This week’s Super Bowl reminds us heroes can come from the most unlikely places.
First, consider Kurt Warner, Arizona’s quarterback. Warner played college ball at Northern Iowa and was working the night shift as a stock boy for minimum wage when he tried out for the Iowa Barnstormers, an Arena Football League team. From there, he played in Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals. When he finally made the NFL with St. Louis, he led the Rams to a Super Bowl win in 2000 and has been named the league’s Most Valuable Player twice.
Ben Roethlisberger, Findlay native and Pittsburgh quarterback, has won more games in his first five seasons than any other NFL quarterback. Roethlisberger played at Miami of Ohio, a Mid American Conference school.
The MAC is not a football powerhouse. Of the 11 Division I conferences, it consistently ranks near the bottom. Of the more than 2,000 NFL players, only 51 come from the MAC. But, you could put together a pretty good All MAC-NFL team from these 51.
Let’s start on offense. Naturally, Roethlisberger leads the team. He’s fearless, has a great presence in and out of the pocket and an uncanny ability to make things happen. Players will follow him into battle. His back-up on my All MAC-NFL team is Charlie Frye (Akron-Seattle).
Michael Turner (No. Illinois-Atlanta) is the running back. He finished second in the league both in touchdowns, 17, and yards, 1,699. Chester Taylor (Toledo-Minnesota) also earns playing time.
Wide receiver is the strongest position. We’ll spread it out and use these three: Greg Jennings (W. Michigan-Green Bay); Lance Moore (Toledo-New Orleans); and Kevin Walter (E. Michigan-Houston). Jennings finished sixth in the league in receiving yards with 1,292 on 80 catches. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch and scored nine TDs. Moore caught 79 for 928 yards and 10 TDs and Walter 60 for 899 and 8 TDds.
Antonio Gates (Kent State-San Diego), the Pro Bowl-bound tight end, owns the single season record for most touchdowns by a tight end with 13. He’ll start. Backing him up is Tony Sheffler (W. Michigan-Denver), 40 catches for a 16.1 yards per catch.
The line is anchored by two former Toledo Rockets with Super Bowl rings--Nick Kaczur (New England) and Andy McCollum (Detroit) who earned his ring with St. Louis.
The defense is led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (Kent State-Pittsburgh). The Steelers linebacker recorded 101 tackles, forced 7 fumbles, intercepted 1 pass and had 16 sacks.
Other stalwarts include Jason Taylor (Akron-Washington). The defensive end ranks second among active players in career sacks and most recently appeared as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Linebacker Chase Blackburn (Akron-New York Giants) recorded 61 tackles and will start along with Jason Jones (E. Michigan-Tennessee) who had five sacks and 31 tackles.
Special teams can win or lose a game and the All MAC-NFL team has some good ones. Josh Cribbs (Kent State-Cleveland) will return kicks. He averaged 25.2 yards per return with 1 touchdown. Domenic Hixon (Akron-New York Giants) will back him up as well as return punts. He averaged 10.1 yards per return.
Shaun Suisham (Bowling Green-Washington) will kick. He hit 26 field goals and scored 103 points. Brad Maynard (Ball State-Chicago), who finished third in punting with a 41.2 net average, will punt and be backed up by David Zastudil (Ohio U.-Cleveland) and Brett Kern (Toledo-Denver).
Bench strength will be provided by Charlie Batch (E.Michigan-Pittsburgh); Bruce Gradkowski (Toledo-Cleveland) and Justin McCariens (No. Illinois-Tennessee).
Toledo leads the MAC with seven of the 51 players followed by Eastern Michigan and Kent State with six each. I didn’t include Temple, who just started playing in the league, or Central Florida or Marshall who both had brief stints.
The success these players have enjoyed should send a message to those who dream of playing pro football that there is more than one path to the NFL. In fact, a study of NFL rosters will find players from colleges many of you have never heard of, such as, Clarion, Tusculum, Menlo, Wheaton, Walla Walla Community College and Shippensburg. Close to home there are players from Ohio Northern, Mount Union, Saginaw Valley State and Tiffin, where Toledo’s own Nate Washington, the Steelers receiver, played.