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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The New Orleans Saints’ roster includes safety Darren Sharper, a William and Mary alumnus whose brother, Jamie, starred at linebacker for UVa.

Virginia’s football team has a stronger link to the Saints’ opponent in Super Bowl XLIV. Second-year tight end Tom Santi is a former UVa standout who has 8 catches for 107 yards for the Indianapolis Colts this season.

The Colts leave Monday for South Florida, and Santi will be on the trip. But it would be inaccurate to say he’s thrilled about his role ahead of the Feb. 7 Super Bowl.

“I’ll do all the stuff with the team except pretty much the important stuff,” Santi said by phone the other day, “which is practicing and playing.”

Santi caught 6 passes for 80 yards Nov. 22 against the Ravens — both career highs — but overall this has been a trying season for him.

He missed the first six weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Then, after appearing in three games, he fell awkwardly in practice and suffered a back injury that ended his season. The Colts placed Santi on injured reserve Jan. 2, which means he’s not eligible to play in the Super Bowl.

“I definitely have mixed emotions,” he said. “Obviously, the overriding thing that I feel is the desire to play. It was tough in that regard to just have to watch, especially this time of year. But then again, you’ve got to be real with yourself and realize this is still a really cool opportunity to be a part of a team that’s making a Super Bowl run.”

His rookie season ended prematurely too. Santi, whom the Colts selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, started two games for them that fall. In all, he apeared in six games, catching 10 passes for 64 yards, before a season-ending shoulder injury sidelined him in November 2008.

At UVa, where he started 25 games for Al Groh, Santi dealt with various injuries, including a high-ankle sprain, but nothing serious enough to keep him out for long.

“This was a turbulent year for me,” Santi said. “I had a lot of injuries, a lot of things that I had to play through. So I’ve been really limited by the frequency of injuries. I’m hoping I’m getting all that stuff out of the way, because when I have been healthy, I’ve been able to contribute.”

The high-ankle sprain he suffered last summer bothered him throughout the season.

“There comes a point when obviously it feels good enough that you can deal with it, but it seems like those thing never heal,” Santi said.

“I truly believe when you start a season with an injury, it trickles down. Your body’s got to compensate in different ways for injured parts. I definitely put a lot of stress on my body. Who knows if that’s all due to starting with [an injury] or not? I’m just hopeful that I’m getting them all out of the way.”

Santi expects to stay with the Colts, so he may yet have a chance to play in a Super Bowl.

“We’ve got a great team,” he said. “I think we’ll have future opportunities.”

At UVa, Santi majored in sociology, but not because he planned a career in that field. He simply enjoyed the courses.

“But at the same time I kind of had a couple of, I guess, mentors that I would discuss economic stuff with,” he said. “I always keep up with that stuff. I’ve got the subscription to the Wall Street Journal and all that.”

When his football career ends, Santi said, he might pursue an MBA, and he wouldn’t be the first NFL player from UVa to do so. (See Darden graduate Patrick Jeffers.)

In his more immediate future is a four-day program in February — after the Super Bowl, of course — at the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Wharton School of Business. It’s part of the NFL Business Management & Entrepreneurial Program.

“I think it’s going to be a great experience,” said Santi, whose sister, Annie, did pre-med work at Penn.

Al Groh’s tenure as UVa’s coach didn’t end well, but he regularly sent players to the NFL. Among the current pros with whom Santi played at Virginia are D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Brad Butler, Jason Snelling, Chris Long, Eugene Monroe, Clint Sintim and John Phillips.

“I talk to Chris the most,” Santi said. “I saw Gene a few times this year, because we’re in the same division, but I keep up with everybody. I watch everybody’s stats, especially when a teammate’s playing in a game that’s on TV when I can watch. That’s always fun, to see other guys that you played with doing well. I saw John Phillips catch his touchdown pass [for Dallas] in a playoff game.”

From Indy, Santi followed Virginia’s 2009 season with interest. The Cavaliers finished 3-9 — their third losing record in four seasons — after which Groh was dismissed and Mike London hired.

“First and foremost, I know there was a lot of controversy surrounding Al Groh,” Santi said, “but I’ll always admire and appreciate him for his dedication and what he did for us as players.

“That said, I’m really excited about Coach London. I think he’s a great change-up for our program. I think he’s got the energy and the people skills and, clearly, the football skills that I think we need to move forward with the program.”

Inconsistent play at quarterback has been a common thread in UVa’s losing seasons. Santi goes to work every day with Peyton Manning, so nobody has to sell him on the importance of superior play at that position.

“It allows you to do so many more things,” Santi said. “It’s vital. You’ve got to have somebody special at that position if you expect to do special things.”

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