JERSEY CITY, N.J. — They are former kids who played in their backyards and dreamed of scoring the winning touchdown, making the big play on defense and somehow sharing in the spotlight of helping a team win the Super Bowl.
Not all dreamers get to the NFL, and certainly, many who get to football’s highest level don’t get the chance to play in the Super Bowl.
There are at least a dozen who will be participating for the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl who toiled for at least eight years in the NFL before getting a chance to play for the title.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is the poster child. He waited 15 years. The other includes the last XFL player still in the NFL, a couple of Chargers who got close, a Canadian who lost the NFC title in overtime a couple of years ago, and a number who played on very bad teams before finding their way to ones of the cusp of greatness.
Bailey is philosophical about being at his first Super Bowl.
“If I was supposed to be here, I would have been here a long time ago,” Bailey said Thursday as players held their final interviews before the first Super Bowl in an outdoor stadium in a cold-weather city. “Things do take time, and I finally got with the right group of guys, as a whole. I played with some great players, but this is definitely the best team I’ve been on.”
Denver defensive end Jeremy Mincey played on a lot of bad teams in Jacksonville and was heading nowhere late in the season when the Jaguars released him in December for missing a meeting. The Broncos picked him up.
“Dude, this is what we play for, man,” said Mincey, who has played six seasons, missed another with a thumb injury, and had another as a practice squad player. “This is why we keep playing. A lot of us go through a lot in this league, especially guys like me and Mike Adams who have been with so many different teams, different situations. It feels good to actually have this opportunity and for things to land in sync.”
Ironically, Mincey had refused to go to any previous Super Bowl unless he was playing one. This year, he told his fiancee that he intended to buy tickets and go.
“But I ended up being here buying more tickets for people to come see me play in it,” he said.
Adams, a Broncos safety in his 10th season, is so excited to be playing in the Super Bowl that he has vowed to walk the 12-mile trek home to Paterson if Denver wins.
“My friends and family will be right in the stands, (so I can) go ahead and hug them, and then maybe if I decide to walk home, they can all walk home with me,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll like it, but they will.”
Seattle guard Paul McQuistan played with Oakland and Cleveland before coming to Seattle. As much as he wanted to play in the Super Bowl, he never worried whether he would get there. It wasn’t a career breaker.
“This is a team game,” he said. “Getting here is icing on the cake. Every kid dreams of getting there and playing in the big game. It’s an awesome opportunity, but if I didn’t get there it would take away from what I’ve done.”
The odds of playing in the Super Bowl aren’t good. The average career length is less than four years and only 106 players out of close to 1,700 make it each year.
Seattle tackle Tony McDaniel played three seasons with Jacksonville and four with Miami before joining Seattle this season.
“In the offseason, when I used to watch playoff games, the Super Bowl was always in the back of my mind,” McDaniel said. “I’m here now and it’s amazing.”
Seahawks punter Jon Ryan was with Green Bay in the 2007 season when it lost to the Giants in the NFC title game in overtime.
“That was a heartbreaker and when I went to Seattle after that we had a couple of lean years, where we won four and five games,” the Canadian said. “After eight years, I’m finally getting a chance to play in the game, It’s every kid’s dream. In the backyard, you’d be (John) Elway or (Joe) Montana passing to (Jerry) Rice or whoever.
“As you get older, it seems to become a pipe dream, but now I am so thankful to be here.”
Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer and defensive end Shaun Phillips got close to the big one playing a decade in San Diego.
Jammer admitted doubts crept in.
“You go 11 years and you didn’t make it and you start to come toward the end of your career and you know you’ve only got a few more years left in you,” he said.
Phillips never doubted.
“I wouldn’t say it’s surreal because it’s something I always believed I could do,” he said. “It just happened to take 10 years.”
Denver linebacker Paris Lenon had the craziest trip. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service after college, played in the XFL and later for Amsterdam in NFL Europe.
“It’s been a winding road,” he said. “But it’s been a fun one.”