Facing 4th and 4, 10 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown, Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back and quickly scanned the field.
It would be the biggest throw of his career, but one he had made several times before. Ryan released the ball in the direction of receiver Roddy White over the middle. A completion would have set the Falcons up with a 1st and goal situation with a minute to go, but NaVorro Bowman had other ideas. The former Penn State linebacker swatted the ball away before it got to White, breaking up the pass and sending the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.
With six seconds remaining, the Falcons would have one final desperation play that fell way short, but it was Bowman’s pass breakup that halted a 14 play, 7 minute drive to preserve the 28-24 lead.
For Bowman, it was the pinnacle of a three year progression that has seen him go from a promising 3rd round draft selection to a Pro Bowl linebacker that finished second in the regular season with 149 tackles. On this day, Bowman would only record 4 total tackles but made the play that will allow the 49ers to play for a Super Bowl ring.
Along with Bowman, Nate Stupar, another former linebacker who wore the Blue and White on Saturdays, is also with the 49ers. His story is much different. He did not make one of the defining plays to send his his team to Super Bowl XLVII. In fact, he did not even play and likely will not suit up when his team takes on the Baltimore Ravens two Sundays from now, but two weeks after being signed to the 49ers practice squad, he finds himself across the country helping his team prepare for the biggest of stages.
Stupar is what one might call an NFL survivor right now. He was assigned to the Raiders practice squad out of training camp before being released early in the season and spent the final month of the regular season with the Philadelphia Eagles before ending up in San Francisco on January 8th.
In a span of nine months, he went from State College to Oakland to Philadelphia and back to the Bay Area again but this time with a different team. Such is the life of a 7th round selection in the draft, but it sure beats not being in the league at all and will culminate in New Orleans on February 3rd.
This marks the 42nd time that a Penn State alum will appear on Super Bowl Sunday, and 35 former players have rings.
While he did not attend Penn State, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, coached in Happy Valley for seven years on Joe Paterno’s staff as quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His first season was in 1986 when the Nittany Lions went undefeated en route to their second national championship in five years. Caldwell would leave after the 1992 season to become the head coach at Wake Forest.