JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 2 -- At 10 a.m. Tuesday, doors opened on the club level of Alltel Stadium, unleashing an armada of journalists who moved briskly toward the field. Several hundred reporters snaked down the stairs to interview Philadelphia Eagles players on media day at Super Bowl XXXIX.
Many made a beeline for running back Brian Westbrook, who sat sternly behind one of 12 mini-podiums along the sidelines. Teammate Derrick Burgess, a 6-foot-2, 266-pound defensive end, ambled toward Westbrook, operating a camcorder with his right hand.
Brian Westbrook is one of four Eagles players to have attended Maryland high schools that lie within a 25-mile radius.
(Miles Kennedy - AP)
"Get that nervous look off your face and represent Maryland better than what you're doing right now," Burgess yelled, causing Westbrook to grin and seemingly relax. "He's up there looking all stiff. Get right with it. Represent your home, baby!"
A few feet away, 6-2, 300-pound center Hank Fraley stood fielding questions. And linebacker Dhani Jones took queries within shouting distance of the three.
The four are a Super Bowl oddity. While it isn't unusual for a metropolitan area to have three or four players on Super Bowl rosters, these four are starters on the same team and attended Maryland high schools that lie within a 25-mile radius. And Burgess, Fraley, Jones and Westbrook share another unusual tie: They have landed prime spots in the Super Bowl despite not being considered blue-chip prospects out of high school. Two will play on offense, two on defense when the Eagles face the New England Patriots on Sunday.
"It's really incredible to have four players from the same locale, on the same team making it to the Super Bowl," said Bill McGregor, who coached Westbrook at DeMatha in Hyattsville. Westbrook graduated in 1997. "It's just amazing."
Fraley graduated from Gaithersburg High, Burgess from Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt and Jones from Winston Churchill in Potomac -- all in 1996.
"Maryland is not a Texas or California or Ohio yet," said Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy. "It's pretty amazing for a state the size of Maryland. We used to get eight Division I scholarships a year. That number is probably 30 these days. Now we've got four players in the Super Bowl."
According to NFL figures, Maryland ranked 19th among states with 28 players on NFL rosters in 2004. California was first with 200, followed by Texas (174) and Florida (173).
None of the players knew each other well in high school. Burgess was familiar with Westbrook only because they were raised in the same area; and their high schools are both in Prince George's County. But the lack of initial familiarity hasn't prevented the four players from forming a bond and embracing the uniqueness of their situation. "It's kind of cool," Burgess said.
Fraley was the most improbable of the four to make the NFL and he found Tuesday's scene almost surreal. "It was a little overwhelming seeing everybody come out of those stands up there," said Fraley, "and just come piling down on the field. It looked like a herd of cows or something, running down here. It's pretty nutty."
Fraley's Gaithersburg Trojans faced Jones's Churchill Bulldogs twice and Burgess's Roosevelt once during their high school careers. The rare matchups have been enough for Fraley to talk trash because he says his team won each game handily.
"We spanked [Jones's team], so you can ask him," Fraley recalled, then added quickly: "But he will deny everything."
When the information was relayed to Jones, he responded: "I do deny it. He didn't beat us each time. We beat him each time."(For the record, Gaithersburg beat Churchill 14-7 in 1994 and 30-7 in 1993, according to Kreg Kephart, the Trojans' current head coach who was then an assistant.
Burgess conceded his team was trounced in a 1995 playoff game during Fraley's senior season, in which Gaithersburg advanced to the state championship. But Burgess -- whom Fraley recalled as having a strong performance -- had an explanation:
"It was an unfair match," Burgess said. "Their kicker was like 300 pounds. Their running back was like 250. Everybody on their [offensive] line was like 6-6. It looked like the movie, 'Friday Night Lights,' and bunch of old big guys on a high school team."
Since Burgess and Westbrook never played against each other in high school, the pair has resorted to comparing private school vs. public. "I talk to Westbrook all the time because he went to DeMatha, and he went to a school where there ain't no girls," Burgess said loudly enough for Westbrook to hear during his interview session, "and they wear uniforms. I'm like, 'Dawg, my school had to be better. We had girls. We could wear whatever we want and we were pretty good in sports.' I just mess with him like that every once in a while."
Fraley was unspectacular during his first two high school years, but worked hard and, by his senior season, had developed into a key player on the Trojans' 4A state-runner up team. Because he was only 6 feet and 285 pounds, Fraley accepted a scholarship to Robert Morris University, a I-AA college in Pittsburgh, largely because the coach was Joe Walton, formerly of the New York Jets. After Fraley had a standout freshman season, Walton predicted an outside chance at making the NFL if Fraley bulked up and improved his agility and conditioning.
During the offseason, Fraley returned to Gaithersburg and trained religiously at his old high school, partly because it was a 10-minute drive from his home. "I didn't have money to live anywhere else, so I had to go back home," said Fraley. "I would go train on the field because they had good hills to run. Our track was very good. I knew the only way I could get here was to train and work hard and just have a shot at getting in a training camp."
