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Eckel's in the big game

Episcopal grad has always beaten the odds

Kyle Eckel has battled doubt his whole life.

He worked on becoming a starter at Episcopal Academy by his sophomore year, was once third on the depth chart for the Navy Prep team, and then third on the depth chart his sophomore and junior years for the Naval Academy before becoming a starter - a star - and a two-time MVP of the Army-Navy game.

He signed with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, was cut by the Dolphins and then was re-signed by the Pats. On Sunday, Eckel will step into the University of Phoenix Stadium, in Glendale, Ariz., with the Patriots, on the brink of winning a Super Bowl as a member of possibly one of the game's greatest teams.

Eckel, 26, a Haverford resident and Episcopal graduate, finds his situation the culmination of years of arduous work. He plays special teams for the Pats, and is the closest connection the Philadelphia area has to playing in this year's big game.

He'll be there wearing his No. 38 jersey, bouncing all over the field as he did in the AFC Championship Game against the San Diego Chargers, when he downed a Chris Hanson punt at the Chargers' 4-yard line in the second quarter.

But this heady business of going from football limbo a year ago to playing in the Super Bowl hasn't affected Eckel, who signed with the Pats' practice squad on Sept. 3, and was signed to the active roster on Oct. 1.

Reality - and playing for the Pats - has a way of numbing those feelings.

"I just spent last week waking up at 5:30 in the morning, spending at least 5 hours of meetings, and leaving the practice facility after 5 in the afternoon every day. That has a way of cementing your feet to the ground," Eckel said, laughing.

"People think this level is like floating on air, but it's not all lollipops and rainbows. Our work week has remained the same. We've worked this whole season trying to get to this point. If we win, then it becomes a big deal, then I get a ring."

Eckel played in 11 games during the regular season, scoring his first NFL touchdown in New England's 48-27 victory at Dallas on Oct. 14, and was awarded the special-teams' game ball, and led the Pats with two special-teams tackles in the 49-28 victory at Miami the following week.

He suffered a scare when teammate Eric Alexander's helmet caught the sturdy, 5-11, 240-pound Eckel on his side and bruised his kidney in a Dec. 23 game against Miami, forcing him to miss the final regular-season game against the New York Giants, whom the Pats will meet in the Super Bowl, and the playoff game against Jacksonville.

"I feel good right now. We've maintained a business-as-usual attitude," said Eckel, who left with the Pats for Glendale yesterday.

"There are so many leaders on this team that won't let you lose focus. Coach [Bill] Belichick gives us the heads up as to what to expect this week and what we'll do during the week. We know it'll be a little nuts down there, but there's no playing around on this team. Our goal is the same goal we've had all year, and that's winning the Super Bowl. We haven't met that yet."

And will winning a Super Bowl and getting a Super Bowl ring finally satisfy Eckel?

"It may, but I've fought doubts my whole life," he said. "I worked my way up the depth chart at Navy, I was an undrafted free agent in the NFL and fought my way back into playing in the NFL. I think there are people who still doubt my ability to play at this level. I'm still not content. I want to help this team win even more." *