The Road to Super Bowl 51

1:13 | The MMQB
The Patriots' greatest victory
Friday February 3rd, 2017

HOUSTON — After thirteen states, 2,719.3 miles and just under 55 hours of driving, The MMQB reached our final destination with no traffic tickets, accidents or major calamities … except for the utter destruction of our Peter King bobblehead. Sorry, boss.

Downtown Houston embodies the grand stage of the NFL. The skyscrapers are dressed up in Super Bowl banners, there are oversized helmets representing all 32 teams lining the sidewalk, and you can’t cross from one side of the city’s Discovery Green park to the other without a ticket, the right credential or taking a half-mile detour.

Our view from the road was much different over the past 11 days. We visited towns as small as Scooba, Miss., where the population is less than 1,000; ate lunch next to the dive bar in Williamsburg, Va., where Dan Quinn’s players used to pick up the tab for him when he was earning $10K as an assistant defensive line coach; and stood in the Meeting Room at Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia, where Matt Ryan sat in silence with his classmates once a week in a Quaker practice called Meeting for Worship. The places we saw and the people we met are out of the spotlight, but they are the ones with the most authentic connection to Super Bowl 51, because they’ve known the major figures in the game since they were kids on the fields of their youths.

On Thursday morning, in Houston, Falcons receiver Julio Jones posted a photo of himself taken smiling at one his jam-packed press conferences, with the caption, “Just a kid from Foley.” Two days earlier, we had visited his hometown of about 16,000 people, where everyone from the owner of favorite breakfast spot (Grumpy’s) to the docent at the Medical Museum two blocks away has a story about the origins of the best receiver playing in the Super Bowl 51. Here’s one that didn’t make it into our story: During track and field meets, the Foley High School coaches would often find Jones, a state champion jumper, helping his opponents with their form. “Other kids would ask him how he was doing what he was doing, and he ended up coaching in the middle of the event,” recalls Foley principal and jumping coach Russ Moore. “I’d say, ‘Julio, that’s great, but you want to focus on your performance, not some kid we met five minutes ago.’ He was very sportsmanlike.”

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The Super Bowl predictions of the people we met are, of course, biased. Johnny Jackson, the co-owner of the Tuscaloosa gym where Malcolm Butler has trained since before he was a Super Bowl hero, picked the Patriots, 31-24. Matt Ryan’s coach at Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia picked the Falcons, in a shootout, by three points, with a Matt Bryant field goal to win the game. Brian Kinchen, who against all odds was the long snapper on the Patriots’ game-winning field goal in Super Bowl 38, is thrilled Tom Brady is still playing—13 years after they were teammates—so that he has a team to root for in this game.

AP (2) :: The MMQB (3)

It’s funny: Other than a little back-up near Tuscaloosa and an oblivious SUV blocking the main drag in Foley for a few minutes, we had wide-open roads for our entire journey. Finally, in Houston, we hit gridlock. That was our goal, at least: Bringing you that off-the-beaten path experience on our Road To Houston. Thanks for following along.

In case you missed any, here are our feature stories and videos from the road:

THE STORY: Hartford’s White Whale: How the Patriots Almost Became Connecticut’s Team

Robert Kraft was on the verge of moving his team out of Massachusetts in the late 1990s. At the last minute, an NFL executive on the rise—Roger Goodell—stepped in and helped get a new stadium built in Foxborough

by Tim Rohan

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3:56 | The MMQB
Matt Ryan Is Old School

THE STORY: Matt Ryan Is Old School

At Philly’s venerable Penn Charter, they remember Matt Ryan as a low-key, egalitarian leader for whom a team win, not stats or stature, was the priority. The Falcons QB has carried that ethos all the way to Super Bowl 51

by Jenny Vrentas

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THE STORY: Bill Belichick’s North Star—His Relationship with Navy

The ties that bind the Patriots coach and the Naval Academy go far beyond the game of football

by Jenny Vrentas

 

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THE STORY: Dan Quinn’s Journey from William & Mary to the Super Bowl

Like many in the coaching line, Dan Quinn started at the bottom, working 60-hour weeks and doing the dirty work. Even at his first stint, he showed the traits—no-nonsense grinder, quick learner, good communicator—that would eventually take him and the Falcons to the Super Bowl

by Tim Rohan

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THE STORY: Arthur Blank’s Fixer-Upper

In turning the Falcons from a mediocrity into a Super Bowl franchise, billionaire owner Arthur Blank drew on the same principles that made his other business—Home Depot—a juggernaut. You’d do a little victory dance, too

by Tim Rohan

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2:44 | The MMQB
The Bird Lady of Atlanta

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THE STORY: LeGarrette Blount Goes from One Stoplight to the Super Bowl Spotlight

The bruising Patriots running back’s NFL journey took a two-year detour through tiny Scooba, Miss., about as far from big game—psychologically, at least—as you can get

by Jenny Vrentas

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THE STORY: Where Malcolm Butler Was Made

In a nondescript strip mall in Alabama, a little-known Division II prospect once trained for his shot at the NFL. He’s a star now, but Butler still comes back to this gym

by Jenny Vrentas

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THE STORY: The Ballad of Quintorris Jones

Eventually known simply as ‘Julio,’ the star receiver was always larger than life in his Alabama hometown, whether he likes it or not

by Jenny Vrentas

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