Azeez Al-Shaair, Matt Breida and Byron Pringle, the three locals playing in Super Bowl 54, were not among the prominent players peppered with questions from reporters during Monday’s media day. That did not come as a shock to this trio.
After stellar high school careers — Al-Shaair at Hillsborough High, Breida at Nature Coast and Pringle at Robinson — they were underestimated and overlooked, disregarded by most major colleges and all but forgotten in website rankings for top prospects during the recruiting process.
So they proved themselves. Al-Shaair became a hard-hitting linebacker at Florida Atlantic. Breida shined as a sturdy running back at Georgia Southern. Pringle developed into a versatile offensive weapon at Kansas State.
Yet when the NFL draft came around, it was more of the same. All three were ignored.
They battled through training camps and survived cuts to land on rosters as undrafted free agents. Al-Shaair and Breida made it with the San Francisco 49ers. Pringle stuck with the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, they are soaking up the spectacle that is the Super Bowl.
“It’s an incredible story, not just what Azeez was able to do, but all three from the area who are playing in the game,” Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said.
Growing up, Al-Shaair and his seven siblings lived with their grandmother. In 2012 they were displaced when a fire destroyed their home. They all moved to a nearby motel. Al-Shaair took a city bus to Hillsborough High. Because of his living situation, sports were not always his primary focus.
As a junior, he decided to give football a try. Al-Shaair excelled, so much that he started receiving interest from colleges. His progression continued with the Owls and he became the school’s all-time leading tackler with 397.
But Al-Shaair’s draft stock plummeted after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during his senior season at FAU. Becoming an undrafted free agent was something he used as motivation to make the 49ers.
“Azeez was always focused, always determined,” Garcia said. “That’s why he was able to overcome so many obstacles.”
Breida had the same grit. As a freshman in high school, he hurt his arm in a junior varsity game. The doctors initially did not think there was any damage, so Breida kept playing. Turns out, he had a broken arm.
Soon after, Breida was the one delivering pain to opposing defenders. He racked up plenty of rushing yards with the Sharks. Trouble was, college and pro scouts were always concerned with other numbers, such as his lack of height or weight.
“As a freshman, you would have never thought he would be an NFL player,” said Nature Coast assistant Charles Liggett, who was the head coach when Breida was at the school. “He was somewhat scrawny. But he kept working and working to get bigger and better.”
At Georgia Southern, Breida finished sixth all time on the school’s career rushing list. Still, it was not enough. He was bypassed in the 2017 NFL draft.
With the 49ers, Breida has made the most of his opportunities. He has averaged 5.0 yards per carry during his first three seasons, ranking among the top 10 in the NFL in that category during that span.
“Matt’s battled through all kinds of injuries and adversity to get to where he is and yet he still remains as humble as anyone out there,” Liggett said.
Pringle had to take a long — and unconventional route — to the pros. He missed his junior season at Robinson after serving probation for felony charges stemming from his involvement in a crime spree in the summer of 2010. Pringle did his community service and became a model student, first at Tampa’s Brewster Technical Center, then back at Robinson for his senior season.
“We fought like crazy to get him back at Robinson, and he sure made the most of his opportunity,” said former Knights coach Mike DePue, now retired.
Still, Pringle had to go to a junior college before playing at Kansas State, where finished first in the Big 12 conference in yards per reception as a senior in 2017. After making the Chiefs in 2018, he became a regular contributor on offense and on kick returns this season.
On Sunday, he will start on special teams in the Super Bowl.
“How cool is that?” DePue said. “How cool is it for all the kids from the area who battled and made it there?”