All too often the different circles of football are seen as independent ecosystems, self-sustained and thriving without the help or hindrance of the level above or below. The result is a sometimes misleading sense that all is well at each level, with high school football happy to own local Friday nights while the NFL dominates national consciousness on fall Sundays.
Yet there is an acknowledgement, largely unsaid, that one can not exist without the other. Chiefly, without high school football, there is no college football. Without college football, there is no NFL. Would anyone argue that football would be as successful and popular as it is without the NFL?
Now the NFL is trying to reinforce that bond, paying homage to high schools across the country that helped produce future Super Bowl competitors. As part of the league’s celebration of the 50th Super Bowl to be played in Santa Clara, Calif. in February, the NFL has unveiled a Super Bowl High School Honor Roll. Backed by Wilson, the football maker, the NFL is recognizing each school nationwide that is home to at least one alum of a prior Super Bowl game.
The resulting efforts are nothing less than massive, with the NFL organizing the delivery of nearly 3,000 golden footballs to more than 2,000 high schools. The NFL Foundation has also donated $1 million in support of the initiative, with honored schools receiving a new character education curriculum and given the opportunity to apply for high school football grants of up to $5,000 per school.
“I think with 50 years of Super Bowls, the biggest thing is that this is a grand stage. But those stages start at the very grassroots level,” NFL on CBS football analyst Bill Cowher, the Super Bowl champion coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, told USA TODAY High School Sports. “Don’t forget where you came from. It started somewhere. Don’t forget the parents or teachers who helped you fulfill the lifelong dream that every kid has. It’s about your roots and remembering how you got there.”
It’s one thing to get there metaphorically, another entirely to physically go back to a player’s alma mater. Yet that has hardly dissuaded the Super Bowl honorees from heading home whenever possible. According to NFL officials, nearly 75 percent of the players who have been contacted about the project have pledged to go back to deliver the footballs themselves.
“We started player communication about the program Aug. 28, and the responses have been incredible,” Tracy Perlman, the NFL’s vice president of entertainment marketing and promotions, told USA TODAY High School Sports. “Every player I’ve spoken to about this has told me that high school football is where they learned everything they needed to in order to be successful not only about football, but also life. They all also said they wished someone would have told them that in 20 years they could come back and be standing where they are now. They really do see the high school and the community as where they learned all the things they needed to know to be a great player and person. The values of football are taught at the high school level and the guys we’re honoring are exemplifying those values.”
The NFL has already announced that the efforts to honor Super Bowl players’ high schools will be ongoing, with those who compete in Super Bowl XL also offered something to bring back to their alma mater. It could be a golden football or it could be another item entirely, but the NFL is committed to making this high school honorarium the league’s own Stanley Cup moment, with a more direct connection to the community.
Still, the 50th Super Bowl High School Honor Roll is another animal entirely, an effort made possible by one man’s near-obsessive chronicling of every Super Bowl players alma mater and a concerted effort to go as far as necessary to reach every community that has contributed to the past glories of football’s biggest game. That includes schools in American Samoa, Austria, Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Mexico, Norway, not to mention just about every outlying stretch of America (save Vermont and New Hampshire, for some reason). Even the North Pole is getting a special golden football, with thanks to recent retiree and Packers Super Bowl champ Daryn Colledge.
Each visit bring with it a unique story, many of which will be shared on CBS football broadcasts over the course of the season and often chronicled here as well. For those players who have already returned home, the experience was a reminder of the good old days, and just how important high school football was to their own development.
“I think high school football is so important because that’s where you’re learning a lot of fundamentals about the game of football, and the competitive spirit and the integrity of the game,” said New York Giants Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning, who returned to Isidore Newman High in New Orleans with brother Peyton to present the footballs. “High school coaches have a huge impact on the kids. They teach to play the game the right way and the discipline that goes into it. Playing safe and tackling correctly; all the basics of the game. It’s important to have great coaches and great fundamentals. It’s not just the guys who go on to play in college and the NFL. It’s teaching great lessons about teamwork, success and failure and help you cope with your life later on.
“For me, there was a time when I was getting too specialized, but when you’re young and playing high school you should play other sports and get involved and be with your friends and trying to be the best high school player you can be and not be so concerned with trying to get to the NFL. Just worry about tackling what’s in front of you.”
Now, the NFL has a way to pay back that development in some small manner, perhaps providing at least a tenuous close to the great football development circle.
“I think this sort of bridges the gap to the next generation,” NFL Network analyst and Denver Broncos Super Bowl champion Terrell Davis said. “There is no program that attaches college high schools and pros to college. When people go off to play in college and play in the pros, that was it. To me, this is a great program and a great message to go back to these high schools, acknowledge where everyone has come from and celebrate their different paths. When you’re a kid looking at that you can see all the different paths that people have taken to be successful. Everyone wasn’t the greatest high school player to ultimately become a great pro player. It opens eyes up to people who thought they couldn’t make it to the pros.
Davis’ alma mater, Lincoln High in San Diego, has produced multiple Super Bowl participants. Davis, Marcus Allen, Wally Henry and Saladin Martin presented the footballs to the school in a joint ceremony.
“(The Super Bowl High School Honor Roll) gives them more encouragement to realize that Terrell Davis played nose guard and fullback, not running back when he was in high school,” Davis said. “Hopefully that inspires some kid who has already written himself off. Hopefully that message resonates with some of those young men.”