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Super Bowl ties are strong for Atholton football coach

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Years before he became a successful head football coach at Atholton High School, Kyle Schmitt had dreams of becoming a starting offensive lineman in the National Football League.

The highlight of that dream would have been playing in a Super Bowl. Instead, this Sunday Schmitt will be watching three players he met along the journey when the Baltimore Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Schmitt's pursuit of an NFL career started after he played at the University of Maryland as a starting offensive guard and center from 2001 to 2004. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings during the summer of 2005.

He traveled to Cologne, Amsterdam and Berlin in NFL Europe, and then a training camp with the Arizona Cardinals in the winter of 2006.

But Schmitt's sweetest memory of his brief time as an NFL hopeful came in the summer of 2005, when one man, in particular, made him feel as if he belonged in an NFL locker room.

"I got there in April and (Vikings center Matt Birk) was hurt with a torn labrum at the time, so I was the second-team center with the Vikings through the summer and training camp," Schmitt said. "He was just as good as a guy could be to an undrafted free agent who frankly had no future there. He spent a lot of time with me, helping me learn. He was always available whenever I had a question."

Birk's season ended when he was placed on injured reserve, and Schmitt never played a regular season snap in the NFL. But his relationship with Birk that summer continues to help him today as a coach and a teacher.

"One day he just grabbed me and said, 'we're going to get pizza, let's go,'" Schmitt said. "For a young football player who felt like he was in a locker room where he really didn't belong, that meant a lot to me. I learned a lot from him about how to be a professional."

So when Schmitt sits down to watch Sunday's game, he'll be rooting for Birk, now a 36-year-old, six-time Pro Bowl center for the Ravens.

But it's not that simple. Because as a Terrapin, Schmitt also played alongside Vernon Davis, now the starting tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, during Davis' freshman and sophomore seasons. And later he coached Ravens receiver Torrey Smith.

But first, there was Davis.

"He was just an exceptional athlete. The first time you saw him play you knew he was really fast, almost like he was in slow motion," Schmitt said. "He was the type of guy you knew about before he even got there."

Since becoming a first-round draft pick of the 49ers in 2006, Davis has caught 345 passes for 4,351 yards and 40 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons.

In the locker room, Schmitt remembers Davis as a humble, hard-working phenom.

"Sometimes the young guys, especially with the talent he had, have a lot of bravado," said Schmitt, who was All-ACC honorable mention as a junior. "But he wasn't like that at all. He would laugh with all the guys."

But on the field, Davis was clearly something special. Schmitt remembers playing in the 2003 Gator Bowl against West Virginia when Davis was a freshman.

"One of the first catches he had ... he just weaved down the field. The entire O-line sprinted down the field trying to make another block for him. He took a five-yard pass 30 yards," Schmitt said. "That was eye-opening."

Early in his NFL career, Davis earned a reputation as a prima donna, even triggering a viral press conference rant by former 49ers coach Mike Singletary ("Can not play with him, can not win with him, can not coach with him. Can't do it!")

But Schmitt says that he has watched his former teammate change before his eyes.

"We've seen him mature so much," Schmitt said. "Now he's so respectful of his team and the game."

Schmitt has always been impressed by Torrey Smith's maturity.

As a graduate assistant with the Terrapins in 2007 and 2008, Schmitt was on the sideline with Smith during his redshirt freshman season. Smith, the oldest of seven children, helped his single mother raise his younger siblings.

"He was a kid that everyone was pulling for because he was such a nice guy," Schmitt said. "He was friends with everyone on the team, whether it was a walk-on who had been there for two months or a dining hall employee."

Schmitt remembers being on the sideline for the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl against Nevada. His friend, Brian White, had just been promoted to special teams coach before the game.

"I was nervous for him," Schmitt said. "Torrey took a kickoff back (99 yards) for a touchdown. I have a picture of (White) jumping for joy."

Maryland went on to win the game, 42-35. Nevada's starting quarterback was Colin Kaepernick, who will start Sunday's Super Bowl for the 49ers.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Schmitt now employs a pistol offense, similar to what Kaepernick ran at Nevada, with his Atholton Raiders, who have gone 38-9 in his four seasons, making the playoffs each year.

Further complicating matters when it comes to choosing a side for Sunday's game is that as a Western Pennsylvania native, Schmitt is naturally repelled by the purple and black. Still, he'll be rooting for players on both sides of the ball.

"I'll just enjoy the game, but it's cool to say that you crossed paths with some of those guys," Schmitt said. "I got to see some of those guys work and see what it takes to get to that level, and that's something that you can pass on to the kids. It's the pinnacle of our sport."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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