Each Sunday, Ralph Friedgen flips through the NFL games on television, looking for kids he coached at the University of Maryland. Watching them play now brings him back, maybe to a practice where he pulled one of them aside for one-on-one teaching or to quiet moment away from the field. He thinks about how they've grown.
Friedgen, who was forced into retirement following the 2010 season, will have three former players in New Orleans for Sunday's Super Bowl: Vernon Davis, a veteran tight end and star for the San Francisco 49ers; wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has become one of the most exciting playmakers for the Ravens; and his teammate and Baltimore native LaQuan Williams, an important special teams player before being sidelined with a hamstring injury late in the season.
Maryland is one of only three schools to have starters on both teams; Ole Miss and Miami are the others. Friedgen remembers recruiting Davis and Smith out of difficult situations, and trying to nurture Williams through a college career slowed by injury and academic troubles.
"I'm just proud of them," Friedgen said last week. "They're all kids who made it through a lot. I texted Torrey this, but I would tell all of them: Enjoy every part of it. The week can be a little crazy, but there's nothing else like it."
Friedgen would know. He was the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers team that lost, 49-26, to none other than the 49ers — then led by Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice — in 1995. After the loss, Friedgen went back to his hotel to sulk. He'd never been in a less festive mood, but he said he wishes he'd gone to post-game parties anyway.
He hopes Smith, Davis and Williams, win or lose, embrace the experience.
"To think about those guys being there," Friedgen said, "I hope they enjoy every minute. They deserve it — but they also don't know if they'll ever get this chance again."
Friedgen plucked Davis out of Dunbar High School in Washington, where he'd established himself as a consensus top-five tight end recruit in the country. Still, Davis wanted to practice at wide receiver when he arrived at Maryland and showed enough speed to do so.
After a few days, Friedgen called him into his office for the sort of conversation that can destroy a coach-player relationship. He knew Davis was better suited to play tight end, which would entail more grunt work like blocking and not nearly as many chances to catch deep passes.
"I'll never forget what he said," Friedgen recalled. "'You're the coach. Play me where you need me.' That's not what you expect to hear."
So nobody was more surprised when Davis became the focus of then-49ers coach Mike Singletary's rant against selfish play after Singletary's first game as a head coach in October 2008. Singletary, who was the Ravens' linebackers coach in 2003 and 2004, banished Davis to the locker room when the tight end drew a 15-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty.
"I will not tolerate players who think it's about them when it's about the team," Singletary told reporters afterward.
During recent interviews, Davis has credited Singletary with giving him direction on and off the field, and Friedgen said he saw a change in his former player under Singletary, whom the 49ers fired near the end of the 2010 season.
"He owes him a lot," Friedgen said.
Davis left Maryland after the 2005 season and didn't play with Smith, who arrived in 2007. But the two share similar backgrounds.
Davis and his six siblings were raised by his grandmother; his father wasn't around and his mother was a drug addict. Smith was the oldest of seven kids and helped his single mother raise his brothers and sisters.
Both know tragedy. Smith's brother died in a motorcycle accident last fall, while Davis' younger brother was charged with first-degree murder, accused of killing a woman with a hammer last spring. He was declared unfit to stand trial, and his family has said he has struggled with mental illness.
This week, Smith used Twitter to publicly offer congratulations to "my big bro VernonDavis85 for making it to the Superbowl … one of us will lose but Terpnation will win either way!!"
Friedgen remains close with Smith, texting him frequently. He also checks in on Williams, who fathered a child while at Maryland and was prepared to join the military if he couldn't find a job in pro football. He latched on with the Ravens after going undrafted.
"To see him making a living like this, supporting his family," Friedgen said, "that's why you coach."
On Sunday, Friedgen could find reasons to root for Baltimore. Maybe he still holds a grudge against the 49ers over what happened two decades ago. Besides, he's quite fond of Ravens officials who offered help and guidance to the Maryland program.
But Friedgen could never root against any of his former players. He won't pick one team over the other.
"I'm going to root for the offensive side of the ball," he said.
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