The television cameras caught Brian Holloway in tears last Sunday in the New England Patriots locker room.

The Los Angeles Raiders had just been cracked, 27-20, in an American Conference semifinal game and now Holloway's voice was cracking, too. Holloway talked about his commitment and his team's desire. And when Wendell Holloway, his father, caught the scene from his congressional campaign headquarters in the basement of his house in Potomac, Md., he recalled, "It just destroyed me. I started crying, too."

Fred Shepherd saw it on television, too. For the past 17 years, Shepherd has been the head football coach at Churchill High, where Holloway played defensive tackle nearly a decade ago, long before he became a first-round draft pick or a three-time all-pro offensive tackle for the Patriots. Holloway was the guy, Shepherd recalled, "who nobody would run at.

"Once, we were playing a team where a halfback broke away for a 40-yard run or 60-yard run and here's this big lumbering tackle who caught him from behind," Shepherd said. "Brian had a slight angle, but the halfback had a 10-yard start. That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen."

Shepherd said it surprised him to see Holloway's tears, just as it surprised him to read Holloway's remarks in the paper the next day. Holloway was talking about the AFC title game against the Miami Dolphins Sunday in the Orange Bowl and said that these upstart Patriots (13-5) were "going for the money and going for the throat."

"My reaction was I don't remember Brian being that way. He was more of the quiet type," Shepherd said. "He may have been a showman in the hallways and around school; he was the kind of young man you'd expect to be in drama in school.

"But he was a quiet leader in athletics. That's why I wasn't surprised when he was switched to offense because you need to be mean and nasty to play defense and Brian is not that way.

"Maybe now, Brian is just saying what he always felt but was too shy to say before."

Moments after the Patriots had finished their workout today at Tropical Park, a disheveled former horse track now used for high school games, Holloway said, "You see the national attention we've gotten recently. People are saying 'Where did they come from? Look at what they are doing.'

"It's like Patriot-mania has swept the country. We are probably the hardest-working, most-committed team in this league. The whole turning point came when (Coach) Raymond Berry came in and the attitude changed. (But) we're the same team as we've been (all year). The only thing that's happening is that, week by week, we are getting better and better."

You see that Holloway's father is a Democrat running for the congressional seat Mike Barnes will vacate in the 8th District in Montgomery County. And you see that he graduated from Stanford and you see that he is the team's player representative.

The team's press guide tells you that Holloway, 26, is married with a son, has plans to enter law school in the future, refurbished three buildings on a farm he owns in upstate New York, has started a program at Northeastern University for helping teammates finish their degrees and fulfilled a life-long dream in the past offseason by taking piano lessons.

So you're not surprised when Rod Humenuik, the Patriots' offensive line coach, says, "He's a highly motivated man. He's very intelligent. On Sunday, he's got instant recall of something that happened on Wednesday. He only needs to see it once."

And you're not surprised when his neighboring blocker, veteran all-pro guard John Hannah, says he has seen development in Holloway during his five years in the bigs.

"He's getting bigga, fatta and uglia," Hannah said in his native 'Bama drawl. "Naah, really he's come a long way. He's learned the game. He studies it; he's smart about it."

Quarterbacks Steve Grogan and Tony Eason were all but beheaded last season when the Patriots finished 9-7, their 21st consecutive year without a postseason victory. The team yielded 66 sacks last season.

So Team Goal No. 1 for this season was to trim the sacks. The Patriots did, down to 38.

The running game's numbers have swelled this season, too, from 127 yards per game to 145. When Craig James rushed for 104 yards last Sunday, he became the first runner to gain more than 100 against the Raiders all year.

And Humenuik, noting that the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Holloway is gradually becoming a more accomplished tactician, said: "His ability reservoir is like that big oil deposit in the earth, and you wonder, 'How much more can we get out of it?' Brian is at the age where he is really starting to blossom."

And don't think that just because Holloway has been concentrating on the Dolphins that he has forgotten what's going on in Holloway Hdqtrs., downstairs. "I know you hear 'downstairs' and it sounds like a sandlot deal. But it's not. You should see it. Computers set up and everything," Holloway said.

When told how his father said he reacted to his son's tears on TV, Holloway smiled ever so slightly and said plenty firmly, "He knows the kind of commitment and sacrifice I put into this year."