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Trust Talent Time

Texans’ Mike Brisiel headlines USA TODAY’s 20th All-Joe team

A Hall of Fame defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams— appropriate since he resembled a Hollywood leading man — Youngblood earned lasting fame by playing through the 1979 playoffs (including Super BowlXIV) with a fractured left fibula.

Brisiel? He’s been elected captain of the 20th All-Joe Team, USA TODAY’s annual squad celebrating first-rate players who receive second-rate recognition.

Who? What?

Playing guard for the Houston Texans may as well be the NFL‘s version of the Witness Protection Program, but that’s been the job for Brisiel, who (naturally) wasn’t drafted, for the last six seasons. And it’s probably why — despite the media saturation the NFL enjoys in the 21st century — he barely registered a blip despite playing two postseason games for the Texans not four weeks after breaking his right fibula, one of two weight-bearing bones in the lower leg.

Let us be more specific. Brisiel had a player roll up the back of his right leg — a nightmare scenario for any offensive lineman while they’re engaged in a block — during an Oct. 9 loss to theOakland Raiders. Brisiel played the next nine weeks with what he called a “hot spot” in his leg until it finally cracked Dec. 11 at Cincinnati.

Again, let us be more specific. Brisiel broke the bone early on against the Bengals but finished the game, the one that clinched the first-ever playoff berth for the Texans. The next day, he needed six screws and a plate surgically implanted to stabilize the leg.

“The adrenaline was pumping big time because we had to win that game to clinch our division,” Brisiel recalls. “In the game it swelled up, but it didn’t bother me enough to keep me out. I look back on it, I probably should’ve been in more pain.”

Despite his courageous display of toughness, Brisiel says it was he who was grateful to the Texans.

“I’ve been here for six years. When they told me I wouldn’t be on IR (season-ending injured reserve), I was so incredibly thankful, and I got a chance to play in our first playoff game.”

With 26 days of rehabilitation and bone stimulation, Brisiel made the most of that chance, starting Jan. 7 when the Texans crushed the Bengals 31-10 in the wild-card round to the delight of Houstonians at rocking Reliant Stadium. He was back on the front lines the following week when the Texans’ breakthrough season was ended by theBaltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs.

By the way, he needed arthroscopic surgery on his ankle following that game.

Despite such a valiant effort, Brisiel (pronounced BREYE-zell) is so unassuming that he thought the Texans public relations staff was pulling a prank when informed of his All-Joe captaincy.

As for the pain? “Not that big of a deal,” Brisiel says. “Once the plates are in there, you’re safe. It’s just how much pain can you handle.”

Rather than tout his pain threshold, Brisiel credits Houston’s trainers for getting him ready to play. Rather than basking in his performance, Brisiel praises tailbacks Arian Foster and Ben Tate for making him look good.

Uh, Mike, they’re supposed to thank you.

“It’s a blessing to be part of a group of guys who want to work every day,” he says.

And work hard they have.

The Houston O-line was a laughingstock when Brisiel arrived, the unit frequently blamed for the demise of former quarterback David Carr. But it’s quietly become one of the best groups in the league, fronting an offense ranked fourth or better in three of the past four years while paving the way to Foster’s rushing title in 2010. Tackles Duane Brown andEric Winston and center Chris Myers are all worthy All-Joe candidates, though Myers is forever disqualified after getting added to the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster, the first Texans O-lineman ever so honored.

“I love it down here,” says Brisiel “There’s something growing here, and I want to be a part of it.”

Which is why he hopes Houston re-signs him even though his current deal is set to expire. Brisiel’s outlook on the potential riches of free agency? About what you’d expect.

“I’m treading in unfamiliar territory,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve not had a contract.

“Everyone wants to reach free agency, and you get there — and now I don’t know what to do.”

Enjoy it, Mike. You’ve definitely earned a reward.

About the team: The All-Joe team was created in 1992 by longtime USA TODAY NFL writer Larry Weisman as a tribute to Joe Phillips, a 14-year defensive lineman who did yeoman’s work for the Kansas City Chiefs that season. His effort in the trenches didn’t lead to much glory … unless you point to the 29 combined sacks of Derrick Thomas andNeil SmithKansas City‘s fifth-ranked defense or the team’s wild-card run. USA TODAY has honored the unsung Joes of the NFL ever since. Only players who have never been named to the Pro Bowl during their careers are eligible.

G: Mike Brisiel, Texans – Enough said. Josh Sitton, Packers – He doesn’t get much notoriety despite starting for the league’s No. 1 scoring offense. Yet he’s got an argument as the game’s best at his position, whether or not most fans have heard of him. Chris Kuper, Broncos – Team captain helped O-line transition to Tebow’s style while spearheading the NFL’s most productive running game.

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