Guaranteed rings for Herd
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite their best efforts, Albert McClellan and C.J. Spillman couldn't run down the elusive goal of playing in a championship game while at Marshall.
From 2005-08, they didn't have a winning season. McClellan finally enjoyed a 7-6 campaign in 2009, winning a bowl game but not playing for the Conference USA championship.
But they kept on chasing the dream, right into the NFL.
These MU teammates have chased through all barriers, beginning with not being selected in the draft. The workouts have been lonelier, the team meetings longer, the practices more critical, the competition more unforgiving and the depth chart more mountainous.
They've scaled all obstacles, and their championship game has come - the big one, Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 2.
Up to four former Marshall players will play next weekend in the planet's biggest sporting event. No matter who wins between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, the Thundering Herd program can brag about two more rings.
McClellan, a strong-side linebacker who has made 11 starts this year and has stood out on special teams, and free safety Omar Brown play for the Ravens. Odds are Brown, third behind Ed Reed and Sean Considine on the depth chart, will be inactive. Even then, he gets to stand on the sidelines at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, order up to 15 tickets for family and friends and gets some serious "bling" if the purple-clad Ravens win.
"It's great, man. To be here in my first year and experience that, there's nothing like it," Brown said.
Spillman, a safety who came to MU in 2005 with McClellan, plays with the 49ers with the grand ol' man from Rand, Randy Moss. Spillman, the Louisville, Ky., native in his fourth year, is renowned for his kick coverage on one of the league's top special-teams units.
Moss, he came out of retirement for this day. The 14th-year veteran was very close to playing in the Super Bowl in his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings, and he had the touchdown catch to give the New England the lead in the Super Bowl, giving the Patriots a chance for a perfect 2007 season - until Eli Manning, Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants yanked it away in the Super Bowl.
Four ex-Herd players will come to the Superdome. Two will leave with one of those shiny new "Super Bowl XLVII Champions" caps.
They will join a select fraternity of MU players with rings. Troy Brown is the champ, winning three with the Patriots (2001, 2003, 2004 seasons). Bradshaw, who scored the "reluctant touchdown" to beat the Patriots last year in Indianapolis, has two.
Jermaine Wiggins caught two passes for the 2000 Patriots team that upset the St. Louis Rams. Other former Marshall players on championship team rosters who did not play the Super Bowl include Mike Barber (1989, 49ers), Johnathan Goddard (2006, Colts injured reserve) and Doug Legursky (2008, Steelers practice squad).
Spillman and McClellan were part of coach Bob Pruett's last recruiting class, the 2005 class that signed a month and a half before the coach resigned.
Spillman was a second-team All-Conference USA selection in 2007 and 2008, and led the Herd in tackles in the difficult 2007 season. Not taken in the draft, he landed on the San Diego Chargers roster in 2009, playing in five games and starting one.
In 2010, he was released by the Chargers five games into the season but was immediately picked up by the 49ers. Special-teams coordinator Brad Seely put Spillman to good use as a gunner extraordinaire, and a spark plug who ignites one of the league's most enthusiastic kicking units.
How enthusiastic? The Niners' kickoff unit gets together and dances a bit to Future's "Tony Montana" before the ball is declared ready for play, with Spillman often seen leading the gyrations.
In 2011, Spillman helped punter Andy Lee average a league-record 44.0 net yards, a number that only slid to 43.2 this season. He made some big plays on that unit in the divisional round playoff win over Green Bay, recovering a fumble and once nailing Randall Cobb on another return.
Finishing the first year of a three-year contract, Spillman has a degree of job security. But in speaking to him about his career, one can tell he wants a lot more - he wants to start at safety someday, and someday soon.
He backs up Dashon Goldson at free safety, and has played some cornerback on goal-line situations. He wants his increase his "regular" playing time, eventually becoming a starting safety.
