NEW ORLEANS – What is an Ichabod?
NFL teams search far and wide for talent, so it's no surprise that a Division-II school is represented in the Super Bowl. But by two players? From the same school?
Ravens CB Cary Williams and 49ers LB Michael Wilhoite, both graduates of Washburn University, will face off in Sunday's Super Bowl, and the 7,300-enrollment school – whose mascot is the Ichabod -- from Topeka, Kansas will be able to claim a small chunk of the Lombardi Trophy.
But again, let's get back to what's most important: What is an Ichabod? Questions about Ichabod Crane and the Planters' Mr. Peanut character are the norm for Washburn folks.
"To be honest, I am not even really sure what it is exactly," Wilhoite said. "But it was named for a guy who started the school (Ichabod Washburn) and put all the money into it."
So there's that. Any the team mascot?
"It was a big-muscled guy with a top hat," he said with a smile. "Like a bodybuilder with a weird top hat."
But this is not just a feel-good story about a couple of random dudes from a dot-on-an-atlas school. They both will be key factors in Sunday's game, as they have been much of the season. Wilhoite is a 49ers special-teams leader, and Williams has stepped up as one of the Ravens' most improved players in the secondary.
In the wake of CB Lardarius Webb's season-ending injury in Week Six, Williams was called on to take the role of the Ravens' shutdown corner. He didn't look up to the challenge earlier in Week Three, when Patriots QB Tom Brady repeatedly picked on Williams and ignored Webb on the other side of the field. Williams appeared to be inspired by the game, though, and ran off a streak with interceptions in four of the next five games.
"I struggled in that (Patriots) game, but it made me a better player," Williams said. "I got better because of that experience."
And Williams also earned a sweet dose of revenge: An interception of Brady in the AFC title game to help seal a ticket to New Orleans.
"Once I saw the ball in the air, I knew I had an opportunity to catch that and make a play for my teammates," Williams said. "The most emotional part was me and Ray Lewis talking in the endzone. He was talking about how happy he was for me. He said, ‘We're going to the ship now,' so I said, ‘I'm ready. Let's go.'"
Williams is highly confident in his abilities, and it's shown in the fact that he turned down a three-year, $15 million extension in the offseason despite the fact he had zero interceptions in 39 career games. Earlier in his football life, that confidence wasn't always translated properly. Williams started his college career at Fordham but was kicked off the team for what the coaches deemed to be a poor attitude.
"It was me saying some crazy things to coaches after I felt like I should have been playing," Williams said. "They weren't playing me. It was a learning experience. It was a humbling experience at Fordham when I had to control that beast and understand that there is a political aspect to the game as well.
"There are some things I had to control as a person as well. I had a great experience at Fordham. They were some of the best years of my life with some of the greatest guys."
Williams' options were limited – to one school, that is. He got medium-cool attention from Washburn, a step down from I-AA Fordham, and decided he had to make the cross-country trip from New York to Kansas. For a kid who grew up all over south Florida, especially in crime-replete Liberty City, and who falsified his home address on school paperwork so he could play for a better football team, going to wayward Topeka wasn't all that wacky in comparison.
"Man, no one else was interested in me," Williams said. "I actually had a scholarship on the table at Hofstra University, and they just said they couldn't do it because they heard some (bad) things about me at Fordham. That's what it was.
"I ended up at Washburn and it was one of the great times of my life there. It taught me to continue to work hard, to continue to put my head down and to continue to believe in my faith so that everything would work out for the greater good."
At Washburn in 2006, he met Wilhoite, and they spent the next two years together as Ichabods. Williams was a starter from Jump Street, but Wilhoite took a year to get into the regular rotation. The sophomore joined the senior Williams in the starting lineup, playing both linebacker and strong safety on the same side of the defense. Wilhoite has rocked up to a stout 240 pounds, mostly because of his love for the gym, and he hasn't lost that safety speed.
But Wilhoite's path to the NFL was a circuitous one, starting with an extended, six-year stay at Washburn, followed by a stint in the UFL with the Omaha Nighthawks in 2011. When the UFL season ended around Halloween, Wilhoite found himself unemployed and in need of money. He took a job making about $9 an hour selling sneakers at a Finish Line store in Topeka and also as an intern at WIBW radio, following up on his mass media major at Washburn.
His agent was being real with him the whole time: the phones were not ringing from the NFL. So Wilhoite would do what he could, waking up at 5 a.m. to stay in shape, reporting to the radio station for a few hours a day and then selling shoes for the rest of the day. It was tiring, and not very lucrative, and he stayed with his mother for a while to save on rent.
"I knew I would not make a lot of money, but I could make a little money to get gas, feed myself," Wilhoite said. "Just waiting for a call."
One day it came: Patrick Willis got hurt late last season, and the team's LB depth was light. The 49ers also needed some special-teams help, so they signed Wilhoite to the practice squad. Although he never got into a game last season, he re-signed with the club and had a good offseason, even sprinkling in a little fullback duty. For a guy who was working three jobs in Topeka if you throw in a little personal training he did on the side, the additional assignment with the Niners was peanuts.
Wilhoite impressed but did not make the final roster out of training camp. He signed to the practice squad and was added to the active roster in Week 13. He has been active in every game since, including two in the postseason, and he has recorded at least one special-teams tackle in each one. Head coach Jim Harbaugh pointed out Wilhoite as an example of one of the many 49ers who has grown over the past few years.
"Michael Wilhoite is a guy that was that kind of player for us last year and the first part of this year, and now he's out there playing, and playing in the Super Bowl this week," Harbaugh said. "I just can't tell you how exciting and how wonderful it is to see these players grow."
Williams and Wilhoite both have grown since their Washburn days. Williams needed to mature. Wilhoite had less natural talent and needed to incubate as a player. They have kept tabs on each others' careers and have stayed in touch. A dinner was planned this week in New Orleans, and they have done plenty of texting – talking a little smack about who will win Sunday but also being supportive.
"We were really close in college," Wilhoite said. "Just to have the opportunity to connect and re-up on our friendship down here with him is amazing."
The school has never had a player in the Super Bowl. Sunday they'll have two. And they almost had a third: WR Joe Hastings was on the 49ers' practice squad late last season and is good friends with both Williams and Wilhoite. Hastings was out of the NFL this season but hopes to get back into the league in 2013, and as Wilhoite's best friend, he'll be pulling for him – and for Williams, and Washburn – in the stands of the Superdome.
"We're here for each other. I keep him confident," Wilhoite said of Hastings. "Like I told him, ‘I've been in the position he's in now.' You're at home, you don't have a team calling, you're trying to figure out what's going on, days are going by real long. Hopefully, he'll get a call soon."
Until then, the hopes of Topeka will fall on the shoulders of Williams and Wilhoite on Sunday. There will be a lot of people watching in Kansas anxious to find out who will be the first Ichabod to hoist Lombardi.
"I've been getting texts all week," Wilhoite said. "Everyone is going to be watching, and they're somehow going to be pulling for both me and Cary. Basically, everyone there wins – except the guy who loses."
Still, Williams sees this season as something of a fantasy ride.
"It's a great opportunity coming from a small Division-II school," he said. "It's unbelievable. It's just a testament to all our hard work, dedication and love for the game."
Maybe that's what an Ichabod really is.