By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sunday night will find Wisconsin native Tony Bennett rooting, naturally, for his hometown Green Bay Packers.
Many of Bennett’s counterparts in the UVa athletics department, however, are likely to be pulling for the other team in Super Bowl XLV: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bennett’s assistants include Jason Williford, a lifelong Steelers fan. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin went to Denbigh High School in Newport News with Mike London’s wife, Regina. Tomlin later played wide receiver at William and Mary, where for most of his career the Tribe’s defensive line coach was London.
“I know him well,” London said the other day.
There’s also, of course, the fact that the Steelers’ standouts include two former UVa greats: linebacker James Farrior and tight end Heath Miller.
Farrior, a Matoaca High School graduate, lettered for George Welsh at UVa in 1993, ’94, ’95 and ’96.
Miller, who graduated from tiny Honaker High in Southwest Virginia, played for Al Groh at UVa. Miller lettered in 2002, ’03 and ’04 before turning pro after his redshirt junior season.
Farrior, known to friends, family, coaches and teammates as “Potsie,” and Miller also were on the Pittsburgh teams that won Super Bowls XL and XLIII. If the Steelers prevail Sunday night, Farrior and Miller will become the first players from UVa or Virginia Tech to win three Super Bowls.
Anthony Poindexter, who coaches the Cavaliers’ safeties and coordinates their special teams, can speak with authority about two players.
Poindexter played against Farrior in high school — Jefferson Forest beat Matoaca for the state Group AA, Division 3 title in 1992 — and with him at UVa. Poindexter was on Groh’s staff for Miller’s final two seasons at Virginia.
“Both of them are very similar in personality, how they went about their business,” Poindexter said. “Potsie’s not a big talker, and Heath obviously doesn’t say boo. But both of them were really hard workers, both loved playing football. Both were tough, and both were winners, man.
“We won a lot of games here with Heath when I was coaching, and we won a lot of games when I was playing here with Potsie. I’m happy for both of them, and the best thing about both of those guys is they’re both very humble and very good representatives of what the University stands for.”
This is Farrior’s 14th season in the NFL, an incredible run in any sport, but especially pro football.
“That’s a credit to Potsie,” Poindexter said. “Nobody going to outwork him or out train him. He’s done a good job over the years of taking care of his body and really doing the stuff in the offseason to help himself stay healthy during the season.
“He did the same things here. Potsie was never hurt here. Knock on wood, he’s been blessed and fortunate, and he’ll tell you that he just hasn’t been hampered by injuries.
“I’m watching him [Jan. 23 in the AFC championship game], and I’m just like, ‘This guy’s still got it, man.’ ”
Chris Long was a freshman at UVa when Miller was in his final season there. Now a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams, Long said Farrior and Miller are “very well-respected” by their peers in the NFL.
“I believe Heath has quietly been a huge part of that offense,” Long said. “He’s a heck of a weapon in the red zone. He’s a great receiving target for them. He truly is a receiving target that can block, and that is pretty rare up here. Most of the times you get a guy who can really run and catch the football, but he’s not interested in blocking or he’s just not strong enough.
“Heath is a big part of their run game. He gets after people. He’s physical, and he’s got soft hands and runs his routes well and catches the football. I think he’s been a big part of their success.
“And James Farrior, you love him. He gets after people. He’s mean, and he’s known to just be a relentless linebacker. He’s kind of one of those signature guys on the Steelers’ defense that they have built that defense around, and he embodies what they represent. He doesn’t get a lot of the media credit or hype, but he helps make that thing go around, and I gotta believe he’s one of the leaders in that locker room.”
Miller leads the Steelers in receiving this postseason, with 7 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. Farrior is the team’s third-leading tackler, totaling 13 stops in Pittsburgh’s playoff wins over the Ravens and the Jets.
Long, a graduate of St. Anne’s-Belfield, recalls speaking with Farrior in August 2008, before UVa’s game against Southern California at Scott Stadium.
“Certainly he’s a guy you have a lot of respect for, so it was a good chance to get to talk with him for a little bit for the first time extensively,” Long said. “When guys get in the league, we try to get back as much as we can — we all love the University — but it can be a little bit restrictive. It’s easy for me, because it’s my hometown.”
Long said he doesn’t talk to Miller as much as he would like to.
“I’m just starting to kind of link back up with some of the older guys,” Long said. “It can be tough to do. I already know we play the Steelers next year. That should be fun. I certainly have a lot of respect for Heath, and I’m going to have to be on my toes for that game, as you are every week. But to have a guy in front of you for that many plays, who plays as hard as he does and blocks as well as he does, it’s going to be a good challenge.”
Come Sunday night, Long said, he’ll be rooting for his fellow ‘Hoos. “But I really don’t have a favorite team in the game that I like more than the other,” he said. “I respect the heck out of both teams. I think probably the best two teams are in [the Super Bowl]. It’s no fluke.
“Pittsburgh plays tough football, and that’s what they’re known for. But the thing about Green Bay is, people overlook their defense. Their defense is tough and physical, too, and statistically pretty dominant. So this is going to be really interesting. I have no idea who’s going to win. I really don’t.”