- Former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, Chris Hogan's lacrosse coach and Tom Brady’s center at Michigan have some stories to tell.
Before they played their way to football’s biggest stage, the participants in Super Bowl LII were college stars. (At least most of them were. Keep reading to learn about an outlier who wasn’t.) As we prepare to watch the Patriots and Eagles face off in Minneapolis on Sunday, let’s take a trip back to campus*.
*For more of these stories, tune to SiriusXM Channel 84 Friday night for a special that features interviews with the college coaches of some of the Super Bowl’s key players.
After lifting a college program to new heights, they’ll face one another in the Super Bowl
When the Eagles’ offense lines up against the Patriots’ defense, the chances are good that two former college teammates will find themselves in direct conflict. New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Philadelphia receiver Alshon Jeffery were South Carolina high school stars who helped change the fortunes of the football program at the University of South Carolina when they signed in the 2009 recruiting class.
Gilmore, from South Pointe High in Rock Hill, took an official visit to Alabama in October 2008 but committed to the Gamecocks a few days later. With one in-state star in the boat, coach Steve Spurrier and his staff kept working on Jeffery, who had committed to the more famous USC in Los Angeles. But when Trojans offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian left to become the head coach at Washington, Jeffery began looking elsewhere. To land Jeffery, South Carolina had to fend off a challenge from Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin. Jeffery and his coach at Calhoun County High each told ESPN’s Chris Low that Kiffin had warned that Jeffery would end up “pumping gas” if he chose the Gamecocks.
When Spurrier and his assistants read the quote, they chuckled. “We said if he ever pumps gas, it’ll be into a big old Mercedes,” Spurrier said.
Jeffery and Gilmore had an instant impact on the Gamecocks. Both started as true freshmen. As sophomores, they helped South Carolina to its only SEC East title. As juniors in 2011, they helped the Gamecocks win 11 games. South Carolina would win 11 in 2012 and 2013 as well. The signing of Jeffery and Gilmore helped pave the way for other Palmetto State stars to sign with South Carolina. In 2010 the Gamecocks landed tailback Marcus Lattimore, and in 2011 they signed Gilmore’s former South Pointe teammate Jadeveon Clowney, the consensus No. 1 player in the nation.
The Eagles probably would be alternately thrilled, mortified and thrilled if the Super Bowl resembled Jeffery’s final game in a South Carolina uniform. In the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska on Jan. 1, 2012, Jeffery caught four passes for 138 yards, including a 51-yard Hail Mary as time expired in the first half. But late in the third quarter, Jeffery and Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard got into a fight near the Nebraska sideline and both players were ejected. After South Carolina closed out a 30–13 win, the Gamecocks received interesting news: Despite the ejection, Jeffery had been named the game’s MVP. “Somebody go to the locker room and get him,” Spurrier remembered yelling.
“He still had his uniform on, though,” Spurrier said. “He knew he had a shot at it, I guess. So he came jogging out and got his MVP award. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before—a guy got tossed out and then was MVP.”
Meanwhile, the Patriots—who always seem to squeeze the most out of every player on their roster—may find more use for Gilmore if they want a change of pace. At South Carolina, the former high school quarterback would occasionally replace signal-caller Connor Shaw. Coaches called this the “Wild Cock” formation. Gilmore even completed two passes out of the formation. Guess who caught both? That’s right. Jeffery.
Putting down his stick, picking up a pigskin
Football coaches at major universities expect that every once in a while one of their former players will make it to the Super Bowl. But Glenn Thiel never thought he’d see one of his former players suiting up for his first—much less his second. That’s because Thiel was Penn State’s lacrosse coach for 33 years.
On Sunday, Patriots receiver Chris Hogan will try to earn his second ring. But when the Wyckoff, N.J., native left Ramapo High in 2007, it seemed unlikely he’d play football again. The 6'3", 213-pound Hogan had been an all-state football player, but he’d been an all-everything lacrosse player. Many of the sport’s best programs wanted him, including Syracuse and Johns Hopkins. Landing Hogan was a bit of a coup for Thiel. “As a lacrosse recruiter, you’re looking for athletes,” Thiel said. “He was unique because of his size and speed. You didn’t see that in lacrosse.”
Hogan, a midfielder, started every game for Penn State as a freshman. An ankle injury as a sophomore limited him to three games, and that would be important later. He led the Nittany Lions in goals as a junior with 29. His goal total dropped to 15 as a senior, but that was because Thiel moved Hogan to the defensive midfield to create more transition offense. But after that season, Hogan was ready for a bigger transition.
He wanted to play football again.
“We always knew that was kind of in the back of his mind,” Thiel said. “But we thought he’d stick around and maybe try it at Penn State. But he wanted to go somewhere where he knew he could get the experience, make an impact and not be overlooked.”
Because he was eligible for a redshirt for the 2008 season, Hogan had one more year of college eligibility. Instead of trying to walk on at Penn State, he headed home to New Jersey to play at Monmouth. He wound up playing receiver and cornerback for the Hawks in 2010 and signed as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers in ’11. Later he spent time on the practice squads of the Giants and Dolphins. Hogan finally broke through in Buffalo, making the Bills’ active roster in ’13. He caught 41 passes for the Bills in ’14 and 36 passes in ’15 before signing with the Patriots in 2016. And no, Thiel did not get a call from noted lacrosse aficionado Bill Belichick—whose daughter Amanda coaches the women’s team at Holy Cross—as New England did its due diligence before signing Hogan. “They don’t come to lacrosse people to get their athletic background,” Thiel said, laughing.
Last year, Thiel became the first college lacrosse coach to watch one of his former players win the Super Bowl. He hopes he can see it again Sunday. “It’s just so unique,” he said. “You just kind of smile.”
Before Super Bowl rings, the MPGA title
By now, you know pretty much everything about Tom Brady. You know how he was recruited to Michigan. You know he had to fight for playing time even as a senior. You know the competitiveness that has made him one of the greatest players of all time was on full display in Ann Arbor.
But you may not know that said competitiveness extended to the miniature golf course. “There's an unusual amount of miniature golf courses around the Ann Arbor area and the surrounding towns,” said former Bills and Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, who played center at Michigan from 1997 to 2001. “It’s kind of like the Myrtle Beach of miniature golf.”
Michigan players amused themselves in the summers by frequenting those courses. They were led by Brady and receiver Tai Streets, who called the circuit the MPGA Tour. “You had to earn your tour card,” Anderson said.
And ownership of that card required taking windmill and bank shots seriously. “There were some arguments of great importance that spilled into the locker room in terms of miniature golf and scores and who cheated and who didn’t cheat,” Anderson said. Anderson said his memory is a little fuzzy, but he’s pretty sure he knows who the Jack Nicklaus of the MPGA was. “Tai talked a better game. [Tight end] Aaron Shea was pretty good,” Anderson said. “But with where we’re at right now, I’ll chalk one up for Tom Brady as the best on that MPGA Tour.”