NEW ORLEANS - Five years ago, Troy Brown wept here before the Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots' biggest weapon this season, Brown couldn't play in the Patriots' previous Super Bowl trip because of a groin injury. Instead, he watched the other team's return specialist - Green Bay's Desmond Howard - blister New England for a Super Bowl-record 244 return yards and capture the game's MVP award.
Brown still vividly remembers that day in 1997 when he was told that he would not be playing.
"I looked Bill Parcells in the eyes and I knew, and I started crying," Brown said. "I could tell it was bothering him, too. He had someone else come and finally tell me. He knew how bad I wanted it.
"That was extremely difficult to watch. It was a Super Bowl, man. At one point, I probably would've preferred to be at home than on the sideline."
This time around, Brown's impact has changed dramatically. In fact, there will only be a few chances to see him on the sideline for this Super Bowl XXXVI.
Brown plays a dangerous dual role as the team's leading receiver and much-feared punt returner. And the nine-year veteran only has to think back to Howard to realize how he can change tomorrow's game.
"My attitude is special teams are such a vital part of the game, it can make or break a team's heart and be a real momentum swing," Brown said. "It's won quite a few games for us."
Case in point: New England's 24-17 upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday.
Although Brown caught eight passes for 121 yards, he altered the game by his special teams play.
Brown delivered the game's first touchdown by returning a punt for a touchdown the hard way. He never broke to the outside, weaving 55 yards down the middle of the field for the score.
Then, midway through the third quarter, Brown came up big again by remaining unselfish. Recovering a blocked field-goal attempt, he had Steelers kicker Kris Brown on his back and lateraled the ball to teammate Antwan Harris, who ran 49 yards for a pivotal touchdown.
During the regular season, Brown led the NFL with a 14.2-yard average on punt returns. He also has scored a touchdown off a return in two of his past three games.
"It's not very often that you see a guy who starts and has the type of productivity he does on offense do what he has done for us on special teams," special teams coach Brad Seely said. "That is a real unique situation because Troy Brown is a unique person."
That uniqueness was developed through years of hard work.
Drafted in the eighth round in 1993 by the Patriots, Brown was cut by Parcells in the 1994 preseason. He came back to New England in midseason and was used as a punt returner and on kick coverages. It wasn't until 1995 that he caught his first pass as a receiver, but he never wavered from his roots as a returner.
"I don't think anybody means more to his team than Troy," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "With Troy, you have to consider the whole package.
"He does the big things, but he does all the little things. He does all the unsung things that make you really appreciate him as a football player. He is a guy you just love to have on your team. He puts the team first, and he is a great model and example for our young players because he is so team-oriented."
But because of the struggles to establish himself, Brown, 30, never wants to be taken out of the game. That's why he strives to be so versatile.
Brown claims that he is a "decent" long snapper, can also hold for field goals and, in a pinch, punt. The Patriots, though, just ask him to concentrate on playing receiver and returning punts.
"I like to get more out of the game than just play receiver," Brown said. "It's what's kept me around, something I've been good at. It's the dirty work of the league. It keeps you in the game, keeps you focused."
Maybe this time, the Super Bowl will bring tears of joy for Brown.
"To be able to come back and this time definitely contribute," he said, "that is a wonderful experience for me."
NFL injury report
Tomorrow's Super Bowl
New England vs. St. Louis
RAMS: Questionable: FS Richard Coady (ankle); T Orlando Pace (knee). Probable: WR Az-Zahir Hakim (ankle); QB Kurt Warner (ribs); DT Jeff Zgonina (elbow).
PATRIOTS: Probable: QB Tom Brady (ankle); T Matt Light (ankle).