RSWLiving - - Cover Page - BY BRIAN WIERIMA

When the two Na­tional Foot­ball League teams square off on Feb. 7, it will mark a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in Amer­i­can cul­tural his­tory―—the 50th an­niver­sary of the Su­per Bowl. The game is the na­tion’s sin­gle big­gest tele­vi­sion event, show­er­ing the host city with pres­tige, vis­i­tors and mil­lions in rev­enue.

Since the Su­per Bowl’s first game in 1967 (Kansas City vs. Green Bay), no state has had a greater im­pact on the an­nual tra­di­tion than Florida. The Sun­shine State has hosted a record 15 NFL cham­pi­onships in Tampa, Mi­ami and Jack­sonville. Three of the first five cham­pi­onships, in fact, were held at the old Or­ange Bowl in Mi­ami. Tampa and Mi­ami are among four con­tend­ing cities for the 2019 and 2020 Su­per Bowls. Only Cal­i­for­nia is close with 11 Su­per Bowls, in­clud­ing the 2016 game at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, home of the San Fran­cisco 49ers.

The state has also im­pacted the game in hu­man terms. Leg­ends such as Deion Sanders of Fort My­ers, Em­mitt Smith of Pen­sacola and Ray Lewis of Bar­tow have played pro­fes­sional foot­ball. Thou­sands of oth­ers dur­ing the past 50 years have hailed from the Sun­shine State, in­clud­ing ac­tive play­ers such as Nate Allen of Cape Co­ral, Car­los Hyde of Naples and Sammy Watkins of Fort My­ers. “The big­gest rea­son I be­lieve Florida has had a big pro­por­tion of foot­ball player col­lege signees, and many play­ers who ad­vance to the NFL, is the state’s com­pre­hen­sive spring foot­ball sea­son,” Naples High School head coach Bill Kramer says. “Ba­si­cally, we get 15 work days in the spring in prac­tice or a spring game or jam­boree. That is half a sea­son in the fall.”

Mi­ami’s in­duc­tion into Su­per Bowl lore started early on, with the Or­ange Bowl the site of Su­per Bowl II. The Green Bay Pack­ers re­peated as champs, wal­lop­ing the Oak­land Raiders 33-14. Su­per Bowl III in Mi­ami was the fa­mous “guar­an­tee vic­tory” game pre­dic­tion by New York Jets quar­ter­back “Broad­way Joe” Na­math. The Jets in­deed beat the Bal­ti­more Colts 16-7 on Jan. 12, 1969. The Or­ange Bowl sta­dium ended its il­lus­tri­ous Su­per Bowl run af­ter be­ing de­mol­ished in May 2008.

Mi­ami coach­ing leg­end Don Shula is wo­ven into Su­per Bowl mythol­ogy. “There’s no ques­tion that Florida has im­pacted the Su­per Bowl and pro­fes­sional foot­ball,” says Shula, whose teams ap­peared in six Su­per Bowls. In 1997, he was in­ducted into the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame as the game’s win­ningest coach. “It’s

been an honor to have coached the Mi­ami Dol­phins and win backto-back Su­per Bowls. Over the years I’ve en­joyed the op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate with the won­der­ful peo­ple of our great state. And I’m very ex­cited about cel­e­brat­ing the Su­per Bowl’s 50th an­niver­sary.”

A trio of Su­per Bowl MVPs (Most Valu­able Player) won the honor in their home state: run­ning back Ot­tis An­der­son of West Palm Beach in Su­per Bowl XXV in 1991 with the Gi­ants; Bal­ti­more line­backer Ray Lewis in Su­per Bowl XXXV in 2001; Pitts­burgh Steel­ers’ wide re­ceiver San­to­nio Holmes of Belle Glade in Su­per Bowl XLIII in 2009.

Su­per Bowl 50 in Santa Clara will have a golden an­niver­sary theme, with the color ap­pear­ing through­out the sea­son, in­clud­ing lin­ing each team’s 50-yard line marker. It is the first time in Su­per Bowl his­tory that Ara­bic nu­mer­als re­place Ro­man nu­mer­als.

