FOXBOROUGH -- This may come as a surprise, but Warren Sapp was not the first to doubt Russ Hochstein's ability. "I'm a 6-foot-4, 300-pound slow guy," Hochstein says.
They said he wouldn't make it at the next level coming out of Cedar Catholic High School in Hartington, Neb., a school of fewer than 200 students that graduated 30, including Hochstein, in 1996. But he earned All-Big 12 honors each of his last three seasons at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers like to run the ball. So guess what they said Hochstein couldn't do coming out of college?
"I heard throughout my college career, `You can't pass block.' I heard it every day," he says. "I heard it all the time at the camps I went to. And I couldn't when I came in, because we never did a lot of it [at Nebraska]. I'm still trying to get better at it, and I still struggle at times with that."
They also said, in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl XXXVIII, that New England's offensive line would struggle mightily against the Powder Blue Wrecking Crew, also known as the Carolina Panthers' defensive line. Sapp, Hochstein's former teammate in Tampa Bay, even went so far as to say that Damien Woody's replacement at left guard couldn't block a pair of sports talk-show hosts. Hochstein showed him, and the Patriots showed them, not yielding a sack for the third straight postseason game.
Hochstein, best described simply as a sweet guy (his agents' sons took him to their elementary school's "Show and Tell"), never yielded to temptation and fired back at Sapp.
"In my situation, it was the right thing to do," Hochstein says. "I was a new guy who hadn't played a lot [the Super Bowl was his third career start]. When you're in the Super Bowl, it's the biggest game of the year, and people nitpick at things and look down the roster and see who's there and say, `This guy doesn't have any experience.' I expected that. My O-line coach [Dante Scarnecchia] had me in one afternoon and told me, `Expect to get a lot of heat. You're the most unproven guy here as far as experience.' Then he goes, `I believe in you, the guys around you believe in you, and that's all that matters. Whatever those guys say to you, it's all lip service, because they're not playing the game.' And it's true. The only people that mattered to me were my teammates and the Carolina Panthers. I tried just to keep it that way, and I think I came out all right in the end in that."
With Woody's departure to Detroit via free agency, Hochstein comes into today's first training camp practice as the projected starter at left guard. That sounds nice, but Hochstein knows the truth. There are no playing time guarantees (but there are incentives) hidden in the fine print of the three-year contract he signed in March, and thus, no reason to relax. Anyway, how can Hochstein rest on his laurels when, in his words, he has none? Last year at this time, he was fighting for a roster spot, on his way to being released the last day of August, only to be re-signed to the practice squad. A 2001 fifth-round pick who spent his rookie season in Tampa Bay inactive for every game and was released a month into his second season doesn't rest.
"I approach it as, I have to start all over again," says Hochstein, 26. "I have no job. I signed a contract but it means nothing. I have to go out and perform better than I did a year ago. I'm looking at it like there's no one penciled in there, and that's the way it is. I haven't played enough to earn anything yet."
Enough, though, to have earned the respect and the faith of his fellow linemen. This should come as no surprise, that a kid from Nebraska who grew up working for his family's concrete business knows a thing or two about getting his hands dirty. Hochstein's commitment allowed him to emerge from offseason workouts quicker and stronger than he was last year.
"He wants this more than anything else," says agent Joe Linta. "Whoever goes in there and attempts to beat him out is going to have a tough row to hoe."
"Russ works as hard as anybody here," says center Dan Koppen. "He wants to succeed. Having that passion for the game is going to make him a good player. I think he's stepped it up. I think he believes that the job is his to lose and he's going to try and take it to the next level."
Hochstein's hometown status has risen, if that's possible for someone who led his school (one of two in the town) to the state playoffs four consecutive years and was a Blue Chip Illustrated All-American. This offseason, Cedar Catholic named its new football field in his honor.
In April, no offensive linemen were called when it came time for the Patriots to draft. A subtle vote of confidence? "A little bit," Hochstein says, "but that means nothing. Once you come down to the season, if you're not performing, you're not playing. Next year they could draft 20 offensive linemen, you just don't know."
What Hochstein does know is that he has as many regular- season starts as he has Super Bowl rings. That says two things: first, that he's very fortunate, and second, that he has a long way to go.
"There were a few weeks out of an entire year that I got to play, and all these other guys have worked real hard and started whole years," he says. "I want to be able to fit in and work hard to make sure that when I go in there, hopefully we keep moving smoothly and get things done right. I'm going into my fourth year and I haven't played a considerable amount. I want to make sure that they're comfortable, everybody in this system, the guys that I play with, are comfortable with me being in there."
The Patriots are with Hochstein because, although not flashy, teammates say he is bright, intense (though you wouldn't know it from talking to him), and, like the rest of his line mates, technically sound. Inside it's a game of leverage, and for a self-proclaimed undersized, slow guy, Hochstein knows how to play it.
"I just try to work hard and do the things that I'm told," he says. "Any player can be gifted and another can be totally unathletic, but the difference between the two is which guy wants to work hard for it and which guy won't.
"I'm a very determined person. I know I'll never be able to run a 4.8 40 or bench press 520 pounds or something like that, but I know the one thing they can't take away from me is how hard I work. Determination and hard work will get you a lot of places."