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Super Sunshine State - Florida still impacting America’s game after 50 seasons

Jan 01, 2016 12:23PM ● Published by Kevin

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. Playing 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.

ShulasSteak_Porter_15Miami 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. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the game’s winningest coach in 1997. “It's been an honor to have coached the Miami Dolphins and win back to 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 LXIII 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 have 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.

Written by Brian Wierima, a Cape Coral-based freelance writer.

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