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Football: Cajuns find way to Super Bowls

UL boasts four starters in game in seven years

UL and the Super Bowl are becoming quite an item.

With Charles Tillman’s starting role as a cornerback for the Chicago Bears in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLI in Miami, the Cajun football program has now been represented in most of the Super Bowls played in this decade.

UL can now boast of four former players in the NFL’s ultimate game in the past seven years, and not just players who appeared on rosters. Every one was a starter, including Tillman’s scheduled start Sunday, and all three of the recent participants made major impacts on the game.

"We’re awfully proud of that," said Cajun coach Rickey Bustle, who coached both Tillman and Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback Ike Taylor in his first UL season in 2001. "And there’s no question we use that when we talk to kids about our program."

Taylor also played cornerback for last year’s Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tillman’s hoping he has the same impact Sunday. Taylor’s 24-yard fourth-quarter interception return set up Pittsburgh’s clinching touchdown in its 21-10 victory over Seattle.

In all, UL has had six previous players who have participated in the big game, dating back to Super Bowl XIII in 1979 when Rafael Septien was kicking for the Dallas Cowboys. Two years later, Randy McClanahan became the first Cajun product to play for a Super Bowl winner when Oakland beat Philadelphia 27-10 in Super Bowl XV.

Brian Mitchell returned kicks for the Washington Redskins in helping that squad win Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, becoming the first Louisiana-born UL player to play in the NFL’s title game.

It wasn’t until six years ago, though, that a Cajun player started in a regular role from scrimmage in the Super Bowl, and Brandon Stokley made the most of his opportunity. UL’s all-time receiving leader gathered in a 38-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer midway through the first quarter, spurring the Baltimore Ravens to a 34-7 win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

In a manner of speaking, Stokley becomes part of another UL Super Bowl first this weekend. Even though inactive because of injuries, he is a part of the Indianapolis Colts roster and joins Tillman to give the Cajuns players on both Super Bowl teams for the first time. Stokley also becomes the first UL player on two Super Bowl teams.

"We’ve been well represented, and not just in the Super Bowl," Bustle said. "Watching a lot of our guys in the playoffs leading up to it, it’s exciting for us, our fans and our supporters."

It’s probably fitting that the Super Bowl falls in the heart of UL’s recruiting period, one that ends Wednesday with the opening of the national signing period.

"We talk to our recruits about our guys in the NFL and in the Super Bowl," Bustle said. "The knock is that someone’s got to go to a big school to get there, and we’re proof that if you’re good enough you can get there.

"We’ve got a whole section in our media guide about our players in the NFL, and when we talk to players they know about those players. Every one of these guys has aspirations to play at the next level, and we’re trying to develop them for that level."

UL has had 36 players drafted by NFL clubs, including Tillman, Taylor, Septien, Mitchell and Stokley. But the biggest Cajun impact on a Super Bowl came from undrafted quarterback Jake Delhomme, whose storybook 2003 season helped the Carolina Panthers advance to Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston.

Delhomme, UL’s all-time leader in passing and total offense, threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns in the Feb. 1, 2004, game against the New England Patriots. Delhomme also rallied the Panthers from a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit with an 85-yard touchdown pass – the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history – and a game-tying 12-yard scoring toss with 1:08 left.

There wasn’t a happy ending for Delhomme and UL fans, with the Patriots driving to Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning last-play field goal, but that game established Delhomme among NFL quarterbacks after years on practice squads and in backup roles.

"It’s really such a small fraction of players that make it, and even a smaller fraction of guys that have a major impact," Bustle said. "It’s impossible to tell who’s going to make it and who’s not. We don’t have double-A or triple-A teams like baseball does … guys go straight from college to the NFL."

Many of those college standouts who advance to the NFL ranks ever get a Super Bowl opportunity. Even though UL’s percentage of pro players who have played in the ultimate game is high by overall standards, there are many ex-Cajuns who didn’t get that chance – including one who came within hours of a Super Bowl appearance.

Clarence Verdin, a third-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 1984 who also played in the USFL, was on the Redskin squad throughout the 1987 season when Washington earned a spot in Super Bowl XXII in San Diego.

"The night before the game, one of the coaches came to me and said I wasn’t going to be activated," Verdin said. "Art Monk had been hurt, but they activated him for the game."

Verdin had to watch his team roll past Denver 42-10 in that game, one memorable for Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl. The following year, he opened a six-year run with the Indianapolis Colts.

"There’s been some awfully good players that haven’t gotten there," said Bustle, who coached in the USFL early in his career. "That’s part of the reason I’ve always had great respect for the NFL. You know they’ve got the great athletes, the absolute cream of the crop."

Cajuns in the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XIII
Jan. 21, 1979, Miami
Pittsburgh 35, Dallas 31
Rafael Septien, kicker, Dallas Cowboys
Was the starting placekicker for the Cowboys, hitting four-of-four extra points and a 27-yard field goal, in becoming first Cajun product to play in the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl VI
Jan. 25, 1981, New Orleans
Oakland 27, Philadelphia 10
Randy McClanahan, linebacker, Oakland Raiders
Played on special teams and saw action on a handful of scrimmage plays, and was the first Cajun on a winning Super Bowl team.

Super Bowl XXVI
Jan. 26, 1992, Minneapolis, Minn.
Washington 37, Buffalo 24
Brian Mitchell, kick returner, Washington Redskins
Handled all kick returns for the Redskins, which were limited in the Super Bowl to one kickoff return for 16 yards with two fair catches on punt returns. Was in for a handful of scrimmage plays.

Super Bowl XXXV
Jan. 28, 2001, Tampa, Fla.
Baltimore 34, New York Giants 7
Brandon Stokley, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens
Started at wide receiver for the Ravens and provided the game’s first points with a 38-yard touchdown catch from Trent Dilfer. Led the Ravens in receptions and yards in the game with three catches for 52 yards and the touchdown.

Super Bowl XXXVIII
Feb. 1, 2004, Houston
New England 32, Carolina 29
Jake Delhomme, quarterback, Carolina Panthers
Took every snap at quarterback for the Panthers and completed 16-of-33 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His 85-yard touchdown pass to Mushin Muhammad midway through the fourth quarter is the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, and his 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left tied the game at 29-29.

Super Bowl XL
Feb. 5, 2006, Detroit, Mich.
Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
Ike Taylor, cornerback, Pittsburgh Steelers
Started for the Steelers at left cornerback and had an interception and a 24-yard return in the fourth quarter that set up Pittsburgh’s clinching touchdown.