HOUSTON -- The Patriots offensive line is as close a position group as there is in Bill Belichick's locker room. Players' stalls at Gillette Stadium are lined up, one after the next, helping to foster a bond that is on display daily.
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They wait for one another to go to meetings or to leave the facilities. They are each other's rides to and from the stadium at times. They are guests at each other's homes on holidays. They generally travel in a pack -- as they did when they showed up to the Empower Field House for an indoor practice last week -- huddled up like massive middle-schoolers, waiting for the first bell.
Two members of the line, though, haven't always been fond of one another.
The two tackles who will be expected to keep Tom Brady protected when the Patriots take on the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, are now brutally honest about it: There was a time when they didn't get along.
"There was plenty of talk," Solder said. "It was just kind of like . . . almost like your brother. You know what I mean? You almost want to punch him [because] you can't stand him sometimes."
"Our start was a little rocky at first," Cannon admitted. "Rookies coming in, not really knowing each other. But we've grown a lot since then."
Solder was a first-round pick out of Colorado in 2011, a projected starting left tackle, and an apprentice to then-starter Matt Light. Cannon, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma shortly before the NFL Draft and slipped down teams' boards, was taken in the fifth round out of Texas Christian.
Perhaps it was that they were in competition for playing time. Perhaps it was that their personalities clashed. Perhaps both. But as their rookie season wore on -- with Solder eventually claiming a role as the team's starting right tackle -- their feelings toward one another continued to trend one way.
"We were both up to be drafted the same year, and I think there was a little animosity between us when we ended up on the same team -- which quickly became heavy animosity throughout the season," Solder said.
"That initial situation," Cannon said, "might have been a little bit of maturity . . . It's kind of like having the little brother trying to get the attention of the big brother."
"But over the year, that next offseason," Solder added, "we were the two that were hanging out with each other every day."
Eventually they gained an appreciation for one another. Solder saw how Cannon worked and vice versa. They got to know each other better, as did their families.
Now call the friendship they've built "a blessing."
They are similar in that neither man can be described as boisterous. They are the epitome of the strong, silent type. But in those moments when they need someone to talk to, they've turned to each other.
"He's somebody that I can ask for help if I need somebody to talk to about non-football stuff or anything," Cannon said. "He's a really good guy."
Solder gained an even greater appreciation for Cannon last season. After beating testicular cancer himself in 2014, Solder's young son Hudson was diagnosed with a Wilms' tumor in his kidneys in the fall of 2015.
Cannon was one of the first people to go to Solder to provide some measure support.
"He said, you know, 'I understand the nightmare you're going through. But just know, Nate, that the nightmare does end,' " Solder explained. "He's seen both sides of that. That was a huge impact on our lives . . . I'm so thankful to have him in my life."
"We've grown together a lot," Cannon said. "We have grown spiritually and on the field. Nate's a good guy. I like going fishing at his house. He catches more fish than me, but it's all good. He's a great guy. He's a great guy to look up to, and he's a great friend."