MINNEAPOLIS - Millions of people will watch the biggest game in sports on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs meet for the Super Bowl, and University of Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck will be as dialed in as anybody.
Three former Gophers will be on the field at Raymond James Stadium, and at least one player is guaranteed to come out with a ring. That’s because Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tyler Johnson play for the Gophers, and Damien Wilson plays for the Chiefs.
"It’s a tremendous accomplishment for all of them. All Gopher fans should be really proud, Minnesota should be proud," Fleck said Wednesday. "The great thing about it is no matter what, Minnesota is going to win a Super Bowl. The Gophers are going to win the Super Bowl, somehow, some way. Cannot wait to watch that game."
All three have made significant impacts on their teams.
In 16 games this season, Winfield Jr. has 94 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery, six passes defended and four quarterback hits. Not bad for a rookie, and he’ll play in his first Super Bowl in his first season after his father, Antoine Sr., never got there in 14 seasons.
Wilson, in his second season with the Chiefs and sixth overall, has 73 tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one pass defended in 13 starts. He's already got a Super Bowl ring, having played for the Chiefs last season.
Johnson hasn’t put up huge numbers in his rookie season in Tampa, but he’s made big plays in big moments. In 14 games and three starts, he has 12 catches on 17 targets for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
His biggest play of the season came on a pass he didn’t catch. Tom Brady was looking for him on a 3rd-and-long late in regulation against the Packers, and he drew a pass interference penalty that let the Buccaneers run out the clock to win the NFC Championship.
With the game and season on the line, Brady went to the former Gophers’ star and pride of north Minneapolis.
"Doesn’t shock me at all, that’s who Tyler Johnson is. It says a lot about Tyler, but it says a lot about Tom Brady. A rookie receiver out there on a big third down going his way. That’s who Tyler is," Fleck said. "When you look at Tyler, all the things he did for this program, all the huge catches, all the special catches, all the big moment catches. It doesn’t surprise me."
Fleck’s only real Super Bowl problem? With former Gophers on both teams, he can’t pick a favorite.