If Hollywood could cast the Super Bowl teams, it wouldn’t choose most of the guys who make up the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. It also couldn’t invent the stories of how these people got here any better.
For instance, there’s Mark Herzlich, a former top NFL prospect who was diagnosed with bone cancer while in college, took a year off to beat the disease, returned to the game, and then went undrafted by every NFL team. As a last-ditch, he auditioned for training camp. By November, about two years after undergoing chemotherapy, Mark was a starting linebacker for the Giants.
There’s five-foot-seven Danny Woodhead of the Patriots, a player considered too small even for Division I college football, who went to the only place that wanted him, a little school in Nebraska called Chadron State, where he worked his ass off, and by the time he graduated, he was college football’s all-time leading rusher. He’s still so anonymous that he worked at a sporting goods store on a day off last year and pretty much no one recognized him. Now he’s a running back for a team in the goddamned Super Bowl.
Most players you see this Sunday began their lives at least as distant from the possibility of the NFL as you or I did, and will probably end in a much more desolate place besides. If the Super Bowl is the only football you watch all year, this is the one time in their lives you will see almost all of them.
How often do you get to see the unquestionable apotheosis of a man’s life, the sum of his purpose, the payoff for Mark beating bone cancer, the middle finger to all the assholes who said Danny’s too small, with it all ending in a W and an L and tears all around and no subjectivity whatsoever? You don’t have to like it, but it’s there, for real.
Let’s start here. Even if you’ve spent your life until now strenuously avoiding the NFL, eschew all bars with TVs, break up with people the moment they mention their fantasy football team, or cross the street to avoid obvious non-athletes in sports jerseys, you still probably know the name Tom Brady. And why not? Just look at him. It’s annoying. He’s like the goddamned Homecoming King of America. Look at him with Gisele Bundchen. That’s annoying too. Do you know they made a combined income of $76 million between May 2010 and May 2011? Annoying as urine in a public pool.
The man is like the personification of the (mainstream male) American Dream. And he hasn’t completely scotched it in the public eye like Tom Cruise or Tiger Woods or Brett Favre. Sure, there was that thing where he broke up with Bridget Moynihan right around the time they conceived their child, but he was present for his son’s birth, apparently has a civil relationship with Bridget, and spends time with the child he fathered with her. I’m not trying to stick up for the guy, but to say he ditched his pregnant girlfriend for a Brazilian supermodel isn’t quite the whole story, even if that phrase is easy to remember and fun to say.
That about covers why you shouldn’t like the guy. This is why you might: Even though he’s arguably the most effortlessly natural quarterback now in the game, and a guy that the NFL – meaning his fellow players – voted as the entire league’s best player, it was not a straight shot to success for Tom Brady. Until a fellow player’s freak injury, there was no guarantee he would ever even start a game in professional football. He was a benchwarmer who had made virtually no money by NFL standards and was on the path to becoming a career backup.
While he was born into a relatively well-off (and athletic) family in San Mateo, California, he was never handed a starting quarterback job on any team at any level. When his high school football coach told him he was too small and needed to hit the weight room, he did one better – he convinced his parents to hire him a personal trainer. He started working harder in the offseason than any other player on the team, to the point that the other players considered Tom’s personal workout regimen far more strenuous than the one mandated by the coaches.
Tom eventually earned the starting job, and while he performed well enough to get the attention of Division I programs, it looked like he had more of a future as a backup catcher in baseball. The Montreal Expos thought so, and in 1995 drafted him late (in the 18th round, after two other future major league catchers), which meant that Tom could look forward to being the next Crash Davis.
Instead, he elected to attend the University of Michigan, which was a terrible idea if he wanted to play football. For years he was behind future NFL quarterback Brian Griese before being forced to split time with a younger, much more celebrated pro prospect named Drew Henson. He didn’t have the bloodlines of Griese (whose dad was a former NFL quarterback) or the hype of Henson, who the coach seemed to favor. A lot of players in Tom’s position would’ve transferred schools. Instead, he stuck it out and beat Henson for the job, leading Michigan to two bowl victories.
