Pals rooting for local hero, up to a point

Zak DeOssie's had a wild ride. Zak DeOssie's had a wild ride. (BILL KOSTROUN/AP)
Email|Print| Text size + By Maureen Mullen
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2008

He grew up in North Andover and played football for Phillips Andover Academy. He was a ball boy for the New England Patriots, the team his father once played for. He's a good friend of the daughter of the Patriots' head coach.

But he won't be rooting for the Patriots this evening.

In fact, Zak DeOssie will be doing his best to prevent the Patriots from capturing their fourth Super Bowl championship.

"It's going to be surreal," said DeOssie, the New York Giants' fourth-round draft pick in 2007 and now a linebacker and special-teams player. "Every time we play the Pats, and we've played them twice thus far [preseason and regular season] and it's great seeing Coach [Bill] Belichick and Lonie Paxton, and a slew of other guys, Tom Brady, [Mike] Vrabel. All those guys were there when I was the ball boy. And the irony is incredible. I'm ecstatic we're playing them. It's going to be a lot of fun for my family and myself."

DeOssie's team enters Super Bowl XLII as a significant underdog, just as DeOssie, despite his 6-foot-4-inch, 249-pound frame, enters as the underdog in the loyalty of friends back home.

"They won't stop. They will not stop," he said with a laugh. "They tell me, 'You will not win.' [But] it's nice to be the underdog. It gives you a little chip on your shoulder.

"But I know all my friends and family back home, they might be rooting for the Patriots, but they're definitely rooting for No. 51 on the Giants."

He's right.

"Oh, a lot of people have been asking me this question," said Adjatay Nyadjroh, DeOssie's friend and teammate for four years at Philips and another four years at Brown University. "I'll definitely be rooting for the Patriots. I'm a hometown boy. I'm from Somerville, Mass. . . . I hope he makes a bunch of tackles on special teams, but I hope Tom Brady also throws about six touchdown passes."

DeOssie and Belichick both are alumni of Phillips Andover, making it somewhat easier for football coach Leon Modeste.

"I look at it this way: We're the only high school in the nation that knows for a fact one of their graduates is going to have a Super Bowl ring, so we're all right with that," said Modeste, who grew up a Giants fan in New York but changed allegiances since moving to New England 21 years ago - and, yes, he will be rooting for the Patriots.

DeOssie has "probably heard a lot of grief," Modeste said, "but either way, he's just been such a model for us, the true student-athlete going off to an Ivy League school. He could have gone other places, but to go to an Ivy League school, do well, graduate from there, and then go to the Giants, is just great."

DeOssie will have about 15 family members at the game today in Arizona, including his father, Steve, a former linebacker who, in addition to the Pats, played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Giants when they won Super Bowl XXV. Zak and Steve are among six pairs of fathers and sons to make it to the Super Bowl, and the only tandem to do so with the same team.

"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done that has to do with football," Steve DeOssie said of watching his son's rookie NFL season culminate with the Super Bowl. "I've never felt this kind of excitement about anything. And having won a Super Bowl and played in the league for 12 years, it's not even close to this. Just to see him have the opportunity to do something like this has been just fantastic and wonderful, and his whole family is just ridiculously proud of him.

"I never once got nervous about anything I ever did on a football field," said Steve, now a WEEI radio personality, "but watching my son play just makes me nervous. No real reason. He's a very good player and does his job well. But I just get anxious and nervous. It's gotten worse as he's gotten older. I was nervous in high school, more nervous in college, and now I'm a wreck."

The path to an NFL career usually does not include stops at schools known more for their rigorous academic expectations than for athletics. But DeOssie, who scored 1200 out of a possible 1600 on his SATs, was the only Ivy Leaguer invited to the NFL's scouting combine last year and the first ever from Brown. He was the Giants' first Ivy League draft pick since Penn tackle Jeff Hatch in 2002.

At Brown, DeOssie notched 315 tackles and was a two-time All-American. In his rookie NFL season, he had six tackles in 16 regular-season games, and five in three postseason games, playing on special teams and serving as the long snapper on punts. His early NFL success has not surprised Phil Estes, his head coach at Brown.

"The confidence that he exudes when he takes the field, he just goes out there. He was always that way for us," said Estes, who has talked with DeOssie every weekend through the playoffs. "He was just one of those outstanding players for us that did everything from snapping for field goal and extra points, long snap on punts. He was an All-American linebacker for us that just changed the game every time he stepped on the field. I know offenses had to look at it and say, 'How are we going to stop Zak DeOssie?'

"There was a situation in Green Bay [in the NFC championship game two weeks ago]. It was minus 24 wind chill, and the [Giants'] punter's standing in their end zone and has to punt it out. There's got to be some nerves there and being that cold, and [DeOssie] being able to get the ball back there on a dime for him to kick it and get it out there, I think is just incredible."

DeOssie admits the past year has all been a bit of a whirlwind.

"It's been a crazy, crazy year," he said. "An absolute roller coaster, from the East-West Shrine Game to the combine to the draft to training camp and the longest season I've ever experienced in my life to the Super Bowl.

"It was hard at first, but now I've settled in and I'm having an absolute great time, and this is where I belong. I'm very fortunate to be where I am."

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