Just call Woodland Hills 'NFL High'
INDIANAPOLIS -- The odds of one high school sending multiple players to the same Super Bowl are ... well, not even as daunting as having eight NFL players that same season.
George Novak's Woodland Hills program stands alone in both regards: Two graduates, tight end Rob Gronkowski and fullback Lousaka Polite, could play for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday night. And, more impressive, the eight Wolverines who saw action this season represented the most of any of high school in the United States for the second consecutive year.
The other six: Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor (who retired after the season), San Francisco 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Darrin Walls, Indianapolis Colts cornerback Terrence Johnson and Kansas City Chiefs receiver Steve Breaston. Yet another, defensive end Monte Simmons, was on the 49ers' practice squad.
"There's just so many of us," Polite said. "It seems like we're all over the league, kind of like a brotherhood. I just got a text from Ryan Mundy wishing me luck."
There almost were four Woodland Hills players here.
Had the New York Giants not beaten San Francisco in the NFC championship game, the 49ers could have sent Spencer and Simmons, plus defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, a West Homestead native who played for Novak at Steel Valley and coached with him at Woodland Hills.
"We were hoping for that, to be honest with you," Novak said of the 49ers advancing. "You're at the pinnacle of your career there, what everybody shoots for."
On the other hand, as Novak pointed out, Sunday will be much simpler than in Super Bowl XLIII, Woodland Hills' first with representation. That one saw Mundy's Steelers beat Breaston and the Arizona Cardinals, though Mundy was inactive.
"Now you can root for one team," Novak said. "It's hard when they're on different teams."
Gronkowski and Polite would join Breaston as Woodland Hills graduates to play in the Super Bowl.
Both spoke effusively of Novak, the Wolverines' only coach since the school was created by a merger in 1987. He has sent 10 players to the NFL and more than 90 to Division I colleges.
"I'm just honored to have played for the man," Gronkowski said. "He's a great coach and a great guy, and it shows right here. Most schools are thrilled to just have one player in the Super Bowl. Here we have two, and there are so many others around the league. I'm proud of that, and I'm even more proud that me and Lousaka are here on the same team."
Gronkowski, 22, had a breakout season with New England, catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns -- the latter two NFL records for a tight end -- and often using his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame to carry defenders down the field.
Heavy attention has been on Gronkowski this week, mostly because of a high-ankle sprain that threatens to limit him even if he plays. His only practice this week came Thursday. That went fine, according to coach Bill Belichick, but the team engaged only in walk-throughs Friday. Gronkowski, in Belichick's words, "did nothing," while adding there also was no setback with the ankle.
"For me, this is a dream come true being here," Gronkowski said. "I'm doing absolutely everything I can to be out there."
Gronkowski's local connection is limited, as he was born in Buffalo and transferred to Woodland Hills for his senior year. He had only eight catches for the Wolverines, though Novak has called Gronkowski "one of the best players to ever play at Woodland Hills, in the WPIAL and in the state of Pennsylvania." Gronkowski went on to the University of Arizona.
"Rob is a great kid," Novak said. "You always knew he'd be an outstanding player wherever he went, and he's done it so quickly, already one of the best tight ends in the league, breaking records and enjoying life."
Polite, 30, has taken a different path coming out of Woodland Hills and then Pitt. He gained the reputation of a relentless worker in three seasons each with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami, but the Dolphins surprisingly released him last summer. It wasn't until December that Belichick called and signed Polite for depth.
He has appeared in two games, including the playoff victory against Denver, mostly on special teams. It's not known if he will suit up Sunday, but he hardly seemed put off by having to wait.
"After everything that's happened, I can't say enough about having this opportunity," Polite said. "A chance to win a championship."
He, too, credited Novak.
"First and foremost, Coach Novak is a good person," Polite said. "That's where it starts. From there, it's just a culture, man. I go back there and visit and help out whenever I can. We all do. We want to help players there become team leaders, to make it where we've been."
"That was the best thing for me, when the Patriots picked up Lousaka," Novak said. "It's tough when you go so long, never know what team you're going to be with. I'm so excited for him and his family."
Other local ties in the Super Bowl: Fullback Henry Hynoski of Pitt, and defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy and offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie of Penn State will play for the Giants. Tight end Dorin Dickerson of West Allegheny and Pitt is on the Patriots' practice squad.
Staff writer Kevin Gorman contributed to this report.
George Novak's Woodland Hills program had eight players in the NFL this season:
Player, position Team
Rob Gronkowski, TE Patriots
Lousaka Polite, FB Patriots
Ryan Mundy, S Steelers
Jason Taylor, LB Dolphins
Steve Breaston, WR Chiefs
Shawntae Spencer, CB 49ers
Darrin Walls, CB Falcons
Terrence Johnson, CB Colts