Fraley signed with the Steelers in 2000 as an undrafted rookie, then was released and claimed off waivers by the Eagles. He replaced the injured Bubba Miller toward the end of the 2001 preseason and has now started 63 of 64 NFL games. Although he lives in Sicklerville, N.J., with his wife, Christy, and their nine-month old son, Alexander, Fraley maintains ties with his former high school, particularly John Harvill, 80, the local legend who coached the Trojans for 43 years before retiring in 1999. Harvill also coached Fraley's father, Hank Sr., an offensive lineman at Gaithersburg.
Harvill, who has been Fraley's guest at Eagles home games and attended his wedding, said he speaks to Fraley every few weeks. Much of their conversation revolves around strategy. "He's just a super, super person, just a good ol' country boy," Harvill said in a telephone interview. "He got into a little mischief occasionally, but he was one of the hardest workers I've had."
Burgess was perhaps the best prospect among the four -- a 1995 first-team All-Met selection as an outside linebacker at Roosevelt, and also a tight end. Born in Lake City, S.C., Burgess grew up in Southeast Washington. His mother, Priscilla, obtained an entry-level job at Wendy's in Greenbelt, around 1985; and Burgess's father, Willie Cooper, still works as Metro bus driver. Football was Burgess's escape and it showed in his rugged, hard-hitting style, said Rick Houchens, an assistant at Roosevelt when Burgess played and now the head coach.
Priscilla eventually moved to Greenbelt so that her son could live in a safer environment. Wendy's was one block from Roosevelt, so after practice Burgess would often go to the fast-food joint to grab a bite -- for a discount.
"That's why I don't eat Wendy's anymore. I was raised on Wendy's," said Burgess, who lives in Mt. Laurel, N.J. "I was eating Wendy's since I was this big." Burgess lowered his left hand to his waist then added: "I remember when Wendy's sold breakfast."
Burgess attended the University of Mississippi, where he was named to the first-team all-SEC as a senior, leading his team with 9.5 sacks. Burgess was selected by Philadelphia in the third round in 2001 and produced six sacks as a rookie. Over the next two years, though, he played in only one game because of injuries. He missed 15 games in the 2002 season with a broken right foot, and missed the 2003 season after tearing his Achilles' tendon days before the season opener.
This season, Burgess started 11 games before separating his sternum and missing the final four games of the regular season. Burgess had two sacks and six tackles in Philadelphia's victory over Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game and seemed the most excited of the four players Tuesday. Wearing a black Super Bowl XXXIX visor, he interrupted an interview when former Chicago Bears star William "The Refrigerator" Perry walked by. "Hold on," Burgess said, quickly operating his camcorder. "That's the Fridge right there. That's big."
Of the four, Westbrook has had the highest profile and said he feels doubly blessed because McGregor will attend the game as a guest of the NFL. McGregor, who has had an illustrious, 23-year career at DeMatha, was named the NFL's high school coach of the year after being nominated by Westbrook. The award brings two tickets to the Super Bowl, $5,000 and a $10,000 grant to DeMatha's football program.
"He's been doing a great job in DeMatha for a long time," said Westbrook. "He's taught me a lot. He's done a lot for me. So it's definitely an honor for him to be down here with me. I'm glad he was able to win the award."
When Westbrook tore his triceps last season, he sought guidance from DeMatha trainer Wendy Norris because she had helped Westbrook overcome injuries in high school. After playing a critical role in DeMatha's championship in the Catholic league as a junior, Westbrook missed about half the season with knee and hip injuries as a senior.
The injuries and his 5-9, 185-pound size kept him from getting a scholarship to a Division I football school. A native of D.C., Westbrook settled on Villanova, a I-AA school, and quickly displayed the versatility that has made him one of the Eagles' top players. As a sophomore, Westbrook became the first college player at any level to have over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving. He finished with one of the most prolific careers in Division I-AA history -- setting a record with 9,885 all-purpose yards.
Westbrook was selected by Philadelphia in 2002 during the third round (No. 91 overall). Now, at 5-10 and 205 pounds, he has emerged as one of the NFL's most multi-dimensional players. This season, Westbrook amassed 1,515 total yards -- 10th best in the league -- including 812 yards rushing.
"It was in my wildest dreams," said Westbrook of making the NFL. "But at that point you never really know what's going to happen. It's a blessing for me to make it to the NFL. It's a blessing for me to be at this point."
Dhani Jones -- whose first name means "thinking man" in Hindi -- did not necessarily envision playing in the NFL while growing up in Potomac. The son of a Navy commander father and anesthesiologist mother, Jones is a self-styled renaissance man, known for interests that include poetry, oil painting and classical music.
"The NFL was an opportunity," said Jones, who was drafted out of Michigan in the sixth round in 2000 by the New York Giants. "As soon as it was a real possibility, I just took advantage of it."
El-Bashir contributed to this report from Washington.