Even so, the folks at the next level once again were down on Tom Brady. Despite his hard-won success in college, he was considered a backup at NFL level by scouts who saw his unchiseled 190-lb. frame and weird delivery. Pretty much anyone taken after the 3rd round of the NFL draft isn’t guaranteed a spot on a team. The Patriots took Tom in the 6th. He had to fight just to be a benchwarmer.
The following year, the Patriots’ starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, went down with a freak injury in Week 2. The benchwarmer was given a shot, and Tom performed ably. Bledsoe had been the team’s franchise quarterback since 1993, and when he recovered months later, he wanted his old job back. The team elected to go with the hardworking kid from California, and Brady led them to a Super Bowl victory in his first year as an NFL starter.
“There are plenty of things I’m deficient at,” Brady told Sports Illustrated in 2005. “I’ve never been the fastest, never had the best arm, and never been very strong. I still question sometimes whether I’m really cut out for this. I think I am pretty insecure.”
Seven years later, he’s playing in his fifth Super Bowl. I hope he thinks he’s cut out for this now.
Unlike Tom Brady, who had to forge his own legacy on every level of football, Elisha Nelson Manning has followed in the footsteps of a famous NFL father (Archie) and brother (Peyton), and has received every advantage that this implies, every step of the way.
If you watch the Super Bowl, no doubt the cameras will cut to Archie and Peyton about 20,000 times (probably sitting with the third brother, Cooper, who quit football at 18 because of a congenital spinal condition). The family drama in the Manning empire is immense and deep-seated. Archie played forever on a horrible team (the New Orleans Saints of the 1970s and 80s). He never made the Super Bowl once. He never even made the playoffs once. While he still made a good living, he spent his career toiling in half-empty stadiums, every year having to explain to his little sons why their dad is watching the Super Bowl on TV.
Eli followed in Archie’s academic footsteps, attending his dad’s alma mater (Ole Miss) where he was quarterbacking his freshman year and starting by his sophomore year. He was considered the top QB in the country coming out of college in 2004, and the historically awful San Diego Chargers (who at that point had only four winning seasons in their last 20 years) had the first overall pick in the draft and planned to choose Eli.
Archie, perhaps remembering the frustration of his career spent on a bad team, wasn’t thrilled about his son revisiting this fate. Neither was Eli. The family ordered the San Diego Chargers not to draft Eli. They did anyway. They made him pose with a Chargers jersey and took photos. Eli looks like a man who won a cash prize for Best Erectile Dysfunction.
For the brief time he was a Charger, Eli threatened to never join the team. He talked about instead going to grad school (he had a 3.44 in college, outstanding for a football player). He felt pissed off that the Chargers drafted him, even though they made him a millionaire several times over, because he told them not to. Overall, the first impression many NFL fans had of Eli was that he was a big whiny baby.
And probably not for the first time in his life, Eli got his way. He was traded to the New York Giants for draft picks that coincidentally helped make San Diego a consistent playoff contender.
Some people, especially the folks in San Diego, still hold this against Eli. I guess that’s fair. But to most of the NFL, Eli’s leadership and skill as quarterback of the Giants has outshone the petulant way he entered the league. He’s also been a good, decent, even interesting guy off the field. He married his college sweetheart, Abby McGrew. He hosts a charity golf event for the blind. He’s helped raise five million dollars for a children’s hospital in Mississippi. He’s co-authored a children’s book. He’s appeared on The Simpsons.
He was also the second member of his family to win a Super Bowl, in 2008, the year after his brother Peyton won one for the Colts. Eli’s Super Bowl, incidentally, was against Tom Brady’s Patriots, who were undefeated entering that game, and therefore heavily favored. Unfazed, Eli beat them with one of the most thrilling Super Bowl finishes of all time. Tom Brady hasn’t beaten Eli since.
Eli Manning typifies the kind of quarterback Tom was always warming the bench for, with his NFL bloodlines, his easy roads to starting jobs, his high draft status, his instant riches and quick success. Tom is undeniably the better quarterback now, and has earned a life many would envy. But there’s still one thing he has to do.
