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Super 'Cats: From Durham to the big game
Ravens cornerback Corey Graham is set to become the fifth former University of New Hampshire player to appear in a Super Bowl. (USA TODAY SPORTS)
Bruce Huther, a standout linebacker for the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1970s and then a Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys, laughs at the notion.
Heck, he closed out his UNH career with a gut-wrenching 17-16 playoff loss at Montana State in 1976 and closed out his next season by helping legendary coach Tom Landry and his team to a 27-10 triumph over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII in New Orleans.
"It was like, 'What's the big deal getting to the Super Bowl?'?" Huther said with a chuckle this week from the office of Huther Associates in Denton, Texas. "My first two years I played in it. As the years went by, I learned to appreciate it a little more and realize what it took and meant to get there."
Cornerback Corey Graham strikes the latest Super Bowl blow for the Wildcat football program when he lines up alongside Ray Lewis and Ed Reed this evening in New Orleans and attempts to help the Baltimore Ravens to their first NFL championship since they toppled the New York Giants, 34-7, in 2001.
Huther has been there. Scott Curtis and Dwayne Sabb and Dan Kreider, too.
All moved on from Cowell Stadium and UNH football to the heights of the National Football League.
Graham makes five.
Huther and Curtis got the ball rolling - and, like Graham, played in the Superdome in New Orleans - and had their share of "We're not in Cowell anymore" memorable moments.
"I wish I didn't remember the score," said Curtis. "But my boys always remind me of it. At least it was to Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, two of the best."
Curtis and his Denver Broncos lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 55-10, in Super Bowl XXIV in John Elway's third of five appearances (and his final loss) in the football showcase.
"It was a great experience," Curtis said. "I was playing and battling through a back injury, and ended up playing most of the game at inside linebacker on top of all the special teams I was on. I was the backup to Karl Mecklenburg on the inside, and he got hurt, and I think I was one of the leading tacklers. I chalk that up to our defense being on the field most of the time."
Curtis, as the special teams player of the game in the AFC championship win over Cleveland two weeks earlier, was the Broncos' special teams captain for the Super Bowl.
He joined Elway and Mecklenburg and others - including former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who was a special guest as a recent Hall of Fame inductee - at the 50-yard line for the coin toss before the game.
Curtis, who played a year at the Tilton School after high school in Lynnfield, Mass., still has New Hampshire ties. His father, Charlie, a former football standout at Dartmouth, lives in New London and goes to all the Big Green games.
Huther, too, saw a lot of action in his first Super Bowl.
"I was playing on all the special teams, and went in on short-yardage and goal-line situations," he said.
A week after the game, a photo of him making a play showed up in Sports Illustrated.
"That was kind of neat for my family and friends," Huther said. "I got a lot of calls from that one."
The next year, his second in the NFL, Huther was the special teams captain.
"Landry started to know my name," he said. "I had to be in meetings all the time, and he started calling me Bruce. That was a shocker."
The Cowboys went back to the Super Bowl and this time lost to Bradshaw and the Steelers, 35-31.
Sons of Bill Bowes
Huther, and later Curtis, had made their Super Bowl memories: Huther a season after playing at UNH and Curtis two years later.
Not bad for a couple of guys who had to do it as free agents out of a program that was just beginning, under head coach Bill Bowes, to get a reputation for having football players who could play at the next level.
In fact, said Huther, one of his former teammates and his position coach had much to do with his NFL success.
Dave Rozumek, another linebacker, was drafted in the 15th round by the Kansas City Chiefs the year before and made the team out of training camp.
"I think he opened a lot of eyes of the pro scouts, and the next year six or eight teams had scouts come through," Huther said. "I think that got them thinking they've got to go through New England, maybe go to Boston College and then go north to see what UNH has."
Once he got to camp with the Cowboys, Huther said, he benefited from what he had learned at UNH, particularly from linebackers coach Dave O'Connor, who also coached hockey and later became an athletics department administrator.
"I found I knew more than most incoming linebackers from the big schools," Huther said. "I had a real tough transition to college from high school. Going to the NFL, it was amazing. Other than adjusting to the speed, it was a much easier transition. I credit Dave O'Connor for that. I could read running backs, could read linemen's blocks. It put me weeks ahead of some of the guys."
Kreider breaks the mold
After Huther and Curtis, Sabb made it three straight linebackers to represent UNH in the Super Bowl, and he, too, played in the Superdome. Drafted in the fifth round by New England in 1992, Sabb played with the Bill Parcells-coached Patriots in their 35-21 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997.
Drew Bledsoe threw for a couple of touchdowns but was intercepted four times that day.
"I know Parcells really liked him," said UNH coach Sean McDonnell, an assitant to Bowes during Sabb's days in Durham. "He had two UNH guys around that time, Dwayne Sabb (with the Patriots) and Dwayne Gordon (with the Jets), and they were really his kind of guys. Hardworking guys, special-teams guys, smart football players. I saw Parcells two years ago in Saratoga at a golf course and talked to him during a rain delay. He was talking about their work ethic. It really gives you a sense of pride in New Hampshire kids."
Kreider, a punishing blocker, broke the mold in Super Bowl XL in 2006. He was the first Wildcat to start a Super Bowl, the first on the offensive side, as a fullback, and his Super Bowl was played at Ford Field in Detroit, where the Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10.
"I got a call from him at 2 a.m. the night of the Super Bowl," McDonnell said. "He was with Mark Whipple, a friend of mine and the former offensive coordinator here who was the quarterbacks coach with the Steelers. The first thing Dan did was apologize and say Whip made me do it. They were celebrating."
A Wildcat is back in the big game, and McDonnell and many others will watch tonight's game with an eye on Corey Graham, in particular.
"There's just a real sense of pride of where the kid has come from and what he's accomplished," McDonnell said. "He came from a (high) school that had 52 kids in his senior class, and his was the last class, and the school closed the next year. He's come a long, long, long way from where he was to being in the biggest game there is. That's the thing with these guys from here. Most of them are free agents, and when you come from our place, you've got to earn it."