FOXBORO -- Ryan Wendell is an offensive lineman straight out of central casting. He's six-foot-two and 300 pounds with a beard like Paul Bunyan's and a voice that stirs in his barrel chest and oozes bass.
He's the Patriots center, the anchor in the middle of the line that has helped produce the NFL's most prolific offense. Despite his prototypical look, it was a long time before he finally won a starting job in New England.
"I'm really happy to have a role," Wendell said, thinking back to earlier in his career, "and to have that role be something that I get to go out there every week and play on the field, and do what I can to help the team."
It was a slow climb for the guy his teammates call "Wendy." The Patriots brought him to New England as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2008. In his first two seasons, he was released and signed back onto New England's practice squad three separate times. In 2010, he played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. Last season, he started three games as a backup to a banged-up offensive line.
For four years, he worked as he waited for his chance to be a regular contributor.
"I don't think you ever have too much time to look back, especially when you're preparing for a team like the Bills," Wendell said. "But every guy on this team has a role. And everybody wants that role to be expanded. Everybody wants to do as much as they can to help this team win. I've been happy about what my role has been here, but I've always wanted it to expand. So the fact that it has, has been great. I've really enjoyed it. I hope that whatever my role is each week, I do my best to help the team win."
After a strong training camp this summer, Wendell was given the difficult task of replacing 10-year veteran Dan Koppen, who was released in August. It was clear that Wendell had the better showing, but he was still a relative unknown outside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Koppen, on the other hand, had started in three Super Bowls.
Given the reins to the position, it didn't get much easier for Wendell. The offensive line was shaky in New England's preseason games, and though he appeared to acquit himself well enough, Wendell was one of a handful under the microscope as the offensive line generated buzz for all the wrong reasons.
Tom Brady was consistently pressured behind a new-look group of lineman. Matt Light had retired. Logan Mankins was hurting, as was Sebastian Vollmer. Questions lingered as to whether or not the new group would be up to snuff.
But the Patriots coaching staff was confident things would change. They knew that they had talent on the line. And they knew that Wendell could handle things in the middle.
Now they're reaping the benefits of keeping him there.
"I think clearly the obvious is that Wendell replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said recently. "Thats as tough a decision as weve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when weve asked him to play. Hes done a very good job through the first eight games of the season. Hes all the things we thought he would be.
"Hes very tough, hes very smart, hes a really competitive guy on every down, through every down. Hes a great finisher. Thats why hes here and thats why we kept him as a rookie and kept him around here and thats why this kid is on our roster and thats why hes starting for us, for all those reasons. Its not a comparison, thats just what he is. So yeah, were pleased with the way things have gone there."
So are his teammates. Wendell has always been intelligent -- a Southern California boy, he earned the California Governor's Scholar Share Award in high school -- and his know-how has brought stability to an offensive line that has continuously dealt with moving parts because of injuries. He is the only interior lineman to start each of New England's first eight games.
"When he stepped in this year, he didn't miss a beat," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "He's able to communicate out there and he knows what he's talking about, and he gets everyone directed. I think that's what a good center can do, and I think that's what he's been doing so far this year."
Thomas knows how hard it can be to try to fill the shoes of a Patriots mainstay. With Mankins nursing injuries throughout the course of this season, Thomas has started four games. Like Wendell, he was also somewhat of an NFL long shot. The Patriots interior line is full of them, in fact.
Starting right guard Dan Connolly, like Wendell, was undrafted. He was released once by the Jaguars and once by the Patriots before becoming a regular starter last season. Thomas was a Dolphins sixth-round pick in 2008 who has been released three times in his career by three different teams.
The three of them have never taken the time to sit together and reflect on their roads to NFL relevance, but they know their experiences have allowed them to prove what kind of players they are. They are the kind that Bill Belichick loves, the kind that love football.
"You know you just never forget where you came from," Thomas said, relating Wendell's journey to his own. "You realize why you're in the situation that you are and you just have to embrace it every single time you get a chance to go out there and play because you weren't just given it right off the bat. You had to work for it."
Wendell's work has turned him into a reliable center for an improving offensive line that has only allowed two sacks in the last three games and helped produce the AFC's third leading rusher in Stevan Ridley.
The positive buzz surrounding the group now probably isn't enough to balance out the negative it heard during the preseason, but for Wendell, that's fine.
Even in his attitude, he is a prototypical trench-dweller, cast perfectly for the role he's loved since he first put on pads as a freshman at Diamond Bar High School 12 years ago.
"I'm an offensive lineman," he said, smiling. "What we like the best is when people aren't talking about us. That's our goal. When we do our job right, people shouldn't be talking about us."