When They Were Younger
Think every player in the Super Bowl is simply a hard-hitting, freakishly fast, football-crazed jock? Yes, it takes incredible athleticism and immense dedication to make it to the NFL’s biggest stage. But amid the hoopla leading up to XLIX, it’s easy to forget that players come from diverse backgrounds and lead lives away from the field. Among the participants vying for the Lombardi Trophy: a church organist, an accomplished barber, a kayaker, and a former neuroscience student who had a 3.8 GPA at one of the country’s top liberal art colleges.
As we did before last year’s Super Bowl, The MMQB reached out to high school and college coaches of players on the two Super Bowl teams and asked them to share a favorite memory. And as with last year, the answers will surprise and amuse.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s coach at Junipero Serra High in California, Tom McKenzie:
“Everything you’d imagine Tom Brady to be like in high school, he was. An All-American boy, very well-behaved, a hard worker, great sense of humor, easygoing—the guy every mother would want her son to be.
“He had lots of friends, too, and fit in with his teammates, but of course there was a bit of jealousy when he started getting attention. All the sportswriters wanted talk to him; he was the star. Well, one time we were at mass, and Tom was missing. Nobody knew where he was, so we went looking. I investigated in the locker room, and somehow one of his teammates had managed to lock Tom in one of the lockers. Luckily I had the master key to get him out. I think they just wanted Tom to get in trouble, for once.”
Seahawks safety Earl Thomas’s coach at West Orange-Stark High School in Texas, Cornel Thompson:
I believe a lot of people now know that Earl is a talented musician, but here’s a story [former Texas coach] Mack Brown told me. When Earl was a freshman in college he asked the coaches if he could leave practice early, or maybe come a little late, because he wanted to get home and play organ at his grandfather’s church. Mack Brown was a bit shocked. He’s coached hundreds of players and never had that type of request before. Of course, he had to say yes.”
Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis’s coach at Aliquippa High in Pennsylvania, Mike Zmijanac:
“When Darrelle got in trouble earlier this year for being late to a meeting with Bill Belichick, I was really surprised. He was one of the most punctual, self-motivated players I ever had. In fact, I can only remember one time he ever showed up late. It was the practice before our big homecoming game, and Darrelle comes in huffing and puffing.
“I go, ‘Darrelle, what happened?’
“He says, ‘Sorry coach, I got a flat tire coming back from Cleveland.’
“Me: ‘Cleveland?! What were you doing in Cleveland?’
“Darrelle: ‘Picking out a suit for the homecoming dance.’
“Me: ‘You know, Darrelle, they have suits in Pittsburgh.’
“Darrelle: ‘But not like the ones they got in Cleveland!’
“I didn’t know what to do with him. [Pittsburgh is about 30 minutes away from Aliquippa, and Cleveland is nearly two hours.] It was the first time he had ever been a problem. So I just let him go back out there and practice.”
Seahawks running back Robert Turbin’s position coach at Utah State, Ilaisa Tuiaki:
“I loved Robert as a player. He was so driven. If he wanted something so bad, he didn’t care who or what was in his way. He was going to get it. He drove this old Cadillac around town, thinking he was all that. He bought rims for it, and he’d drive leaning back like he was really cool. But that car was a piece of crap and was always breaking down. So a lot of times Robert would walk to the stadium.
“Robert worked so hard to be great. He ended up having to sit out a year with an ACL injury. Whenever the coaches arrived to the facility, Robert would already be there. Logan, Utah, is cold as hell at 5 in the morning, but he would be there no matter what, in the ice tub and doing treatment. And a lot of times, I bet that damn Cadillac was broken and he probably walked.”
Patriots tight end Tim Wright’s coach at Wall High in New Jersey, Chris Barnes:
“How’s this for well-rounded? Tim transferred to our district at the end of his sophomore year. By the time he was a senior he was not only voted a team captain, but also the school’s homecoming king.
“He has a degree in criminal justice, and if he didn’t make the NFL, he was ready to join the State Troopers’ academy. And he’s also a proficient barber. He cut all the guys’ hair in high school. He’s so good at it that Rutgers actually installed a barber’s chair in the locker room, just for him, during his senior year of college.”
Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka’s coach at Middlebury College in Vermont, Bob Ritter:
“His freshman year at Middlebury he played soccer and lacrosse, but all his roommates were football players. We needed a kicker, and they convinced him to try out his sophomore year, even though he had never kicked a football in his life.
“He saw the writing on the wall with his soccer career, and he ended up getting cut from lacrosse—the rest is kind of history. Steven had a 3.8 GPA as a neuroscience major, and when he wanted to do a post-grad year, he was meticulous. He went through every D-1 program’s roster and saw which team needed a kicker and where he could get the most playing time. He ended up at N.C. State, and majored in parks and rec.”