The NFL this year is also hon­or­ing the high schools that have pro­duced Su­per Bowl play­ers. There will be more than 2,000 high schools rec­og­nized with Wil­son gold foot­balls for ev­ery player or head coach who was on an ac­tive Su­per Bowl ros­ter. Nearly 3,000 play­ers and coaches have been on an ac­tive Su­per Bowl ros­ter, and many of them have Florida roots. Florida ranks third over­all with 141 play­ers or coaches play­ing in a Su­per Bowl, while Cal­i­for­nia is tops with 296 and Texas sec­ond with 223.

To break it down even more, South­west Florida has a nice sta­ble of play­ers that has com­peted on the big stage of the Su­per Bowl. The most fa­mous player is Hall of Fame cor­ner­back “Neon” Deion Sanders, who at­tended North Fort My­ers, and played on the San Fran­cisco 49ers in Su­per Bowl XXIX and with the Dal­las Cow­boys in Su­per Bowl XXX. Sanders be­came one of the first play­ers to win back-to-back Su­per Bowl ti­tles with dif­fer­ent teams: San Fran­cisco pounded San Diego 49-26 in the 1995 clas­sic, and Sanders won with the Cow­boys the fol­low­ing year in a 27-7 vic­tory over the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

Another North Fort My­ers grad­u­ate, de­fen­sive end Jevon Kearse, also played in a pair of Su­per Bowls, but was the loser in both with the Ten­nessee Ti­tans in Su­per Bowl XXXIV and with the Philadel­phia Ea­gles in Su­per Bowl XXXIX.

Yet what makes Florida one of the top foot­ball states, be­sides hav­ing three of the top foot­ball univer­si­ties in the Univer­sity of Mi­ami, Florida State Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Florida? It


starts well be­fore play­ers ever step foot on a col­lege cam­pus―—and it usu­ally takes place dur­ing a part of the sea­son that does not count. Play­ers and coaches in Florida are al­lowed a max­i­mum of 20 ses­sions dur­ing May or the last 20 days of the school year, which­ever comes first. The team may also com­pete in one jam­boree or one spring clas­sic game dur­ing the fi­nal week, which is counted as one of the 20 ses­sions. The first two days of prac­tice are re­stricted to helmets only and days three through five can in­tro­duce shoul­der pads with shorts. At the be­gin­ning of the sixth day of prac­tice, full con­tact is per­mit­ted in full pads. “Spring is when we work on all the fun­da­men­tals and have 14 prac­tices and a game with full con­tact,” Kramer says.

Kramer has seen first­hand what kind of play­ers Florida has pro­duced dur­ing his 20-plus years coach­ing high school. He started in Mi­ami, which has pro­duced the most NFL play­ers from Florida. His lat­est prodigy is San Fran­cisco sec­ond-year run­ning back Car­los Hyde, who played three years at Naples High. Hyde had moved from Ohio and was on Kramer’s son’s bas­ket­ball team as a fresh­man. “I saw Car­los go up and dunk the ball with ease. I saw he was a freak of an ath­lete,” Kramer ex­plains. “We needed a run­ning back and although he never played it be­fore, he did ev­ery­thing we asked him to do.”

Hyde ac­cu­mu­lated a to­tal of 2,594 rush­ing yards his ju­nior and se­nior sea­sons at Naples High and av­er­aged 92.6 yards per game, along with 20 to­tal touch­downs. His dream was to play at Ohio State, and Kramer gave a call to then head Buck­eye coach Jim Tres­sel and told him about Hyde. “Car­los knew he wanted to go to Ohio State when he was nine years old. He al­ready had his mind made up by the time other schools were call­ing about him,” Kramer adds.

Hyde played out his Ohio State ca­reer as one of the top Buck­eye rush­ers ever. Cur­rently, Hyde is the start­ing run­ning back for the San Fran­cisco 49ers. But see­ing Hyde star for the 49ers isn’t the main as­pect Kramer re­spects when watch­ing him: It’s the type of man who was melded on and off the field. “The foot­ball part is great, but the re­al­ity of what’s im­por­tant is what kind of hus­band, dad and per­son they be­come,” Kramer says. “You can’t get caught up in the hype foot­ball can pro­duce. At the end of the day, all the hoopla sur­round­ing foot­ball is ir­ra­tional. They have to learn not to get used by foot­ball, but in­stead use foot­ball to build their lives.”

