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."