Patriots tackle Nate Solder’s coach at Buena Vista High in Colorado, Bob Marken:
“Nate was so humble. His senior year, he was getting recruited by maybe a dozen or so schools, but his teammates had no idea because he would never make mention of it. Nate was a simple guy. He played basketball, baseball and football, but he was also a downhill skier. We live in the mountains out here, and he loved hunting and fishing trips with his dad at the Arkansas River. Oh, and kayaking. He loved to kayak, which I guess is kind of funny to imagine now, a big NFL tackle out there in a little kayak.”
Seahawks wide receiver Luke Willson’s coach at Rice University in Texas, Dave Bailiff:
“The first year he came to us, we had to redshirt him. Of course we’d love to play him right away, but he actually reported late to camp because of his commitment to Canada’s junior national baseball team. They had some big tournament in South America. Luke is a fantastic football player, but he was also one heck of a baseball player, too. He was a big left-handed prospect for the Blue Jays, and he spent time in their spring training camp before his senior year. I don’t know how many young men have such promising careers in professional football and baseball like that—well, except for Luke’s current teammate, Russell Wilson.”
Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell’s coach at Lamar High in Texas, Tyron Green:
“We had an epic game against our rival, Memorial, whose star player at the time was Jamaal Charles. The game went to four overtimes, and Brandon played every down—offense, defense, special teams. It was something like 180 plays. He never came off the field. He never complained, either, until the car ride back, when he cramped up pretty bad. Brandon is from a tough neighborhood down here in Houston: the Fourth Ward. But he made it out because of his great personality and because he is an extremely hard worker. On the field he was a jock, but in the hallways he was kind of a nerd. He got really good grades, and loved Italian class.”
Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin’s coach at Gulf Breeze High in Florida, Chris Nemith:
“Right now he’s known as Angry Doug, and I can tell you he’s always been that fiery. Even as a freshman in high school. He’s always been told he’s just not good enough, not tall enough, not fast enough, whatever. So he’s had a chip on his shoulder.
“He knew he didn’t have the typical height and size for Division 1 schools, so he made himself marketable in other aspects. He worked extra hard in the classroom so he’d get looked at by schools like Vanderbilt, Stanford and Wake Forest. When he got to Stanford, there was a small group of people from back home who said he’d never make it out there. He’ll come home. He’s not tough enough.
“What did Doug do? He kept grinding. So when you see Cris Carter or Keyshawn Johnson call him out, you have to look at his journey to get here. That’s why he’s protective of his team, and that Angry Doug? He’s always been that way.”
Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington’s coach at Hofstra University in New York, Dave Cohen:
“Kyle was one of the most thorough preparers I’ve ever seen. He’d always spend extra time checking out receivers’ stances, taking notes about things he saw on film. You can see why he’d thrive in the NFL, especially for a team like the Patriots. But I’ll also say this about Kyle: He loved doing curls more than any other cornerback I’ve ever coached. He loved having big biceps.”
Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy’s coach at Mooresville High in North Carolina, Barclay Marsh:
“J.R. never played offense until he went to the pros. That’s unheard of! In middle school, high school, college, he was a defensive player. When Tom O’Brien recruited him at N.C. State, he sat in my office and said, ‘I know he’s a linebacker for you, but we’re recruiting him at a defensive end, and if he grows into a defensive tackle we could have something really special. Then in the NFL, he’s a starting O-lineman? How does a guy make a change at that level? Moorseville is an old mill town, a real small-feel place, and I can tell you there’s a lot of newly converted Seahawks folks here.”
Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich’s coach at Joliet Junior College in Illinois, Bob MacDougall:
“Early in camp his freshman year we were trying to decide whether to play Rob at tight end or defensive end. The position coaches were all fighting for him, and we kind of had a battle amongst ourselves. We didn’t know what to do with him, and it almost came down to a flip of a coin.”
Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette’s track coach at Fort Valley State in Georgia, Tyree Price:
“We had a home meet, and Ricardo was running the 200 meters. He blew everybody out of the water. Coming down the homestretch, he sees his dad in the stands and points up to him. I’m in the press box, looking down at this and sigh. Oh dear, look what I gotta deal with.
“Afterward I went up to Ricardo and said, ‘Look, there’s a certain way you have to win. It’s nice to point to your dad, but think about how others might perceive it.’
“He said, ‘I got you coach.’ Never had that problem again. He’s a determined individual. Some might call it arrogance; I think it’s just a kid who is confident and chasing his dream. He was one heck of a runner. I think if he wanted to, he could still represent the U.S. in the Olympics. Probably not in the 400 meters, but maybe in the 200m, and possibly do some damage in the 100 as well.”
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Sports Illustrated/The MMQB photo credits: Robert Beck (Thomas, Willson, Sweezy); David E. Klutho (Revis, Ninkovich); David Bergman (Turbin); Winslow Townson (Wright, Solder); Heinz Kluetmeier (Hauschka); Al Tielemans (LaFell); John Biever (Baldwin); Simon Bruty (Arrington); John W. McDonough (Brady, Lockette)
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