Since the retirement of Dennis Rodman from the NBA, the title of Craziest Dude In Sports undeniably belongs to Chad Ochocinco. Let’s start with the name. Born Chad Johnson, he took the jersey number 85 upon entering the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, and after several years of success, toyed with the idea of putting “Ochocinco” on the back of his jersey (never mind that “85” in Spanish is ochenta y cinco; he knows this).
Problem is, he wasn’t in the XFL. You can’t just put some shit on the back of your jersey like Rod “He Hate Me” Smart; in the NFL, it has to be your real name. So he legally changed it. He is, on his government identification, Chad Ochocinco. He’s even considered changing it again to “Chad Hachi Go” (Eight Five in Japanese) but so far hasn’t followed through on this. So far.
Chad’s life started off pretty distant from all of this. He was raised by his grandparents in the poor Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, and didn’t see much of his father or his mother (who left him behind and moved to Los Angeles). He was hyperactive and a lousy student, one of those kids who got kicked upstairs every year he was in school.
What he did right was surround himself with other young talent that pushed him. His playground pals included Duane Starks and Terry Cousin, both of whom would go on to play in the NFL. He had two older cousins, Keyshawn Johnson and Samari Rolle, who were both putting in the work necessary to earn NFL careers, and Chad emulated them. Under the eye of his grandfather, he also stayed out of any major trouble. When Chad made his high school’s varsity team as a freshman, his grandfather attended every game.
One night during his sophomore year, Chad didn’t see his grandfather in the stands. He found out after the game that the man who raised him had been shot and killed. Chad was devastated. His grades, never great, continued to slip. Unlike his cousins and his playground friends, he wasn’t going to academically qualify for a Division I scholarship.
Chad moved out to Los Angeles and attended Santa Monica College to get his grades in shape, playing football alongside Steve Smith (now a star wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers). An SMC coach named Charlie Collins became a mentor for Chad and helped him focus on and off the field. In time, his academic transcript improved. He got into Oregon State University in 2001 and finally began to reach his potential. Eleven years later, he’s in his first Super Bowl, during his first season on the New England Patriots.
In the last decade, Chad has also:
• Fathered four children
• Co-hosted a talk show (with then-teammate Terrell Owens) called “The T.Ocho Show”
• Rode a bull in a professional competition (for 1.5 seconds)
• Appeared on WWE Raw
• Starred in his own dating show, “The Ultimate Catch,” and continued a relationship with the winner, Rubi Pazmino
• Appeared in a PETA anti-fur ad
• Tried out for the Sporting Kansas City team of Major League Soccer and was offered a spot on the reserve team
• Beat a thoroughbred horse in a foot race
• Collected over 3 million Twitter followers
• Appeared on “Dancing With the Stars”
• Ran an ad looking for a roommate in Boston (his only requirements were that they had an Xbox and the Internet)
• Ultimately moved in with “Basketball Wives” star Evelyn Lozada, and had a giant fish-tank installed in the arch over their bed
• Live-tweeted the January 24th, 2012 State of the Union address, at one point calling out John Boehner: @SpeakerBoehner Just read some of your tweets and you seem pretty angry kind sir. I can see you on tv but you’re not smiling. Hope you’re ok
This year, Chad spent more time ghost-riding his Prius in Boston than catching passes on the gridiron; he only caught 15 balls for the Patriots over the course of the whole season. It’d be a shame if the Patriots don’t suit him up on Sunday (it’s possible they may not). He’s come from poverty, worked his way into Division I football, and had a hell of a career, making it to his first Super Bowl at age 34. It would honestly be too bad if he just had to Tweet about it. But we’ll see him either way.
HATE THE GAME, NOT THE PLAYERS
The grim joke in pro football circles is that the NFL stands for “Not For Long,” and it’s the truth. The average NFL career is about three years, which you wouldn’t plan for, if you’re talented, but it happens. Then the world gets a 25-year-old with bad knees who’s been gunning for a pro career his whole life at the expense of everything else, it’s no big shocker that 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are in financial distress within two years of retirement.
Even the most of the guys who make it past Year Three are one major injury away from irrelevance, anonymity, and a good shot at eventual poverty, caused by/compounded with the physical and mental disabilities directly resulting from the brutal force and pacing of NFL football. The league has been famously neglectful of its veterans, and many are devastated by the financial and physical tolls of their football-related injuries. As a result, over one hundred former players have signed on to at least nine different lawsuits alleging the league’s deception about and negligence in its treatment of concussions in particular.
