Vin Sylvia: Former CAA players in Super Bowl were sources of inspiration
WITH NCAA letter-of-intent day coming up on Wednesday, University of New Hampshire football coach Sean McDonnell could be using the time between then and this past Sunday as an occasion to tout his program as a viable route to the Super Bowl.
And why not? Four of the newly crowned NFL champion Baltimore Ravens are former Colonial Athletic Association players, including UNH's Corey Graham and Delaware's Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP.
Graham, concluding his sixth professional season and first as a Raven, made six tackles (four solo) and was in on two pass break-ups during the decisive final series in Baltimore's 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII.
"I thought Corey played terrific football," McDonnell said. "You could see that he was in the moment the whole game, even uncharacteristically getting caught up in some of the extracurriculars early on. He covered, he broke up passes, he tackled ... he played a terrific all-around game."
It was a game that served as testament to the quality of football at UNH and the overall competitiveness of the CAA.
Flacco couldn't beat UNH the two times he faced the Wildcats in college, but he's now 1-for-1 in Super Bowls. On what arguably is the biggest stage in all of sports, the former Blue Hen quarterback completed 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Another Raven by way of Delaware, rookie offensive lineman Gino Gradkowski threw a key block on Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return to start the second half. Former Patriots defensive back James Ihedigbo, who played for the University of Massachusetts when it was still a CAA school, had a tackle for Baltimore on special teams.
The CAA also can boast a player on the Ravens' practice squad, former James Madison linebacker D.J. Bryant. He, too, will get a Super Bowl ring.
So it makes sense that part of McDonnell's recruiting pitch would be, "Step right up, come play for UNH in the CAA, proceed to the Super Bowl." Right?
Um, not exactly.
"Those are exceptions," McDonnell said of Graham, Flacco and the other CAA guys. "You come here to play four-and-a-half years of great football - if you include a redshirt a season - get an excellent education and a degree, then get on with your life."
Graham is a classic UNH success story, in that he came from a small school, since-closed Turner-Carroll High in Buffalo, hoping for a chance to show what he could do as an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) player. Along with quarterback Ricky Santos, a Bellingham, Mass., product deemed too small to play at the FBS (Division I) level, and wide receiver David Ball, who arrived in Durham as a track and field recruit, he formed the triumverate that led the Wildcats to a 30-9 record over three seasons, 2004-06.
When they first arrived in Durham, not one was touted as an NFL prospect, though each would earn at least a shot.
Things were a bit different for Flacco. Coming out of the football hotbed of southern New Jersey at 6 feet, 6 inches, he was widely recruited by numerous FCS schools before choosing Pittsburgh. But when playing time at Pitt proved difficult to come by, he transferred to Delaware, where he was handed the starting job as soon as he was eligible.
"Just watching him on the sideline, you could see he had a whip of an arm," McDonnell said. "You'd see him just whip the ball 25 yards on a line, hashmark to hashmark, and you'd say, 'Holy mother of God.'"
In the one game they played against each other, in 2006, Flacco threw for 312 yards with three TDs, but Graham returned a kick-off 99 yards for a touchdown, Santos threw for three TDs and ran for two more in then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's spread offense, and the 'Cats won a shootout, 52-49.
By the time UNH faced Delaware the following year, Graham was a rookie with the Chicago Bears, Ball was trying to break into the NFL as a practice-squad player - first with the Bears, then the Jets - and Santos got hurt in the first half. But backup QB R.J. Tolman proved a more-than-adequate substitute, and the Wildcats survived a Flacco-led comeback for a 35-30 victory.
When the season ended, Santos was named CAA Offensive Player of the Year for the third straight season, this time sharing the award with Flacco.
Nevertheless, in the 2008 NFL Draft, Flacco was the first-round draft pick of the Ravens while Santos became a free-agent signee of the Chiefs, destined for a few injury plagued seasons as a journeyman in the CFL. Ball, too, kicked around the CFL for a while after getting some playing time during the 2008 preseason with the Jets.
Of the three UNH standouts who played against Flacco, only Graham ever saw action in the NFL regular season, eventually earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as a 2011 special-teams selection before becoming a free agent last offseason. Now he and Flacco are teammates - and Super Bowl champions.
"To come from this level, and do what he's done - first with the Bears, then with the Ravens, to becoming a Super Bowl champion," McDonnell said, "is just fantastic."
"Fantastic" - as in "not to be confused with a model for CAA recruits' future NFL success."
Nevertheless, you can be sure some kids delivering their letters of intent to UNH on Wednesday will be telling themselves, "I could be the next Corey Graham."
And why not. Sometimes fantastic really does happen.
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.