A pair of Facebook photos have been spreading across Hernando County since the 49ers beat the Packers last week to advance to Super Bowl 54.
On the right is San Francisco running back Matt Breida charging through a Chiefs tackler. On the left is an old peewee football encased in glass and peppered with names.
Some of the signatures have started to fade, but not the one scrawled by the scrawny speedster who carried the West Hernando Cougars to their own Super Bowl triumph a dozen years ago. His is still easy to read.
Matthew Breida #32.
From one Super Bowl to the other.
“What a story that is, huh?” former Cougars director Bob McFarland said.
The story of Breida’s first real Super Bowl appearance will be written Sunday at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. But the story of his first Super Bowl victory begins when he was a 6-year-old rookie in the Pasco Police Athletic League.
That’s when McFarland asked Breida the same question he asked everyone else: Did your dad make you come out for this?
“Some of them would say yeah,” McFarland said. “This one says, ‘No. I want to be an NFL running back.’ I was shocked.”
As McFarland got to know Breida, the answer started to make sense. Of the thousands of children who played in his Cougars’ five divisions, none, McFarland said, was as driven as Breida.
He carried a football to bed. He did extra push-ups after practice. He spent weekends at friends’ houses for pizza and film sessions.
Breida’s talent matched his grit. He was quick and elusive and more powerful than he looked, even though he shied away from contact.
“Then he came to find out he could pretty much outrun everybody,” said Gary Fields, who coached Breida in the Cougars’ mighty mites division. “If they can’t catch you, they can’t hit you.”
But Breida kept running into one team that could hit him: the New Tampa Wildcats.
He lost to them as an 11-year-old in the mighty mites’ 2006 Super Bowl, a defeat that still stings to some of his former coaches and teammates. New Tampa had better equipment and more money. The Cougars thought they were arrogant, maybe even dirty. The fact that New Tampa beat them 19-0 during the 2007 regular season made things worse.
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“That was our nemesis,” said Andrew Jensen, the Cougars’ fullback/safety/kicker.
They finally got a chance to avenge themselves with a Super Bowl rematch that November.
The Cougars treated the game as if it were the real Super Bowl. Two dozen 12-year-olds rolled into Dade City in a stretch limo. They blared Christian rap to pump themselves up and spread war paint under their eyes.
The game was intense — a defensive slug fest against a New Tampa juggernaut that might not have allowed a score all season.
“This team we went up against was like a machine,” said Brandon Paino, a Cougars tight end/defensive end. “These kids were tough to the bone.”
After New Tampa scored first, the Cougars stuffed the conversion to keep the deficit 6-0. Breida responded with some of the how-did-he-do-that plays you’d expect of a future NFL back before breaking off a 22-yard touchdown run to tie the score.
“The whole crowd started getting crazy,” Paino said.
It went even crazier moments later when Fields asked Jensen — a football newcomer who became an all-county soccer player at Weeki Wachee High — to kick the go-ahead two-point conversion. Jensen was nervous.
“The kids on that team were so big,” Jensen said. “It was inches away from being blocked.”
But it wasn’t. His kick split the uprights to give the Cougars the lead. Jensen remembers someone lifting him toward the sky when he returned to the sidelines.
Do you know what you just did? You just won the game!
The Cougars’ defense held in the closing minutes to clinch the 8-6 triumph. Breida was the offensive MVP.
“It really was like we won the Super Bowl,” Paino said.
Now, a dozen years later, one of their own has a chance to win the real one.
Looking back, the traits Breida needed to reach Sunday’s game were all obvious at West Hernando. The determination the Cougars saw in a prepubescent Breida drove him to climb from a two-star recruit at Nature Coast Tech to an undrafted free agent out of Georgia Southern to the No. 2 rusher for the NFC champions. The fastest player on Pasco’s fields became one of the fastest players in the NFL, complete with the same nickname he earned with the Cougars: Cheetah.
But even for Breida’s biggest supporters, the soaring ascent still feels surreal. From No. 32 with West Hernando to No. 22 with San Francisco. From one Super Bowl to the other.
“It’s just good to see some of the things that you did come to fruition, the seeds you planted,” McFarland said. “At the end of the day, this kid put in all the work, all the dedication, and he’s still going.
“That’s what’s cool about it. His story’s not done being told.”