The NFL has since made significant changes to its diagnosis and treatment of concussions, requiring players to undergo a battery of tests before being allowed to return to the field, including independent exams outside the purview of a team’s medical staff. Still, considering that the most significant piece of protective gear – the helmet – is also the game’s greatest blunt force weapon (albeit one whose intentional use as such invites a significant penalty) the game will never be safe enough. Most of the players you’ll see on Sunday are only there because the game hasn’t utterly destroyed them yet.
So, hate the game. But try to understand the players. Millions play high school football. 10,710 get Division I football scholarships. Only 90 will wear a uniform this Sunday. This is the culmination of endless games of catch with Dad in the backyard, of 6 AM wind sprints on Saturday mornings, of disproportionate community attention, and the sacrifices that pruned the options that led away from, and miraculously toward, a difficult and matchless goal.
VICTOR CRUZ and WES WELKER
Victor (the young New York Giant) and Wes (the veteran New England Patriot) are the best wide receivers on their respective teams. They’re both short for an NFL wideout (Welker is 5’9”; Cruz 6’0”), they both have steady girlfriends (Welker actually just got engaged to Anna Burns after two years, and three weeks ago, Cruz had a child with his longtime girlfriend Elaina Watley), and they both had good role models in hard-working, blue-collar dads.
They also tied each other for longest touchdown in the NFL this year (each had a 99-yard catch and run) and during the season, only Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson had more receiving yards than either of these guys. Plus, I love watching them. Wes always looks like he’s trying to slice a car in half with his face. And Victor runs at defenders like he’s driving through Jell-O on a bear made of knives. They’re two of the best in the game and easily capable of carrying their teams.
Which brings me to this: unlike Eli Manning, Tom Brady, or Chad Ochocino, neither Wes nor Victor was even drafted by an NFL team. Not even in the sixth round where projected backups like Brady were taken or in the seventh round where the total longshots get picked. When these two men came out of college, nobody even considered them worth a roll of the dice. They were training camp filler. Warm bodies. Tackling dummies you could beat the shit out of in practice because the team hadn’t invested any money in them.
Neither was an overnight success, either. Wes didn’t even stick with his first team, the Chargers, who dumped him after one game. The New York Giants initially thought even less of Victor. In the NFL, wide receivers are required to have a jersey number between 11 and 19 or 80 and 89 (I don’t know why, but it’s the rules, and if you’re on a team’s roster as wideout you must have a number in that range) and the Giants brass gave Victor Cruz a jersey that said #3. It’s kind of like firing someone before they’re hired. Victor could’ve considered that a dick move, and he’d be right.
Victor didn’t let it get to him. In his first game ever in the NFL, a preseason exhibition against the New York Jets, he torched one of the best defenses in pro football for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jets coach Rex Ryan, being filmed for the HBO series “Hard Knocks,” responded, “I don’t know who the hell No. 3 is, but holy shit!”
Wes was eventually picked up by the Miami Dolphins, who put him to use, making him the first player in NFL history to record a punt return, a kickoff return, a field goal, an extra point, and a kickoff in the same game. The Dolphins’ opponent that day, the New England Patriots, must’ve been taking notes. In 2007, they traded for him, and ever since, no one in the NFL has caught more passes than Wes Welker.
In his second season as a Giant, Victor Cruz had a new number (#80) and made the team out of training camp. Despite not initially making the starting lineup, he led the Giants in receiving. More famously, he created a personal touchdown dance based on the salsa moves taught to him by his Puerto Rican grandmother. Victor, born and raised in Paterson, New Jersey, is half Puerto Rican on his mother’s side, making him one of only three players of Puerto Rican descent currently in the NFL.
Although the Giants are marketing a t-shirt behind Victor’s salsa moves, he otherwise seems to want to keep a low profile, already turning down a chance to be on “Dancing With The Stars.” He hasn’t seemed to lose sight of the fact that, only two years after being a kid that no NFL team wanted to waste a draft pick on, he’s a starting wide receiver in the Super Bowl. “I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Victor told the New York Post. “I’m just happy to be here.”
