For the second time in his two NFL seasons, Luke Willson will play in the final game on the NFL schedule when he takes the field with the Seattle Seahawks to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona.
Willson is one of only seven Rice Owls who have reached the Super Bowl and on Saturday he becomes the fifth of those seven to play in multiple games. Three of the other four Owls to play in more than one Super Bowl (Darryl Grant, Earl Cooper and Larry Izzo) have come out on the winning side and Willson hopes to add an 11th Super Bowl ring to the Owls' all-time collection.
Among the television audience of billions on Sunday will be the six previous Owls who have first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to play on Super Sunday. Six men who have experienced the wide range of emotions, the expectations and the aftermath of playing in the country's signature annual sporting spectacle and annually find their own experiences contrasted with those of each new group of participants.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, four of those six, Rodrigo Barnes, Earl Cooper, Darryl Grant and Courtney Hall shared some thoughts on their experiences in the Super Bowl:
R BLOG: What comes to mind when asked about being in a Super Bowl?
RODRIGO BARNES-OAKLAND RAIDERS SUPER BOWL XI CHAMPIONS
It's amazing how big it has become. It's become a global event now and with the internet, there are so many more kinds of coverage. The Super Bowl was more relaxed than the AFC Championship game, because going into that game (AFC title game vs. Pittsburgh), we hadn't won anything yet. We played each week in the playoffs, it was a home game and Oakland had lost the last five AFC Championship games. But after we won, we had two weeks to get ready for the Super Bowl. The Raiders were a pretty laid back group with a lot of veterans who had been around for a while. They took everything in stride and never let it be a problem.
EARL COOPER-SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS SUPER BOWL XVI & XIX CHAMPIONS
Everything was much simpler then. ESPN was just starting out, and while it seemed like a lot of media, it was nothing like it is now.
DARRYL GRANT-WASHINGTON REDSKINS SUPER BOWL XVII & XXII CHAMPIONS, XVIII PARTICIPANT
My first year, no one expected us to beat Dallas. Everything was set up for the Cowboys to be the team there. They came to Washington all packed and ready to move on to California to get ready for the game. When we first got out there (to Pasadena), our gear hadn't arrived and we worked out in blue and gray sweats. Everything was first class that first year, but the next year (in Tampa) it was like someone was trying to save money. We stayed at a hotel by the highway that was noisy and it took four hours to get room service. Then when they moved us to a different hotel for game night, it was just to a motor lodge about two miles away. All the fans figured out where we were and moved the tailgate party to right outside our rooms. When we were going back for the third time, the veterans got together with Coach (Joe) Gibbs and we made sure that things we be different than they were (in Tampa).
COURTNEY HALL-SAN DIEGO CHARGERS SUPER BOWL XXIX PARTICIPANT
I don't know that I have a favorite memory. It's more remembering how the entire nation was focused on the game and all the excitement leading up to the game. Our trainer at the time had been to two Super Bowls with the Redskins and he told us that even though it would be hard to do, we had to find the time to enjoy the experience because it easily could all become a blur. The key for anyone is if you can soak up the atmosphere of the week while maintaining your focus on the reason you are there.
To reach the Super Bowl is special for any player. Stan Brock had played in the league for 15 years with the Saints and then with us for two, and he had a great career. But as great a career as it was, until that year he could never say he'd been to the Super Bowl. Winning is obviously your ultimate goal, but the longer you play, you also come to understand how incredibly difficult it is to reach that point. Each team that reaches the Super Bowl is deserving of the honor that comes with the accomplishment.
R BLOG: Media Day has become such an over-the-top day in terms of sideshows and distractions. How does that compare with your memories?
BARNES: Media Day for us wasn't much of a problem. In those days, unless you were considered the face of the team, you really didn't get scrutinized. The media might have been only interested in talking to maybe six or seven guys and the rest of us just hung around.
GRANT : Media day can be tedious because you have people asking you the same question over and over and we had to stay there as long as anyone wanted us. The hardest part was the international media, which was something new for me. You had to wait to have them ask the question, then have it translated for you, then you answered and it was translated back. It was pretty interesting for me, but at the same time you had to keep reminding yourself that there was game to be played and you didn't want to say anything your opponents could use.
After my first one it was pretty easy to get ready for Media Day since I knew what to expect.
If you are the underdog, all the media and attention around the Super Bowl can really work to your advantage. I know in San Diego we got really annoyed being asked over and over and over about John Elway. It was never about us and many of us had been to two already. I'm sure it was the same for the Raiders the year after we won and were the favorites. I am sure they were tired about hearing about playing the defending champs. I would always want to be the underdog in a Super Bowl.
COOPER: I am so glad I am not a part of what they go through now with all the social media out there. What people tend to forget is that reaching the Super Bowl makes for a long season and the mental and physical toll builds up. It takes a toll on you and I understand why some guys when they get to the Super Bowl want to be left alone and focus on the game.
HALL: Most of Media Day was pretty tame for me. One thing I do remember about that day was I was interviewed by a reporter from a small town in South Carolina where my Granddad lived. He lived in Cameron and was 108 at the time. He was bed ridden and could not read the paper. He was a veteran of World War I and had been born and raised in the deep south, right after the end of slavery. Now here was his grandson playing in this game that touched every corner of the country and there was a story about me in his paper. When we went back for his funeral the next year, that story was framed and hanging on the wall in his house.
R BLOG: Memorabilia is such a big part of the sporting world these days. Do you have any special keepsakes from the Super Bowl?
BARNES: I really don't have anything. Most of the stuff from that time I gave away over the years to family and friends. I donated a few things to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
GRANT: I really don't have anything from the games. I have pictures and those are really the best things to have.
COOPER: I should have kept my shoes, but at that time, I didn't think about such things. I kept wearing those shoes and eventually they wore out. I didn't know I was walking with greatness. I didn't know that I had Hall of Fame teammates or that I was catching a famous touchdown pass. I didn't think that way at the time. The one thing I did was have all my teammates sign a poster at (second one), but it's all wrinkled up. A lot of it came down to when I left the NFL, I put that part of my life behind me.
My daughter is a senior in high school right now and she was so excited to see some highlights from that first Super Bowl, including my touchdown catch, but other than watching it with her, I've never really watched old highlights. It was a great ride and it was nice to see her reaction, but as I said, I pretty much put those times behind me. It was a happy chapter in my life, but I don't talk about it much these days.
HALL: No real special piece of memorabilia specifically from that game. From that year I have my jersey and my AFC Championship ring, but that's about it.
R BLOG: As a Rice graduate, describe your reactions when you know that a fellow Owl will be back in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
BARNES: I am very proud of him. I don't really know any of the others (Owls who played in the Super Bowl), but we share the bond of having graduated from a great institution. We are all Fighting Rice Owls.
GRANT: It's always an added treat to see an Owl in the Super Bowl.
COOPER: I pump my fist whenever Luke makes a play, because I know what he's accomplished to have gone to Rice and then reached the league. It's a great accomplishment and every Owl who has played football knows what it took for him to reach this level.
When I first made it, I had many friends who had grown up Cowboy fans and the games with the 49er's had so much on the line. M friends all had mixed emotion in those games because they also appreciated what I had done to graduate from Rice and be playing on Sunday. Nobody expected it to happen, but I was always most proud of the fact that I came from a small town, graduated from Rice, reached the NFL, played for Super Bowl Champions and then walked away on my own when I decided it was time.
HALL: When I watch NFL games on television, I don't really root for any particular team, I root for individuals, so this weekend is perfect. I can point with pride for every contribution Luke makes on Sunday.