection? These Pats have been there before
PHOENIX -- The night before his team became perfect, Russ Hochstein sat in a hotel room and played Sheep's Head. Playing cards is what they do in small towns to pass the time. Two cards in the middle, pass, ante up. In 24 hours, his Nebraska football team would finish a 13-0 season. Hochstein had no idea if he should be nervous. He was young and na´ve, and hadn't seen much of the world outside his farm in Hartington, Neb.
Ten years and two Super Bowl rings later, life moves faster for the Patriots guard. He stays in nicer hotels, hangs around richer friends, and Saturday night, on the eve of New England's final stop to 19-0, Hochstein will gather with some of the NFL's finest and play
"It keeps you distracted from all the other stuff you can think about," Hochstein says. "You just kind of play the game and have fun."
Long before the blowouts of September and October and the early December escape in Baltimore, the New England Patriots were bred to win. Nine of them had perfect seasons in college. One of them, third-string quarterback Matt Gutierrez, never lost a game in four years of high school.
The numbers for the perfect nine: 117 wins, eight national championship trophies, zero losses. When Tom Brady and Kyle Brady drone on with their one-game-at-a-time mantra, it's tired yet true.
Here's a look at the stories for seven of those nine players. (Linebacker Oscar Lua (2004 USC) and receiver Bam Childress (Ohio State 2002) are not currently on the active roster.)
Randy Moss, 1996, Marshall, 15-0
They hated Randy Moss' team because it was big, loaded and flat-out better than everybody else. When Moss streaked down the field flanked by a cornerback 7 inches smaller, press box cronies would call out "touchdown!" before the ball hit No. 88's hands.
In 11 games that season, Moss caught a touchdown pass in the first quarter. By halftime, most of the time, the game was over. The Thundering Herd's biggest challenge in 1996 was a road game at Appalachian State. They won by two touchdowns.
"It was a fun year, and you knew at the time you were looking at something special," says Steve Cotton, Marshall's play-by-play man. "I guess [the '07 Patriots] bring back memories, especially when the ball is in Moss' hands. You're looking at a team that seems to be head and shoulders above the competition."
In both scenarios, the addition of Moss took the teams from good to virtually unstoppable. The season before Moss arrived, Marshall played in the Division I-AA national championship game, but lost to Montana.
When Moss caught his fourth touchdown pass in the title game a year later, the Thundering Herd had built a 46-6 lead over the same team.
"People always ask, 'What was he like?'" Cotton says. "He could be very personable and engaging. The first thing when you saw him out in practice, you could tell the guy really enjoyed being on the football field."
Matt Cassel, 2004, USC, 13-0
On the tube, he was the fresh-faced jock who was featured in the HBO documentary "Freshman Year." On the football field, Cassel always seemed to get stuck in a supporting role. He backed up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, two Heisman trophy winners who have found starting jobs in the NFL.
Cassel came to New England, only to sit behind the league's MVP.
As he stood away from the spotlight earlier this week at media day, Cassel admitted his competitive nature makes him wish he was starting, even in a loss, rather than taking a mop-up knee in a victory.
"You'd rather play four quarters, there's no doubt," Cassel says. "The reason we're all here is to play the game."
But he has had an up-close view of a lot of victories. His best memory of '04 is walking off the field, after the Orange Bowl, with confetti flying and the Trojans hoisting a national championship trophy.
"We never really concentrated on the pressure," Cassel says. "We just concentrated on winning the game. Whatever we had to do to win the game was what the intent was."
Tom Brady, 1997, Michigan, 12-0
When he came to New England as the No. 4 quarterback, life was so low-key Brady munched on nachos before games. His job as a backup was much more stressful in Ann Arbor, Mich.
During preparations for the '97 season, he was locked in a fight with Brian Griese for the starting job. Griese became the starter; Brady became wiser.
"Coach [Lloyd] Carr had always looked me in the eye and said, 'This is the place for you, and if you want to be the starting quarterback, quit worrying about what everybody else thinks and try to compete as hard as you can,'" Brady says. "Those were great lessons for me.
"Sometimes I disagreed with it, but I would never change a day in my life, especially the lessons I learned there. Because those have really suited me well in this profession."
Kyle Brady, 1994, Penn State, 12-0
"You don't know what's going to happen," Joe Paterno told his team the night before the Rose Bowl.
Paterno was trying to keep the boys from giving up. They'd watched what was happening on TV, how Nebraska had won the Orange Bowl and the announcers were calling the Cornhuskers national champs before Penn State had even stepped on the field.
Brady's Nittany Lions were also undefeated. They beat Oregon the next day, but were ultimately shut out of a share of the title in the pre-BCS days.
"We ran through the Big Ten, beat some pretty good teams," Brady says. "We did everything in our power.
"It was pretty deflating."
David Thomas, 2005, Texas, 13-0
The thing that ate at Thomas was the waiting. Thirty-three long days passed between the Longhorns' 70-3 crushing of Colorado and a Rose Bowl meeting with USC.
"You kind of have to sit back and think about it," Thomas says. "With [the NFL], everything happens so fast."
The Trojans were being hailed as the greatest team of all time. Texas walked off with a 41-38 upset.
The Longhorns had their doubters that year because they turned in a few performances that were less than dominant. Their Baltimore moment came at midseason, when they went into halftime down by 16 at Oklahoma State.
"We shut them down in the second half and beat them pretty handily," Thomas says. "I think every team goes through that game where there's a lot of adversity and you have to pull through at the end."
Vince Wilfork, 2001, Miami, 12-0
Their roster read like a who's who list in the NFL: Jeremy Shockey at tight end, Clinton Portis at running back, Ed Reed at free safety.
Reed provided the pep talk of the season when he gathered the Hurricanes at halftime of their game against Florida State, with a dislocated shoulder, and summoned them to beat their rivals.
"He actually shed some tears," Wilfork says. "We went out and probably played the best half of football we've ever played. That was one that stuck in my head to this day."
Russ Hochstein, 1997, Nebraska, 13-0
As old men retell the story of '07, they'll remember Russ Hochstein's penalty, and speak of it fondly. Hochstein was the guy who was flagged for a false start in the waning minutes against the Ravens. Just before that whistle, it was fourth-and-1 and Tom Brady had been knocked back for a 2-yard loss. The perfect season was over. Mayhem was about to ensue.
But the Patriots got a second chance, converted the fourth down and went on to win the game on Brady's late TD pass to Jabar Gaffney.
Hochstein knows all about lucky breaks.
He was sitting on his couch 10 years ago in Hartington, a scrub on a Cornhuskers team rolling to perfection. He didn't crack the travel list for what was supposed to be a ho-hum game at Missouri.
Nebraska was a one lucky "kick" away from being knocked off. Scott Frost heaved a desperation pass in the final seconds, the ball was kicked into the air, and freshman Matt Davison somehow scooped it up before it hit the grass.
"When he caught the ball," Hochstein says, "I just go, 'That's a touchdown! That's a touchdown! That's a win! We're going to get it!' "
These days, Hochstein, in line with the stoic fellows around him, is much more subdued. They've done it so many times before. It's bred into them.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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