For a nation deeply divided, the New England Patriots offer a valuable example of unity over long-standing and seemly irreconcilable enmity.
Shaq Mason is a Georgia Tech man, now dedicating his bulk to the Patriots offensive line. He lines up next to David Andrews, who grew up pretty much believing that Georgia was the only university in America that offered football. In 2015, Andrews even proposed to his girlfriend inside an empty Sanford Stadium, taking a knee on the Georgia “G.”
“I can’t say I ever pictured myself having so much love for a Bulldog. But that’s my guy,” Mason said of Andrews.
The feeling is very much mutual. “Shaq’s my guy even though he went to Tech,” Andrews said. “At the end of the day, we were 3-1 against them (2011-14). He always reminds me he won his senior year, that’s really what matters to him.”
Mason and Andrews occupy a spot on the field considered vital to the outcome of this Super Bowl. Teams that do well against the Pats are those that can bring pressure up the middle and make Tom Brady dance. The Falcons no doubt are aware of this.
Both of these interior linemen came into the league together in 2015, neither fitted for much immediate expectation. Andrews was undrafted and Mason was a fourth-round pick who in theory would require time to unlearn the blocking style suited to Tech’s option offense.
But as injuries pecked away at the Pats line, the rookies were thrown into the breach. Andrews ended up starting 11 games his first season in the exalted position of laying hands on the ball even before Brady. Mason started 10 games. And it has been next to impossible to move them out since.
“It’s honestly crazy. We trained with each other before the draft in Atlanta. For us to wind up on the same team, that’s crazy how it happened. He’s my center and I’m glad to play with him every week,” Mason said.
(He was even more pleased to have Andrews nearby on Nov. 26. The Pats were in New York for a game the next day against the Jets while Tech was beating Georgia on Qua Searcy’s dynamic, improvised touchdown run. Both watched it play out on their phones. “I definitely gave him a hard time about it,” Mason said.)
The Patriots have a knack for producing very good players from largely unheralded lumps of clay.
Of course, there are two sides to that story. At the player end of the transaction, there has to be a certain commitment to exceeding common belief.
“It’s kind of a simple philosophy,” Andrews said. “You work hard and do the right thing. You pay attention to the little things and they end up being big things. God has blessed me a lot. I’ve had a little luck. It’s been an awesome story, an awesome ride.”
Conflicts between heart and mind are plentiful in the cases of two guys with Georgia ties trying to win a Super Bowl at the expense of the Falcons.
A Tennessean, Mason grew up more a Titans fan than anything else. He said he went to plenty of Falcons games during his years at Tech, but never got so emotionally involved that he actually went out and bought officially licensed Falcons gear.
He has heard plenty from old school connections, with the well wishes being conditional. “I get a lot of texts from Tech fans telling me they wish me the best but they can’t pull for me this game. There’s a lot of that going on,” he said.
“And that’s all right.”
It’s all far more complicated in Andrews’ case. He’s an Atlanta kid through and through. So deep are his connections with his old high school, Wesleyan, that he invited eight of his buddies from there to the game. “I wanted a number of them to be out here and experience this,” he said. “They’ve been around with me for a long time, kind of where this journey started.
“I know my parents are Patriots fans. People who are close to me are cheering for me. I know who’s in my corner, that’s all that really matters to me,” he said.
And here’s where the ties gets really convoluted. He’s related, sort of, to the only other coach who took the Falcons to the Super Bowl. Dan Reeves’ brother-in-law was Andrews’ grandfather. Got that? However that works, he calls Reeves his uncle.
Why, back when he was just a youth football player, Andrews sent a mock trading card of himself in miniaturized gear to Reeves, with the hand-written inscription, “Hold on Uncle Dan, I’m coming.’’ Since Reeves was long gone from the Falcons by the time Andrews had come of age, he was not bound to that promise. The Patriots seemed like a good place to land.
Besides, there was only one team that got to him deep down to his corpuscles.
“I didn’t live and breathe for the Falcons. I cheered for them and cheered for my uncle. But at the end of the day it was when Georgia lost that I was pretty upset,” he said.
Not that it will disturb Andrews much, but he has forced some very difficult decisions upon those in the heart of Falcons territory. Andrews will lobby for more support from there, if any is to be found.
“I guess there are a few people who are going to be torn about who to root for,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s two Georgia guys here.” (He and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell; the Falcons have none on their active roster).
Take Wesleyan’s football coach Franklin Pridgen. His game-day attire will consist of a David Andrews Patriots jersey and a tattered Falcons cap that speaks to the years he has been a fan of the home team.
“Yeah, I’m conflicted,” Pridgen said.
At the same time he’s talking about his lifelong affection for the Falcons, he’ll shift into his unabashed admiration for the way Andrews built himself into an NFL player. That kid was everything a coach could ask for. Great worker. Unselfish.
“He’d break things down to one step and work on that single step over and over and over again,” Pridgen said.
So, if the Falcons are down two in the last minutes and they’re driving to get in position for a winning field goal, who is he going to cheer for? “Probably the Falcons in that case, since David isn’t on the field,” he laughed. “I just hope the kick is good.”
Another very small difference reconciled, for now. It’s a start.
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