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Notebook: MAC Players Aplenty In Super Bowl

IRVING, Texas – It long ago became commonplace for players from smaller, lesser known college football programs to make it to the NFL. Scouting departments across the league leave no stone unturned these days when it comes to finding talent.


But that doesn't diminish the pride those players take in making it, given the road they had to travel, and there's a significant group of players carrying the banner from one league in particular in this Super Bowl.

A total of 15 players on the Packers' and Steelers' two 53-man rosters came from the Mid-American Conference – nine for Green Bay (DE Cullen Jenkins, LB Frank Zombo and CB Josh Gordy from Central Michigan, LB Diyral Briggs from Bowling Green, TE Tom Crabtree from Miami of Ohio, WR Greg Jennings from Western Michigan, OL T.J. Lang from Eastern Michigan, RB James Starks from Buffalo, and S Atari Bigby, who played at Central Florida in the MAC before his school joined Conference USA) and six for Pittsburgh (QBs Ben Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio, Charlie Batch from Eastern Michigan and Byron Leftwich from Marshall – before that school left the MAC – plus LB James Harrison from Kent State, WR Antonio Brown from Central Michigan, and K Shaun Suisham from Bowling Green).

Of the 106 players now on the NFL's biggest stage, that's a startling number from a non-BCS conference, and don't think they don't know how many of their MAC brethren are here this week.

"I think a lot of us MAC guys kind of play with a chip on our shoulder because maybe we weren't drafted or didn't get much attention coming out of college," Crabtree said. "That definitely helps us.

"Just because a lot of times we're an underrated conference and brushed aside, and the Big Ten is kind of the big thing in that region."

The MAC's 15 players actually match the Big Ten's representation on the two rosters. The only conference with more is the Southeastern Conference, with 18. But the MAC has more than the rest of the BCS leagues, including the Atlantic Coast Conference (13), Big 12 (8), Pac-10 (6) and Big East (4).

The MAC contingent runs the gamut from high draft picks, like Roethlisberger (first round) and Jennings (second round), to undrafted players who were cut initially and still developed into major contributors, like Harrison and Jenkins. While the general public may not perceive their schools as producing that many future NFL players, they aren't ignored within scouting circles. Zombo, an undrafted rookie, said last year there were 30 scouts at Central Michigan's pro day to watch workouts.

"The past 10 years or so I think, players are getting noticed more, getting drafted and are able to make an impact," Jenkins said.

"It's something that you like to look at and be able to brag about some I guess. You always hear about the bigger conferences or the big schools, they get a lot of attention and players get a lot of hype. But a lot of players in the MAC are just as good. You just may have different situations that led you to the schools."

One of those situations was Jennings'. A multi-sport prep star at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High, Jennings had committed to the University of Michigan, only to find out a couple of weeks before national signing day that the Wolverines had run out of scholarships.

But nearby Western Michigan had a scholarship waiting for him, so Jennings took what he could get. He initially wondered if the "step down" in profile of his college program was going to hinder his progress to the NFL, but it didn't.

"You definitely don't have to be from a BCS conference school," Jennings said. "I think the biggest thing is your work ethic. If you're willing to work, if you're willing to compete each day, every day, and work your butt off, they're going to find you. That was one of the things I had to learn.

"It worked out great for me. If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would choose Western, simply because it allowed me to progress a lot quicker, mature a lot quicker. You definitely appreciate how hard you have to work and … there's a certain gratification that you get when you make it because you know you had to work a little harder than those guys who had the spotlight on their programs."

Positive thinking
Of all the potential distractions during Super Bowl week, Jenkins never imagined this would be one.

As was reported by several media outlets on Wednesday, Jenkins has lost contact with his father, Darome, since his dad took a trip to Hawaii sometime after Christmas. Darome Jenkins raised Cullen and his older brother, Kris, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the New York Jets, as essentially a single parent, but now appears to have cut himself off from everyone.

Jenkins said his father's phone has been disconnected and his Facebook page has been canceled. Jenkins said he's gone through stretches before without talking to his dad, but never when there wasn't a way to actually contact him if he wanted to.

"Maybe he's just feeling a little left out or something," Jenkins said Thursday when some media followed up with him. "It's just a difficult situation, because you don't know. There's so much unknown about it.

"It could be something where he's just pulling back and just needs time to be to himself. You try not to think about bad things, try to stay positive, think positive thoughts. That's the easiest way to deal with it."

Jenkins decided to talk about the situation this week in the hopes that with the extensive media coverage of the Super Bowl, word would somehow get to his father that his family is concerned about him and doesn't know what's going on. He did say the family has not filed a missing-persons report.

Jenkins is saving a Super Bowl ticket for him this week should he hear from him.

"He doesn't deal with a lot of people, so that's what makes it tough too, because there are not a lot of people that you can ask about it," Jenkins said. "I'm just hoping that maybe he just needed a little time to himself, and that he's all right, you know. Just try to think positive about it."

UPDATE: Hawaii police have informed media that Jenkins' father is fine but has requested his privacy.

Hometown proud
Lots of small towns are proud when one of their own makes it to a Super Bowl, but it may be difficult to find one more proud than Dublin, Ga., home of Packers linebacker Erik Walden.

Some townsfolk have put up a billboard honoring Walden, but not just because of where he is this week. It recognizes the road he took from Dublin, that of an academic non-qualifier his first year at Middle Tennessee State University to a scholarship player and academic award-winner as a junior, to a thrice-cut NFL player who's now in the Super Bowl.

The entire journey is pretty remarkable, and Roger Holmes, athletic director and head football coach at Dublin City Schools where Walden played, hopes the billboard and Walden's story will serve as an example for a lot of youth of the value of both education and perseverance.

