INDIANAPOLIS | James Brewer painstakingly decorated the New York Giants' offensive line room for Christmas, carefully crafting holiday décor and even building a faux fireplace to adorn one wall.
"I have to say," veteran Dave Diehl begrudgingly admits, "of all the years I've been here, it was the best the offensive line room looked."
Diehl knows a thing or two about the rookie experience -- he's seen eight classes come through since his own first season. This year, the team's starting tackle has taken Brewer under his wing, and the two have formed an odd bond over the mutual woes of their Big Ten alma maters.
Diehl, a native of Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood, played at Illinois after graduating from Brother Rice. He has a tattoo of Chief Illiniwek, and donated the money to build the football team's new lockerroom.
Brewer played for Indiana, even staying in Bloomington this summer while he waited out the NFL lockout.
NFL players regularly place friendly bets when their colleges compete. Diehl will bet wager a dinner with anyone who wants to go against the University of Illinois. When the 6-0 Illini traveled to Bloomington this season, however, Brewer insisted on bragging rights.
"His pockets are a little deeper than mine," Brewer said.
Indiana finished the season with a 1-11 record, but Illinois' six-game skid gave Brewer some room to razz his teammate.
"The funny thing was Illinois, they beat us and were 6-0, then they lost the rest of their games," Brewer said. "I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe if we would have played them a week later we would have beat them.'"
Rivalry aside, Diehl lauds the way Brewer has thrived through the ups and downs of joining the NFL. Whether it's learning the playbook or dressing in costume for Halloween, Diehl said Brewer's taken to the team with ease.
It's not always the case for new Giants, learning to navigate New York City, new money and new freedom.
"I think throughout the year you've seen him make progress as a football player," Diehl said. "Not only in his knowledge of our offense but also his technique, his fundamentals, and playing offensive lineman guys are big and strong but so much of it is all about technique and he's done a great job of working at it."
Brewer said he tries to remember how closely removed he is from the average football fan. Just a season ago he was attending preseason games at Lucas Oil Stadium, and Sunday he'll play in the Super Bowl there.
"I'll come downstairs and people want autographs, and there's times when you really want to just go to Starbucks," Brewer said, "But it's like, is it really going to kill me to stop for 10 minutes and sign some autographs?
"I could easily be the fan and not the player the fan wants the autograph from. I'm trying to stay humble and enjoy the experience."