While all of Patriots Nation wishes the hometown team was playing this weekend, there will be some recognizable ex-Patriots on the field this Sunday. Between those ex-Patriots and some other New England connections such as family ties and local players, fans will sense a local taste of flavor in the AFC and NFC Championship game action.
Out in Oakland in the game between the Raiders and the Tennessee Titans there are numerous Patriots connections, especially on the Oakland side of the field. The closest tie comes with Raiders cornerback Terrance Shaw. Shaw was a reserve cornerback last season for the Patriots and owns a Super Bowl ring to show for it. He has actually had an expanded roll with Oakland this season, thanks largely to a group of injuries in the team's defensive backfield. The seventh-year corner totaled 34 tackles for the Raiders in the regular season along with two interceptions. He even started five games. In last weekend's AFC Divisional matchup with the Jets Shaw had four tackles.
Two other minor connections out by the Bay are Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon and safety Anthony Dorsett. Gannon was originally a fourth-round pick of the Patriots in the 1987 NFL draft, although he never played for the franchise. The 2002 NFL MVP had a bumpy road to stardom, stopping in Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City before finding a home with the Silver and Black. Dorsett is the son of the great Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, but for the local flavor is the cousin of Patriots Pro Bowl corner Ty Law.
On the Titans side of the things the connections are a little thinner. Fullback Greg Comella out of Stanford is a Wellesley, Mass. native. Comella attended Xaverian Brothers High School and was the 1992 USA Today Massachusetts Player of the Year when he rushed for 1,094 yards and 21 touchdowns. His brother J.P. is also from Wellesley and currently attends Boston College where he is a fullback on the football team and potential NFL prospect.
For Sunday's game in Philadelphia, the connections are relatively heavy on both sides of the ball. When the Eagles are punting, Patriots fans will notice two old friends playing key roles with long snapper Mike Bartrum and punter Lee Johnson. Bartrum is in his third season with the Eagles after spending four seasons in New England handling the snapping duties. The forty-one-year-old Johnson is now handling the Philadelphia punting duties after a season ending injury to Sean Landeta. Johnson was with the Patriots for the first half of last season before being released on Oct. 15., 2001. To date Johnson is having an impressive postseason, averaging 41.4 yards on five punts, with three inside the 20-yard line.
Another recognizable Philadelphia Eagle is former Boston College Eagle Tim Hasselbeck. The Norfolk, Mass. native also attended Xaverian Brothers High School and is a former Gatorade New England Player of the Year. He also has another connection as his father Don had seven successful seasons at tight end for the Patriots. His brother Matt, also of Boston College, is a quarterback with the Seahawks.
On the Tampa sideline is another special teams duo with ties to the Patriots, in long snapper Ryan Benjamin and punter Tom Tupa. Benjamin spent the last two training camps with the Patriots, while Tupa enjoyed a successful two-year span in New England from 1996-97 and was the team's punter and reserve quarterback in the '96 Super Bowl season.
One other noticeable Bucs connection is defensive end Greg Spires. The 6-1, 265-pounder in his first season in Tampa spent the first three-years in the NFL with the Patriots after the team selected him in the third round of the 1998 draft. Spires had three tackles and a sack in the Bucs win over the 49ers last weekend in Tampa.
So while there will be no current Patriots on the field this weekend participating in Championship weekend, fans can reminisce a bit when they see some familiar faces in Sunday's action.
Draft for kicks
And for you futbol fans out there...
The Patriots co-tenants at Gillette Stadium, the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer, have the ninth pick in today's MLS SuperDraft, which takes place in Kansas City beginning at 3:30 PM. The Revs will be looking to add some depth to the team that reached the MLS championship game in October. The six-round draft features some of the top college players in the country, as well as several standout high school phenoms who have signed on with the league. In all, the Revs have six picks in the draft. Last year, with the second selection overall, they chose Taylor Twellman, who finished his first season as the league's leading scorer.
To follow today's MLS SuperDraft, log on to www.revolutionsoccer.net