"It was always about, 'Coach, I'm just staying focused, I want to get my degree and a chance to play in the league,'" Holmes said. "Erik's senior year here, his work habits were not good. But he paid his own way the first year (in college), and now he's got a chance to play in the Super Bowl."

The billboard says, "From the Shamrock Bowl to the Super Bowl," the former being the name of Walden's high school stadium in Dublin. The photo shows Walden, who back then played running back as well as defense, taking a handoff in Dublin's state semifinal playoff game at the Georgia Dome.

It also says "Good Luck Erik Walden," with a message across the bottom: Set Goals, Work Hard, Stay In School. For a quick glance at the billboard, click here.

Walden is the first to admit the part about hard work didn't come naturally to him in his youth. He approached school with the attitude that as long as he was passing, he would graduate. But during his junior and senior year, he found out his grades were limiting his college choices and recruiters' interest – Holmes said Walden probably cost himself a scholarship to the University of Georgia – and it forced him to take a more difficult path.

"I chose Middle Tennessee, and they had a nice situation where you could sit out a year, get yourself together, get your grades and get yourself ready physically too, as far as the weight room," said Walden, who eventually earned a scholarship and the school's Dr. James E. Walker Junior Academic Award in 2006. "Then you get your opportunity to play. It kind of started from there, and I haven't looked back since."

Making it in the NFL was no easier, though. Drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, Walden was cut by the Cowboys, picked up and cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, and then signed by the Miami Dolphins during his rookie year.

Then he was cut by the Dolphins earlier this season before coming to the Packers when injuries decimated the linebacker corps. By season's end, he was not only starting on the league's No. 2 scoring defense, but he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 16-tackle, three-sack game against Chicago in the regular-season finale as the Packers clinched their playoff berth.

"It's just believing in yourself, all throughout, no matter up or down, all situations," Walden said. "Just make sure you're confident and stay humble about your entire situation."

Walden, who has been limited in practice both days so far this week after spraining his ankle in the NFC Championship in Chicago, is flattered by the hometown support and appreciates it. If his story can serve a purpose for other youth in small-town Georgia, all the better.

"I think it's big for the uprising kids, to let them know I was in your same shoes and nothing is impossible," Walden said. "If you put your mind to do something, you can do it. With prayer and hard work, anything is possible."

Long intermission
Halftime during the Super Bowl will be roughly a half-hour in length, about two-and-a-half times as long as the normal 12-minute halftime during the regular season. The Black Eyed Peas are the halftime act at Cowboys Stadium.

That's a break in the action players aren't accustomed to, for sure, and cornerback Charles Woodson was asked how he handled it eight years ago when he was in the Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders.

"I think I took a short nap, watched some re-runs of The Young and the Restless," Woodson joked. "No, it is a long halftime, and I don't know how you prepare for that, because it really is out of the norm from the regular season."

Jennings figures the best way to pass the time would be to watch the concert. He did admit he's a fan of the Black Eyed Peas. "I'm probably going to get undressed, put on my street clothes, walk out and watch the halftime show," he said.

In all reality, players don't know how to occupy themselves for that long when their emotions and adrenaline will be running at such high levels.

"I'll probably relax, maybe read a newspaper, I don't know," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We just have to take it all in stride, not get too anxious and understand when it's our time … our time to turn it on."

That's the key, said Woodson. To be thinking about the fact that the game is only half over, and do what it takes to keep the body prepared to go all-out again for two more quarters.

"You just have to try to stay loose, because there's another half of football to play," Woodson said. "I think guys will understand that, I think our trainers will understand that, making sure guys stay hydrated throughout the halftime, because it's going to seem like an eternity once you get in that locker room."

Smart switch
Starks has become the overnight sensation of this NFL postseason, with more rushing yards than any other player throughout the playoffs. But he hinted on Thursday that his instant success may have something to do with his background as a quarterback.

A signal-caller in high school, Starks was recruited to play that position before switching to cornerback during his redshirt season on the scout team at Buffalo. He then moved to running back in 2006.

"I think it helped me in some ways, because you learn how to read coverages, read checks when you're supposed to check things, so you can see rotations a little faster," Starks said. "I think it made me a smarter running back, because I had to know what everybody had to do (as a QB). Now, I only have to know my position and rotation and certain cutbacks I can look for. That's a lot less load than what I had to deal with."

Branching out
Jennings entered the social media world via his own Twitter account earlier this week, and in less than two days he has already surpassed 26,000 followers. He was encouraged by good friend and fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals to get a Twitter page.

But Jennings' motives for the additional publicity are very specific.

"I'm trying to be in a movie," he said. "I'm trying to be a movie star."

Jennings made his television debut last spring in an episode of Criminal Minds on CBS, but he doesn't want his acting career to stop there. As for what type of movie he'd like to get involved in, he's not going to be fussy.

"It depends," he said. "I'm an action guy. I love to be a comedian a little bit. I'm not really a comedian when it comes to making people laugh seriously. But whatever opportunities I'm afforded, I'll try to make the best of them.

"I'm looking to get into all kind of acting. I want to be in a movie soon. Go to my Twitter page and follow me, and you'll be able to see some of the things that I'm going to do this offseason. Hopefully I can have another debut on some other show maybe."

Color coded
Receiver Jordy Nelson was asked if he might try a "Lambeau Leap" into the Cowboys Stadium stands if he scores a touchdown on Sunday.

"I don't know. It will all depend. I'll be in the moment," he said. "Most likely not, but if for some reason there's a bunch of Packer fans with a 'Lambeau Leap' sign or something, I might have to."

He's going to have to be certain they're Packers fans, though, because going strictly by color, he could wind up in the wrong laps.

"Don't get the yellows confused, or the golds, or whatever it is," Nelson said. "You need to make sure there's a 'G' on it."

Additional coverage - Feb. 3

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