There were thousands of media members packed into the Prudential Center in Newark five days before Super Bowl XLVIII would kick off at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
And a sportswriter asked Denver Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers if he was disappointed that this year’s Super Bowl wasn’t being played in a warm weather location.
“Are you kidding?” Ayers said. “Just playing in the Super Bowl is one thing. But playing in the Super Bowl where I was born and raised? It’s unbelievable. It’s really emotional for me to do this. I have family who still live here. I could never imagine I’d have a chance like this. Growing up in New Jersey, could I ever have dreamed playing in the Super Bowl? I couldn’t see it as a possibility. I wouldn’t want this game to take place anyplace else.”
Ayers was taking part in the Media Day festivities at “The Rock,” along with his Broncos teammates and the Seattle Seahawks, the Broncos’ opponent in Sunday’s Big Game.
Other than Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, the starting quarterbacks for the two teams, and Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman, who gained a lot of notoriety for his post-game rant after Seattle beat San Francisco in the NFC Championship game two weeks ago, Ayers was the most popular player in attendance, mainly because of his local roots.
Ayers was born in Jersey City and lived in the Greenville section of the city as a youngster. He then had the chance to attend Hoboken High School as part of Hoboken’s “School Choice” program, but only remained in the Mile Square City for one year (1999).
While Ayers then spent the rest of his high school days in South Carolina, then attended the University of Tennessee before heading to the NFL, he still remembers his days in Jersey City and playing football in Hoboken very fondly.
“In 1999, I went to Hoboken High and they had a lot of great football players,” Ayers said. “They had All-Americans like Tyrell Dortch and Carlos Perez. To this day, they were two of the best high school football players I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of good players. They treated me like I was their little brother and took me under their wing. I was new to the school, new to the area, but they looked out for me.”
Ayers also recalled the impact that legendary coach Ed Stinson had on him.
“Coach Stinson instilled the passion and the tenacity I needed to play the game,” Ayers said. “I didn’t think I had that in me. He brought it out of me. It was really the first time I played organized sports, so it was important for me. I carried that passion for the rest of my career that they taught me in Hoboken.”
Stinson, now the head coach at St. Anthony, was asked if he could remember Ayers as a player.
“As far as you could tell, he was talented,” Stinson said. “We only had the kid for one year and I wish I had him longer. He was definitely a good player. He was tall and lanky, a quiet kid, but I remember him for sure. He had great instincts and he was quick.”
Current Hoboken head coach Lou Taglieri as the Red Wings’ defensive line coach at that time.
“I knew he was going to be a good football player,” Taglieri said. “He was very aggressive and very attentive. He paid attention to everything. He really liked playing.”
Ayers recalled one practice session with the Red Wings prior to the Red Wings playing for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III state championship in Giants Stadium. Ayers was asked to dress with the varsity after a successful freshman campaign.
“I think it was intended for these guys to run me over,” Ayers said. “But when Dortch and Perez ran at me, I knocked them both over. I think the coaches thought at that time that I had a bright future. They pulled me aside and told me to stay focused and dedicated. These were guys who were All-State and All-American and that gave me confidence I kept throughout my entire career.”
Taglieri remembered the day.
“Ayers grabbed the bag and Dortch and Perez ran after him,” Taglieri said. “He took them both out. The look on their faces was amazing. ‘You’re not supposed to be doing that to me.’ That kind of look. But to Dortch and Perez’s credit, they got right back up and got after him.”
Joe Rotondi was an assistant coach with the Red Wings before moving on to Union Hill, then Union City.
“I remember him being a good looking kid with a good future,” Rotondi said. “He definitely had potential. I wondered what happened to him, but I followed him through Tennessee and into pro football. I followed him all the way through. He had size, speed and strength, the full package. He definitely had a promising future.”
James Monaco became friendly with Ayers during his days in Hoboken.
“I got to know Rob through my involvement with the Hoboken HS football program during the 1999 season and maintained communication with him and his family after their move to South Carolina,” Monaco said. “I think everybody who knew Rob knew he had exceptional athletic ability and the potential to play major college football if he was able to overcome the minor issues. When I visited Rob and his family in South Carolina for the first time, I met a coach who had coached a player who made it to the NFL, and he said, “Robert Ayers, the sky’s the limit for that boy.”
Ayers said that his mother moved him to South Carolina after his freshman year at Hoboken in order to keep Ayers away from trouble.
“When I was growing up, it wasn’t always about football,” Ayers said. “My parents shuttled me to South Carolina. I wanted to be here. I wanted to stay here. They made the tough decision to send their oldest child to live with an aunt. It was the toughest thing they ever did. I hated that decision, but it turned out to be the best thing to happen to me, because I ended up getting a college degree and ended up being a first round draft pick in the NFL. I hated that decision then, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The 28-year-old Ayers, drafted by the Broncos in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, paid a visit to his old Jersey City stomping grounds and Sacred Heart School, where he once attended. He helped to hand out winter coats to needy people, along with some of his teammates, as well as former New York Mets superstar Mike Piazza.
“It was crazy for me to go back to Jersey City,” said Ayers, who stayed with the Broncos at the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City (the Seahawks stayed at the Westin in Jersey City). “It made me think of the places I spent running around as a little kid, getting into all types of trouble. I never imagined something quite like this.”
In that respect, it was a Super Bowl homecoming for that former kid from Greenville who played freshman football at Hoboken. In that respect, it would be hard to forget someone like Robert Ayers.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.