Tampa Bay Sports Day

Hofstra Pride at the Super Bowl

Former Hofstra offensive lineman Willie Colon will look to become just the fourth Pride alumnus to capture a Super Bowl ring if his Pittsburgh Steelers beat the underdog Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII Sunday in Tampa Bay.

Colon started all 33 games at right tackle his last three seasons at Hofstra from 2003-05, earning first-team I-AA All-American honors after his senior season. The Bronx native got the attention of the Steelers, which drafted Colon in the fourth round and made him its starting right tackle with two games left in his rookie campaign.

After being inactive for the first 14 games of his professional career, Colon has started every game at right tackle since then, helping Pittsburgh move within one game of winning its NFL-record sixth Super Bowl title. Speaking to reporters from Raymond James Stadium, Colon said the offensive line is looking to show the world it is not a liability despite taking criticism during the regular season.

“As a unit we have been through so much,” Colon said. “From injuries to guys dealing with serious off- the-field issues, from our unit getting bashed week in and week out no matter how good or bad we played. From a standpoint all that fire that we took motivated us to get better. We all came together as a unit and realized we all had to be accountable for ourselves.”

Colon will be charged with keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and springing running back Willie Parker for big gains. The 25-year-old came to the Steelers the year following the franchise’s Super Bowl XL victory against Seattle in 2006 and said even with the veterans around to give advice, he will still be nervous come opening kickoff.

“I think every day that goes by the tension builds up more and more,” Colon said. “My biggest thing is the ability to calm down and open my eyes. I get so worked up. When I am on the sideline about to go on I have to suck it in, leave it out and realize it is a regular game so I can execute. For me personally, this is a great experience, but I don’t want to go home without the trophy so I am going to be as much of a help as I can.”

Only three other former Hofstra players have played a role on a Super Bowl contender. John Schmitt, who had his number retired at James M. Shuart Stadium in the fall, was the starting center for the Jets during one of sports’ most famous championship games, anchoring a line for Joe Namath in Super Bowl III.

Schmitt (class of 1964) was joined on that Jets team by defensive back Mike D’Amato, who graduated Hofstra four years after Schmitt and was a rookie on a Gang Green team that shocked the heavily favored Baltimore Colts at the Orange Bowl.

After watching his No. 77 go up on the façade of Margiotta Hall during the Pride’s homecoming win over Rhode Island, Schmitt said he was proud of becoming the first Hofstra player to make it to the NFL and still wears the ring from what is still the only title in Jets history. Schmitt played for the Jets from 1964-73 and was named to the All-Pro team in 1968 and 1969.

“I just wanted to make the team,” Schmitt recalled about his first training camp. “No one from Hofstra had ever made anything.

“When the Jets signed me, they didn’t need any tackles. They needed me as a center, but I had no knowledge of how to play or snap field goals; anything like that. It was a heck of an adjustment. Nobody helps you when you go to the pros.”

Nearly 40 years later, receiver Ricky Bryant earned a championship ring with the Patriots, playing on New England’s practice squad during the 2004 season, which culminated with a victory over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX.

The Pride could add a fourth name to its list of NFL champions. Dave Cohen, Hofstra’s head coach, came to Hofstra the year after Colon graduated. But Cohen was Delaware’s defensive coordinator in 2005, when the Pride out-lasted the Blue Hens, 10-6. Having to game-plan against Colon as a coach for a conference rival showed Cohen the lineman’s potential for succeeding at the next level.

“I knew coaching against Will in 2003, 2004 and 2005 that he was special,” Cohen said. “Will was a dominating player from the time he was a sophomore and has enjoyed equal success since his graduation in the NFL.”

Former Hofstra coach Joe Gardi, whose last season as Colon’s senior year, helped the Cardinal Hayes High School pass-rushing force switch from the defensive line to the offensive side. Colon red-shirted his first season and played in just one game as a freshman before becoming a stalwart on the right side starting his sophomore year.

“It was great for me at Hofstra,” Colon said to Newsday earlier this week. “I came away with so much, and now here I am, at the center of the [football] world. . . . Go Hofstra.”

Colon and New Orleans Saints receiver Marques Colston were each drafted out of Hofstra in 2006. Colon made the playoffs in his second year and Colston has amassed 3,000 receiving yards and set a league record for most receptions by any player in their first two seasons with 168.

“It is an honor for the Hofstra football family to have one of our own to be starting in the upcoming Super Bowl,” Cohen said. “Willie Colon represents what Hofstra Football stands for: earning a degree, being a good person and having great work ethic.”

Colon credited his family’s support for putting him in position to possibly hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy and reach the pinnacle of his profession.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I was a project kid, growing up on the streets and running the streets in New York. But I’m just sticking to my dream and am staying good to myself. It’s a blessing. I give much credit to my mom for sticking by my side through the rough times. I know people from back home are cheering me on.

“My father is Puerto Rican. He’s a proud Hispanic who raised me to be proud of our last name and be proud of where we came from. Everywhere I go I try to represent somehow, some way not only for my family but for the Latino community. Everything is going well for me right now.”