"I haven't gotten too much time at safety," Spillman said. "It's just one of those things [where] you've got to wait for your opportunity to come along. When it comes along, you grab it, and don't ever let it go."
Spillman and his MU "elder" Moss have jockeyed for position on more than a few pass plays in 49ers' practice since Moss came out of retirement. As one can imagine, the trash talk flies.
"When we're on the practice field, we're very competitive," Spillman said. "I give him a hard time, letting him know the things he accomplished don't fly over there."
Moss, who has not yet addressed media since the 49ers beat Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl, came out of a season's retirement. With Ray Lewis getting all the attention for trying to cap his great career with his second Super Bowl title, Moss is looking to punctuate his 15,292-receiving yard, 156-touchdown career with a single ring.
Playing in his 14th year and a step or two slower by most accounts, Moss seems to be content with being a third or fourth option behind the explosive Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. He still averages 15.5 yards per his 28 catches and has scored three times.
At age 37, Moss' best contributions may be more intangible.
"It's good, man, it's fun," Spillman said of being around Moss. "Learning from him about the pros and cons on the field and off the field, what to do, what not to do. He's been around the block; that's why we give him a hard time."
Spillman and McClellan could have entered the NFL at the same time, but McClellan's ligament tear before the 2007 season intervened. The Lakeland, Fla., native took a redshirt that year after winning the media vote as C-USA defensive player of the year in 2006.
He returned as a first-team all-conference performer in 2008 and slipped to the second team his senior season. After going undrafted, he signed with the Ravens and spent 2010 on the practice squad. In the Ravens' scheme, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound McClellan fit better as an outside linebacker.
He started one game in 2011 and 11 of the first 13 games of the current campaign and has 49 tackles, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and two recoveries to show for it.
But he has tailed off late in the season, missing the final two regular-season games with a hamstring injury and losing his starting job at "Sam" linebacker to Courtney Upshaw. Still, McClellan continues to play on special teams, and has two tackles in the postseason.
The Ravens did not make McClellan available for interviews this week, but did make the rookie Brown available. Brown, who started his MU career in 2008, played one season alongside Spillman in the safeties unit, and two seasons behind McClellan. Brown started nine games in 2009 and eventually became a first-team all-conference performer in 2011.
Also with the Ravens, he stuck with the team as essentially the fifth safety. He finally made his NFL debut in Week 15, recovering a fumble in a 34-17 loss to Denver. He also played the last two weeks of the regular season, accounting for three tackles against the Giants and the Bengals.
He is brother of MU's Evan McKelvey, who suffered a season-ending knee injury shortly after being moved from safety to linebacker. And yes, McKelvey is getting a ticket to New Orleans, as is Brown's mother Estella McKelvey.
Despite his frequent inactive status on game day, Brown is otherwise a full participant, tapping into the considerable knowledge of veterans such as Lewis and Ed Reed.
"He's not what I thought he would be, just seeing him on the field," Brown said of Lewis. "He's a lot more quiet. He's a funny guy."
Some time after their initial Thundering Herd reunion, McClellan gave to Brown one bit of indisputable advice for any unheralded NFL prospect: "Be good friends with the special-teams coach, because that's where you're going to start out at. And you go from there."
Brown knows this Super Bowl trip could be his last. It could be the last for McClellan, Spillman and, yes, the elder statesman Mr. Moss. Out of the hundreds of thousands of football players, less than 2,000 play in the NFL in any given year, and only about 100 get the chance to be on a Super Bowl roster.
It's tougher for undrafted free agents such as Brown, Spillman and McClellan.
"It's tougher than anything is," Brown said. "It's nothing I didn't expect, knowing it was going to be hard, [but] it's a lot tougher than you can even assume it to be.
"You just got to stay at work, keep your head up and control what you can - with the effort part, taking care of little things as far as being on time, knowing what you're doing, being ready when your opportunities present [themselves], and everything else will take care of itself."
The next opportunity: Super Bowl XLVII.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.