With Hyde build­ing a po­ten­tial good ca­reer in San Fran­cisco, there has been a bevy of play­ers from South­west Florida mov­ing on from lo­cal high schools to pres­ti­gious col­lege ca­reers en route to a blos­som­ing NFL life. The smaller school of Immokalee, with its en­roll­ment of 1,407, has even pro­duced three NFL play­ers, two of them broth­ers. Former Univer­sity of Mi­ami run­ning back star Edger­rin James played a decade in the NFL from 1999 to 2009. He was drafted by the In­di­anapo­lis Colts, where he was the league’s lead­ing rusher two years in a row in 1999 and 2000. He was the NFL Rookie of the Year and rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of his 2004 and 2005 sea­sons. James ap­peared in Su­per Bowl XLIII with the Ari­zona Car­di­nals, which lost 27-23 to Pitts­burgh on Feb. 1, 2009, in Tampa Bay’s Ray­mond James Sta­dium.

James’s brother, Javar­ris James, also played at Immokalee and played in the NFL from 2010 to 2012 at run­ning back. Immokalee line­backer Brian Rolle was the third player to make the big stage from 2011 to 2012.

Area play­ers who have been on win­ning Su­per Bowl teams in­clude David Baas of Riverview High in Sara­sota, with the New York Gi­ants in Su­per Bowl XLVI in a 21-17 win over New Eng­land;

Martin Gra­mat­ica, kicker from La­Belle, in Su­per Bowl XXXVII, along with Tampa de­fen­sive end Greg Spires of Mariner High School in Cape Co­ral. De­fen­sive line­man and Port Char­lotte grad­u­ate An­thony Har­grove played in his home state in Mi­ami’s Sun Life Sta­dium with the vic­to­ri­ous New Or­leans Saints in a 31-17 win over the Colts in Su­per Bowl XLIV.

The epit­ome of Florida foot­ball is Earnest Gra­ham, who has played on ev­ery level of foot­ball that Florida of­fers. He played high school foot­ball in Cape Co­ral, where he even­tu­ally set state records at Mariner High for ca­reer rush­ing yards (5,710 yards) and touch­downs (86). He was named to the Florida High School Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion’s “100 Great­est Play­ers of the First 100 Years” of the state’s high school foot­ball era. Gra­ham then played for the Florida Ga­tors, where he fin­ished third in school his­tory in rush­ing touch­downs (33) and fifth in all-time rush­ing yardage and at­tempts (3,065 yards on 603 car­ries). He wasn’t fin­ished tear­ing up Florida foot­ball, though, af­ter be­ing signed as an un­drafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers in 2003, where he had a fruit­ful nine-year ca­reer.

There are nu­mer­ous fac­tors that come into play if a player earns his way to mak­ing it in the NFL. Play­ing a high school ca­reer in Florida cer­tainly can in­crease the odds, if only by a bit. And if a Florid­ian is for­tu­nate to sign an NFL con­tract, his odds are bet­ter than most that if his team makes it to the Su­per Bowl, he could be play­ing in his home state as well.

NFL play­ers over five decades have faced off in ice and snow and warm sun­shine in pur­suit of the cham­pi­onship Lom­bardi Tro­phy. The Su­per Bowl stops America in its tracks for a Sun­day, one that play­ers have dreamed about play­ing in all their lives and one that has made leg­ends and goats alike.

From left are Florida-born former NFL stars Em­mitt Smith in 2007, Ray Lewis in 2007 and Deion Sanders as an NFL Net­work an­a­lyst in 2008.

Ray­mond James Sta­dium in Tampa with a Vince Lom­bardi Tro­phy ban­ner in 2009 for Su­per Bowl XLIII.

The Mi­ami Or­ange Bowl (top right) dur­ing Su­per Bowl V in 1971. Sun Life Sta­dium in Mi­ami Gar­dens (be­low) has hosted five Su­per Bowls, most re­cently in 2010.

Since re­tir­ing from the helm of the Mi­ami Dol­phins, cham­pion coach Don Shula (above) has been af­fil­i­ated with a chain of steak­houses. He led the Bal­ti­more Colts dur­ing the 1960s (be­low).

A dec­o­rated wall at Tampa’s Ray­mond James Sta­dium dur­ing Su­per Bowl XLIII in 2009.

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