Item: With Super Bowl LI Sunday evening at Houston’s NRG Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET / FOX) pitting New England against Atlanta, the top line Syracuse connection to the game, and the player many eyes within Orange Nation will be focused on is number 93 in the Falcons red jersey, 15 year veteran and former SU first-team All American defensive end Dwight Freeney (1998-2001). About to make his third Super Bowl appearance after both winning (Super Bowl XLI-2007) and losing (Super Bowl XLIV-2010) the sport’s ultimate game with the Indianapolis Colts, and starting for the Falcons as recently as their NFC Championship game victory over Green Bay to advance, Freeney not only seeks another championship ring but as a 2000s all-decade DE selection among the NFL media, another title would also solidify his standing for future enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Can you guess the first Super Bowl in which a former Syracuse football player competed?
It was the famous New York Jets upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969, in which Colts tight end John Mackey (1960-62) caught three passes in a losing cause.
Mackey, a Hall of Fame inductee in 1992, also became the first ex-Orange player to score in the Super Bowl when he caught a famous 75 yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl V from Johnny Unitas (Hall of Famer) via a deflection off both his teammate Eddie Hinton and Dallas defensive back Mel Renfro right into his hands, and raced 45 yards untouched to the end zone in the Colts eventual 16-13 victory.
Of course, that’s not even the most famous catch in Super Bowl history by a Syracuse alumni, with David Tyree (1999-2002) performing his incredible helmet grab of an Eli Manning (future Hall of Famer) late fourth quarter desperation pass, by outdueling New England’s Rodney Harrison in Super Bowl XLII’s 17-14 comeback win over the undefeated Patriots, the play named by NFL Films as 2000s “Play of the Decade.”
A total of 38 ex-Syracuse football players have either played or been on the practice squad or the injured list, or coached in some capacity in the first 50 Super Bowls, with Freeney the seventh to participate in multiple games.
The list is headed by one time standout safety Markus Paul (1985-88) who was also a first team All American selection his senior season, and still holds the Syracuse career record with 19 interceptions. Paul’s professional record will be hard to match, let along top, as he’s been the assistant strength coach for five Super Bowl champions, three with New England and two with the New York Giants, his employer for the past decade.
Hall of Famer Art Monk (1976-79) was on the roster for four Washington Redskins Super Bowl teams, but only played in three of the games, tied with fellow Hall of Famer Larry Csonka (1965-67) of the Miami Dolphins, future Hall of Famer Tom Coughlin (1965-67) an assistant and then head coach of three New York Giants Super Bowl teams, and Daryl Johnston (1985-88) of the Dallas Cowboys who was a first time Hall nominee last year.
See an orange-tinted trend here? Playing or coaching and winning (multiple) Super Bowls or NFL titles helps ease the path to gaining Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement for seven of the eight (except Floyd Little) current members with Syracuse ties – fourth best of any college.
Without going into all of the statistical comparisons, as to the question of whether Freeney will become the next deserving former Syracuse star with strong Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials to gain entrance to Canton (along with Donovan McNabb (1995-98), Gary Anderson (1978-1981), and Walt Sweeney (1960-62) hopefully one day soon as well), simply consider the three other players who joined him as the top defensive ends on that 2000s all-decade team.
One, Michael Strahan is already in the Hall of Fame. Jason Taylor, is a 2017 Hall finalist, and although not expected to be elected when the voting is announced Saturday evening in Houston, is no doubt a future Hall member, and the other player, Green Bay’s Julius Peppers, just competed in the NFC title game against Freeney and is also destined for future induction.
After 15 seasons, a Super Bowl victory for Freeney’s Falcons Sunday evening might make the retirement option an easier one to ponder.