In the biggest game of the NFL season, between two teams from the west, played out on the East Coast in the middle of a polar vortex, one would not think there would be much for Wisconsin fans to be intrigued by. That is, unless there's four former Badgers looking to win their first NFL championship at Super Bowl XLVIII. One of those former standouts, Seattle Seahawks safety Chris Maragos, looks to take the Lombardi Trophy home to Seattle with fellow former Badgers Russell Wilson and O'Brien Schofield.
After a 13-3 regular season, a win against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round and a hard-hitting, back-and-forth NFC Championship game against their fierce rivals in the San Francisco 49ers, the Seahawks head to New York. There they'll take on Peyton Manning, a familiar face in Montee Ball and the Denver Broncos. Following the late-game heroics of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in tipping a Colin Kaepernick pass into the hands of linebacker Malcolm Smith for the game and conference-clinching interception, the preparation and dedication that got him to this point does not escape Maragos.
"After the end of the game when we won it and realized we were going to the Super Bowl, it was just cool," Maragos said via phone Friday evening. "You think about all the hard work we've put in already, and for it to come to fruition was absolutely great."
Maragos now prepares to play in the biggest game of his career. It's been a long road from his playing days at Racine Horlick High School, just south of Milwaukee. He landed at Western Michigan as a walk-on and went on to start eight games as a wide receiver his redshirt sophomore year, but his relationship with the coaching staff soured after a once-promising scholarship opportunity never came to fruiting.
Through his brother, Troy, who donned the Bucky Badger mascot apparel and knew former UW wide receiver and current graduate assistant Luke Swan, Maragos was put in touch with the Wisconsin coaching staff and transferred. After a position switch to the defensive backfield, he worked his way into the starting safety position for six games in 2008 and all 13 in 2009, earning a scholarship along team captain duties his senior year.
"Just to be in this moment preparing -- the discipline, the workouts, all the different things that get instilled in you at a program like Wisconsin helped carry forward to this time now and it really helped prepare you," Maragos said.
With the switch to safety later in his college career, many NFL teams overlooked him. He went undrafted, but was signed by the 49ers in April 2010. He jumped between the practice squad and the active roster during the 2010 season, but then signed with the Seahawks in 2011.
He's been with the team ever since, and is now one game away from being a Super Bowl champion. To look back on his football journey from being Wisconsin's Gatorade Player of the Year in high school to this point in his career is tough, especially as he and his teammates prepare for the game at hand.
"I think the biggest thing is it's really hard to kind of reflect right now just because you're so focused," Maragos said. "It's weird because when you get to be playing at this level, it just begins to be so normal for you."
According to Maragos, the practice schedule has not changed much this week before the Seahawks fly out to New York on Sunday, and the team has kept focused on practicing and studying film.
There have been some possible distractions, most notably the interview Sherman gave immediately after the NFC Championship game with Fox Sports' Erin Andrews, which ignited social media and national sports talk discussions in the midst of the Seahawks returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2005 season. Maragos said it hasn't been a distraction, though.
"There's really been no change for our team," he said. "It really hasn't gotten us out of focus. To us, it's pretty small in terms of what we got going on."
He described Sherman as a "pretty smart individual," one that picks apart opposing offenses' faster in film study than Maragos himself can. On a personal level, he notes Sherman's a loyal friend and a great guy.
"He's a great teammate," Maragos said. "He's good to people around him -- the chefs, the cooks, the equipment guys, everybody. He's just a really good dude."
The Seahawks' defense, leading the league in total defense and scoring defense -- 273.6 yards per game and 14.4 points per game, respectively -- will need that film study to take on a Broncos offense that is ranked first in total offense (457.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (37.9 points per game), in what has been billed as the league's best offense taking on the league's best defense.
"[Manning's] got great playmakers around him, and we're going to have be on all our Ps & Qs making sure we're doing everything we need to do to really disrupt him and put our offense in a good position."
It's been a fun ride for Maragos and his family, who have supported him on the football field since he first started playing. Yet per a tweet from earlier in January, they are still admittedly fans of the in-state Green and Gold:
Chris Maragos (@ChrisMaragos) January 6, 2014
"I started playing tackle football in the second grade, and my aunts and uncles were coming to my games when I was playing PeeWee/Pop Warner football, and my knee pads were sagging down to my ankles," Maragos said.
"Just for them to be able to enjoy and see how everything's kind of come to fruition, and just being here, having an opportunity for a world championship, is pretty cool."
In a little over a week, the former high school player of the year, Wisconsin walk-on, Badgers captain and current NFL defensive back will have the chance to add one more achievement: NFL champion.
"It's been a fun ride to be able to go and do this and to play at the highest level. To have an opportunity like this is absolutely phenomenal, and we're really excited about it."
Make sure you check out the full interview on Monday's Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza!
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