ATLANTA — The calls started coming in almost from the moment the AFC championship game in Kansas City ended. Family, friends, long-lost cousins and everyone else with a remote connection to the players reached out hoping to score a ticket to the big game.
“A lot of requests,” said Patriots offensive lineman Shaq Mason, who said he had at least 40 people get in touch. “Definitely had to be the bad guy a lot.”
It's understandable. Reaching the Super Bowl is always going to be a huge deal for the players and those who surround them. But when the Super Bowl happens to be in your backyard, it makes it that much more special.
Especially if your backyard is in a place like Georgia, where football is king.
This Sunday will be a homecoming of sorts for several Patriots and Rams players who either grew up or attended school in the Peach State. The Patriots have six players with Georgia ties on the roster, while the Rams have three. Those Georgia-grown players will rank among the best on the field when Super Bowl LIII kicks off.
Both starting running backs — Sony Michel of the Patriots and Todd Gurley of the Rams — once plied their trade 90 minutes down the highway at the University of Georgia. So did Patriots center David Andrews, who grew up just outside of Atlanta in Johns Creek and is now the most famous and beloved alumni of the Wesleyan School, a small private school in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree Corners.
Georgia can also lay claim to a full 60 percent of the Patriots' offensive line, which has kept Brady virtually unscathed throughout the postseason. In addition to Andrews, starting left tackle Trent Brown and right guard Mason have ties to the state. Brown went to high school in Albany, Georgia, and attended community college in the state before transferring to Florida. Though Mason isn't originally from Georgia — he hails from Columbia, Tennessee, about a four-hour drive northeast of Mercedes-Benz Stadium — Atlanta became his adopted home after he spent four years playing college ball at Georgia Tech.
As it happens, Georgia Tech will be the Patriots' home base this week, as the team uses Mason's old college facilities for practice and meetings.
“It’s definitely fun – old stomping grounds, four years of my life were there,” Mason said, adding that he’s looking forward to seeing old University of Georgia rivals like Andrews and Michel practicing on Georgia Tech’s turf. “Definitely glad to see some old friends, coaches and be back.”
In addition to Gurley, starting Rams tight end Gerald Everett has Georgia roots, growing up just outside of Atlanta in Decatur.
But perhaps the Rams' most decorated homegrown Georgia athlete is none other than head coach Sean McVay.
Before McVay became one of the brightest young coaching minds in the NFL, he was a star high school quarterback at the Marist School in Brookhaven, just a few miles north of where Everett would play his high school ball a short time later. While McVay didn't have NFL talent, he was still good enough to lead his team to a state championship, even beating out Calvin Johnson as the state's Player of the Year in 2003.
McVay looks back on his high school days at Marist fondly.
"That place has been great to me," McVay said. "Some of my closest friends in life are guys that I was able to play high school football with. So there are a lot of relationships that there's people that will be able to be at that game who are very important to me. But this is about the Rams going and playing in the Super Bowl."
That sentiment is shared by the other locals who will get to suit up on home turf. It's going to be a special experience — but at the end of the day, it's still the Super Bowl.
"It’s exciting, but they’d be excited if it was in Alaska," Andrews said. "It’s just a great opportunity. You never know how many opportunities like this you’re going to get.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.