Wes Welker has been to the Super Bowl once before – the heartbreaking loss to the Giants in 2008. In the meantime, the veteran has put his big paycheck to good use in his community, establishing the “83 Foundation” (after his uniform number) to help support sports programs for underprivileged students in the Oklahoma City area. His free football camp, which grows every year, reaches hundreds of kids in Oklahoma City and Wes has plans to expand it to Boston.
I don’t imagine the week of canoodling with his new fiancé will make Wes soft. He’s always been an overachiever (when he was 9, he once scored 16 goals in a soccer game, against an undefeated team) but going from undrafted cast-off to the most productive wide receiver in professional football is almost impossible. Coincidentally, the one person in the NFL with the best chance to match that achievement is Victor Cruz.
Victor and Wes are two anonymous men from disparate parts of America, who came from nothing, were handed nothing, and are now quantifiably among the best in the world at what they do. All they ask is three hours of your time on Sunday. Wish them well.
Brian Waters of the New England Patriots is probably the best human being in the NFL. In an environment as given to conspicuous consumption as professional sports, he stands out, but he’d be a saint in any profession for the level in which he devotes his life and money to helping other people.
In keeping with his personality, Brian plays guard, one of the most anonymous positions in pro sports. They form a line with the center and the offensive tackles to protect the quarterback from the defense. It’s a position with few quantifiable measures of success, and they pretty much only will get the ball if something goes horribly wrong. Brian’s done this position at an extremely high level for 12 years.
Raised by his grandmother in Waxahachie, Texas, Brian and many of his friends couldn’t afford a lot of sports equipment. Although they also struggled in other ways, their friends and neighbors were always around to support them. Brian would remember this, and when he earned a scholarship to play football at the University of North Texas, he chose an unusual major for a jock – community service – and in thirty years he may be known more for the work he’s done with that degree than anything he’s done on the gridiron.
He started the “54 Foundation” (like Welker, he’s named his charity after his uniform number) which employs no paid staff—Brian seeds it with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and pays incidental costs out of pocket— and the scope of its works are impressive. He’s awarded over 80 college scholarships to low-income students, “adopts” groups of homeless children, sponsors Habitat For Humanity homes, and runs a free football & basketball camp.
Beyond that he also works with the Promise House in Dallas (which helps families in crisis), volunteers with an alternative learning center called the Genesis School, is spokesperson for the United Way, is a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness, is the chairman of a Down’s Syndrome program that raises $400,000 annually, and donated $100,000 to support Pee-Wee Football in his hometown. He also devotes his time to the Love Fund for Children, K.E.Y.E.S., Special Olympics, the Willa Gill Center, and the Third and Long Foundation.
“He’s not someone who only gives financially,” says Nicole Mansell of the Waxahachie Independent School District. “It’s easy to sit there and write a check, but he gives up his time as well. That personal connection that he tries to have with people is so very important.”
“I can give back now because of resources and connections that I have as a football player,” Brian says. “And what’s the reason for having success if you can’t share with others?”
Professionally, Brian had the same tough road to the NFL as Victor Cruz and Wes Welker. Undrafted as a tight end, he had to change positions (to guard, which he had never played before) before anyone would take a chance on him. After a couple years, the Kansas City Chiefs gave him his first real shot. He rewarded them with eleven seasons during which he made the Pro Bowl (the NFL all-star game) four times.
After last year, Brian was 33, old for a football player, and the Chiefs dumped him last July. Five weeks later, right before the start of the season, the Patriots, worried about injuries on their line, rolled the dice on the veteran. They didn’t regret it; at 34, Brian was the only man on the Patriots line to start every game at his position – and made the Pro Bowl again.
Still, Brian’s never even been to a Super Bowl before, and if the Patriots win, there’s a chance he could call it a career, devoting himself full-time to community service and inspiring others to follow his path. “Hopefully they will take my story and people can attach it to their life,” he said. “And be able to realize that they have a lot more to offer than they probably think.”
You can find “A Super Bowl Preview For People Who Don’t Know Football (2011 Edition)” here.