The quintet of local players who’ll be suiting up for Sunday’s Super Bowl are a diverse lot.
They hail from five different high schools stretching from the South Side through the suburbs to the cornfields of DeKalb County.
But there is a thread that ties together the Chiefs’ Nick Allegretti, Scotty Miller and Ben Niemann, and the Buccaneers’ Cameron Brate and Pat O’Connor.
None came to the NFL with much hype. Brate, a tight end from Naperville Central, and Niemann, a linebacker from Sycamore, went undrafted. O’Connor, a defensive lineman from St. Rita, and Allegretti, an offensive lineman from Lincoln-Way East, were seventh-round picks, while Miller, a wide receiver from Barrington, went in in the sixth round.
St. Rita coach Todd Kuska has two former players in the game in O’Connor and Chiefs quarterback coach/passing game coordinator Mike Kafka, who bounced around the league for six seasons before going into coaching.
The fact that these six local guys made it to the top of the football world isn’t an accident, Kuska believes.
“There’s some true grit here,” Kuska said, nodding to the adverse weather and other obstacles local athletes encounter. “Chicago is a tough city to live in. These guys have all grown up (knowing) you’ve got to fight for your dreams.”
Here’s a look at each of the local reps:
Pat O’Connor, St. Rita
After being primarily a practice squad player earlier in his NFL career, O’Connor saw action in 16 games this season. It’s a testament to the work ethic of the firefighter’s son from the South Side, according to Kuska.
“Pat’s a football player,” Kuska said. “It’s what he loves. He’s got great energy. When he’s on that field, he’s going to give you everything he has. Hard worker in the weight room, hard worker on the practice field.”
Mike Kafka, St. Rita
Just 33, Kafka is one of the NFL’s rising stars on the coaching side. After his playing career ended, he spent 2016 as a grad assistant at Northwestern (where he played after St. Rita) before being reunited with Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
Reid was the Eagles’ coach when Philadelphia drafted Kafka. The latter was the Chiefs’ quality control coach in 2017 before being promoted to quarterback coach in 2018 and adding passing game coordinator duties this season.
And, Kuska noted, Kafka is not shy about coaching up Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, already one of the sport’s biggest stars.
After a game when Mahomes almost lost the football while scoring a touchdown, Kuska said, Kafka “shoved a football in his arms the next week at practice; he was all over him to carry it the right way.”
Cameron Brate, Naperville Central
Redhawks coach Mike Stine believes Brate’s staying power — he’s played 98 NFL games over seven seasons — is as much due to what he does off the field as on it.
“He has a great work ethic, he has a high football IQ,” Stine said. “I think he’s a great teammate. He understands what his role is on the team. He’s a great locker room guy.
“Those guys, if they can get on a team, they stay around a while.”
What else do coaches like about Brate?
“His hands are like glue,” Stine said. “He has the ability to catch the ball in his hands (as well as against his body). His seven years in the NFL, he’s had very few drops.”
Nick Allegretti, Lincoln-Way East
With injuries hitting the Chiefs’ offensive line hard this season, Allegretti’s opportunities for playing time have increased. And the second-year pro made sure he was ready.
“Tuesdays are the NFL’s day off,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “There’s been one player in that facility with the strength coach (every week). That’s Nick Allegretti.”
Zvonar has watched Allegretti’s confidence level rise as he logs more plays.
“What’s been fun to see this past season — now you can see he’s turned the corner from hoping he can compete. He knows he can.”
Ben Niemann, Sycamore
Like Allegretti, Niemann has grown accustomed to going deep into the playoffs, Three years into his NFL career, Niemann already has played in three AFC championship games and is prepping for his second Super Bowl.
“He’s gone from being that undrafted free agent to a veteran,” Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said. “You watch his play, he’s much more relaxed.”
Niemann made his mark as a rookie on special teams. “That kept him on the roster,” Ryan said.
He’s since worked his way into the starting lineup and, despite missing time with a hamstring injury this season, has 97 tackles over the past two years.
Scotty Miller, Barrington
Miller is one of two local Super Bowlers who also was a star in another sport in high school.
He won six state medals in track over three seasons, two on sprint relay teams and the other four in the 100- and 200-meter dashes (Allegretti was a state wrestling medalist at 285 pounds).
Miller and Brate also are two of 11 Buccaneers who have caught touchdown passes from Tom Brady, whose trademark ability to involve all his receivers has been such a big part in the team’s success.