One week ago Friday safety Sharrod Neasman walked onto the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field wearing black sweatpants and football gloves.
His teammates wore red shirts. Neasman’s No. 20 wasn’t that color.
The Falcons present black jerseys like the one Neasman wore to players who’ve produced an exceptional week of practice. It’s an award, a trophy of sorts, that carries as much meaning for the player wearing it as it does for his teammates.
It means, “You had a week of practice where you prepared well, prepared your teammates well,” Neasman said.
Only five days prior, Neasman earned the right to wear a different shirt, yet also meaningful shirt – a gray one with black and red lettering proclaiming his Falcons the NFC Champions.
“It was an incredible, incredible feeling,” Neasman said. “After the game there’s confetti and everyone is just excited. You just see everything you work for, how hard you prepared all week – to get rewarded for this, it’s a great feeling.”
On Sunday Neasman will become the first former FAU football player ever to play in the Super Bowl.
The game will be played in Houston, half a continent and a million dream miles away from where Neasman was one year ago.
He recalls sitting in his apartment with former teammates Quez Johnson, Brandin Bryant and others watching Denver defeat Carolina.
“At the end of the game, we were just talking about what it must feel like to win a game like that,” Neasman recalls. “It’s the ultimate achievement, unmatched by any bowl game you can play in college – anything that you can do as far as sports go.”
Neasman never did play in a bowl game at FAU. In fact, he almost didn’t playfootball in Boca Raton at all.
To make the team, he needed to survive the walk-on tryout process, becoming one of five players FAU coaches elected to keep from the more than 50 who wanted to wear an Owls jersey.
A wide receiver in high school, Neasman saw a crowded field of FAU wideouts and agreed with coaches that he should convert to defensive back.
By the time he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 2016, Neasman elevated himself to the quarterback of the Owls’ secondary and an NFL prospect.
Despite recording 74 tackles and intercepting three passes as a senior, Neasman didn’t get selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, eventually signing as a free agent with the Falcons. He spent the first six weeks of the season on the practice squad, a spot that allowed Neasman to learn a scheme completely different from the ones he played in college – the Cover 3.
“I realized there were things I needed development on,” Neasman said. “Being on the practice squad was all a learning process and a great opportunity to be a part of everything.”
He set about learning more than his responsibilities on each play. He wanted to understand why those responsibilities were his and the assignments of his teammates on each play.
“Once you know where you are vulnerable at [as a defense], it kind of helps you to see things, to foreshadow things that are going to happen – how offenses are going to attack you,” Neasman said.
By Week 7 the Falcons decided that Neasman had a strong enough grasp of the defense to promote him to the 53-man roster. He’s been there ever since.
For much of the remainder of the season Neasman played special teams. In the Falcons’ Week 15 game against San Francisco he began seeing time as a back-up safety.
In the NFC Championship victory Neasman figures he played about a half-dozen snaps at safety – most in the red zone.
“I jut went out there and did my part and it paid off,” Neasman said.
For the past two weeks Neasman and the Falcons focused on stopping New England on Sunday.
First and foremost the Falcons must slow down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who Neasman unsurprisingly calls “a great player.” Neasman is, of course, right. Brady is headed to his seventh Super Bowl. Neasman has only been a defensive back for five years.
Big on “process” – perhaps that’s the engineering degree talking – Neasman says he and his teammates aren’t focusing exclusively on Brady.
“What we do here is, do the same thing we do every week,” Neasman said. “We’ll prepare the same way. We’ll go through everything the same way we go through it.”
Sticking to such a process, and keeping faith is his own ability even when others doubted him, is what will allow Neasman to walk into football’s biggest theater with the chance to make an impact.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity, probably the biggest opportunity I’ve ever been presented in my life and it came so early in my NFL career,” Neasman said. “I’m blessed. It’s a blessing, man.”