FOXBOROUGH - Before he was opening holes as part of the Patriots' offensive line, Nick Kaczur was digging them for a living.
After graduating from Brantford Collegiate Institute, Kaczur spent two years working construction in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, whose claim to fame is that it produced some hockey player named Wayne Gretzky.
At that time, few thought Kaczur would join Gretzky in the ranks of professional athletes; the burly lineman was more like the Grate One than the Great One. His brother, Chad, had gotten him the construction job while Kaczur tried to boost his grades to play college football. Like being an offensive lineman, it wasn't glamorous work.
"You have to support yourself," said Kaczur in a voice as rough as the macadam he used to work around. "We did like sidewalks and driveways, patios and stuff like that. We did some commercial stuff like factories, but more residential than anything. It was just making a living. You got to do what you got to do."
Now, in his third NFL season, Kaczur, 28, has laid the foundation for a solid career. The 6-foot-4-inch, 315-pounder has filled what was the lone hole in the Patri ots' line. The laconic lineman locked down the starting right tackle spot in training camp, beating out second-year player Ryan O'Callaghan. He's part of a unit that has been one of the big reasons behind the Patriots' prolific offensive output, and has bought quarterback Tom Brady and the league's top-ranked passing attack (299.4 yards per game) time to click and pick apart defenses for 27 touchdown passes.
New England is third in the league in fewest sacks per pass play (one every 34.1 attempts), and has allowed just seven sacks all season.
"I think our whole line has had a solid season, both in terms of protection and the running game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We've seen a lot of different schemes. They work well together. They make good adjustments, [and] work well with the quarterback in terms of communication."
Kaczur, a third-round pick in 2005, has been a steady contributor since his rookie season, when he filled in after left tackle Matt Light broke his right leg, protecting Brady's blindside for 11 of the final 13 regular-season games and in the playoffs.
Left tackle is Kaczur's natural position. He was a four-time all-Mid-American Conference selection at the University of Toledo, but with a Pro Bowler in Light on that side, the Patriots switched Kaczur to right. That transition was truncated as a rookie and took another hit last year, when a shoulder injury shelved Kaczur for five of the first seven games. He recovered to start the last nine games and all three playoff contests.
Switching sides might not seem like a big deal, but Light had a tough time with it early in his career and ultimately stayed on the left side.
"You're used to one way all the time and you go the other way and it's like being a baby again almost," Kaczur said. "It's like, 'Wow, someone can throw me around that easily?' It takes a little bit to get used to, but once you get used to it, it's not that bad."
Kaczur's line coach for his first three years at Toledo, Joe Gilbert, who has also coached at Northeastern and served as offensive coordinator at the University of Maine, said he's not surprised that Kaczur has successfully made the switch.
Gilbert, who returned to Toledo this season as tight ends coach, said Kaczur's greatest asset is his intelligence. He'll see something on the chalkboard once and be able to put in into practice.
"I think the Patriots got a heck of a deal, and I've known [vice president of player personnel] Scott Pioli for a long time and Scott knows talent," said Gilbert. "He got a guy as a third-round pick and he ends up being a starter as a rookie.
"I talked to Nick as a rookie during training camp and he was saying there are so many plays and switching from left to right. Plus, in college he was never in a three-point stance. He had to make the transition from a two-point stance to a three-point stance after having never put a hand on the ground. It doesn't surprise me he does as well as he has."
Kaczur is one of the more intimidating Patriots with his size and his gruff voice. Gilbert said the tough-guy timbre is the result of Kaczur losing his voice for an extended period as a child. It's not something Kaczur likes to talk about.
"When it came back, he didn't say much, and to this day he doesn't say much," said Gilbert.
But Kaczur will talk to his linemates. He said he and fellow starters Light, Logan Mankins (left guard), Dan Koppen (center), and Stephen Neal (right guard) are close-knit on and off the field.
"Guys like Matt Light, they'll take you and invite you over for dinner and talk about football and stuff like that," said Kaczur. "It's good to have them around. I think we just try and be close. We all get along. We're all in it together. It just makes it easier, being more cohesive off the field as well as on."
Even though he's a professional athlete now, Kaczur still keeps in touch with the guys on the old construction crew. He said most of them are family friends. His brother has advanced up the company ladder. "Yeah, my brother is actually going to be taking it over. He's doing real well," said Kaczur.
More than anybody, Kaczur appreciates the life of an NFL player, even if it's in relative obscurity as an offensive lineman.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," he said. "From where I came from and what I've done, yeah, for sure. That's how people live. We're in a small percentage doing what we do here, so it's good to know what other people are going through."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.