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February 06, 2016

Don't know who to root for in the Super Bowl? There are Philly guys on each team

They arrived on divergent paths.

One was cut a few times. The other wasn't. One used to pretend in his backyard that he was Peyton Manning, and now he has a locker next to the legend. The other cried the first time he was tackled and vowed never again to play football. One had a winding path to the NFL, the other seemed destined since high school.

They had their confidence shaken when they went undrafted, yet both will be on center stage of the world, each playing pivotal roles for their teams in Super Bowl 50 this Sunday from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

North Penn’s Brandon McManus will be kicking for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, and Cardinal O’Hara’s Corey Brown will be catching passes for the Carolina Panthers. They’re from the Philadelphia area, McManus from Lansdale, where his family still lives, and Brown from Upper Darby, where he returns to in the offseason to work out.

They’ve maintained their Philadelphia-area ties. But that’s about where the similarities end. Brown and McManus are as different as the two teams that will oppose each other this Sunday.

“It’s great knowing a game can come down to my right foot,” McManus said. “I’ve learned accuracy is everything. Every kicker in the NFL has a big leg. Accuracy keeps you in the league.”

McManus’ journey here featured a few more curves than Brown’s. He was cut three times, including once by his current team, on Nov. 11, 2014.

“You can’t question yourself,” said McManus, 24, who owns every major kicking record at Temple and graduated with a biology degree, though wants a future as an event planner. “That’s the most important thing. As a kicker in the NFL, you always have to believe in yourself, and it’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s funny I wound up in Denver, after getting cut by the Colts and the Giants. If I was anybody growing up throwing a football around in my backyard, I had to always be Peyton Manning, and here Peyton Manning walks up to me, shakes my hand and the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘We’re looking forward to you helping this team out, because some games will come down to you and we all believe in you.’

“I’ll admit it was a little overwhelming when you think about who he is and what he’s accomplished. But no one can put more pressure on me than I can put on myself. I put the pressure on myself because I don’t want to let him down, or any of my teammates down.

"That’s the biggest thing with this Super Bowl. Everyone knows the talk that this may be it. It may his last game, and he’s such a class act, a real leader and a really funny guy. I think that’s what everyone loves about Peyton; that he’s a regular guy. He’s a team guy. You want to win for someone like that. I’ve always dreamed about winning the Super Bowl with a last-second field goal. I hope I have the chance to do it.”

In two seasons with the Broncos, McManus has made 39 of 48 field-goal attempts. This season, he’s gone 30 of 35, including going five of seven from beyond 50 yards, with his season’s longest being 57 yards. He missed one extra point in 2015 and was 10th during the NFL regular season in scoring, responsible for 125 points.

And he’s been clutch, too.

Against Cleveland on Oct. 28, McManus made a 34-yard field goal in overtime to beat the Browns. On Dec. 28, he missed a 45-yarder that could have won the game in regulation against Cincinnati, then came back to boot a 37-yarder to win another game in overtime. In the Broncos’ 23-16 playoff win over Pittsburgh, McManus kicked five field goals, which included 45- and 51-yard field goals. He hit two field goals in Denver’s 20-18 win over New England in the AFC Championship Game, including a 52-yarder.

“It’s great knowing a game can come down to my right foot,” McManus said. “I’ve learned accuracy is everything. Every kicker in the NFL has a big leg. Accuracy keeps you in the league.”

Brown, also 24, seemed streamlined to the NFL. A star at O’Hara, Brown had every major college program tugging at him. He chose Ohio State, where then-Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel dubbed him “Philly” Brown because Ohio State had two players with the same name. It stuck. When he tried going back to ‘Corey’ at the beginning of this season, he reverted back to ‘Philly,’ when had some trouble with drops and Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera said, “Corey Brown is a nice young man. Philly catches the ball.”

Brown’s NFL path stumbled somewhat at the outset when he went undrafted, before hooking on as a free agent with the Panthers, with whom he's been for the last two years.

The 6-foot, 190-pound receiver started 11 games this season, catching 31 passes for 447 yards and four touchdowns. During the playoffs, he’s been targeted 12 times and has caught six passes for 135 yards and a touchdown, averaging 22.5 yards a catch.

“Yeah, that was me, big crybaby,” Brown says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now. You can say I’ve done a lot of growing up since then. But that’s my first experience with football. I told my mom I never wanted to play again." 

But Brown admits he wouldn’t be anywhere without a little nudge from his mother, Delene Williams.

He laughs sheepishly at the memory. It’s something Brown is not that proud to recall; the kind of backstory best tucked away left to collect dust and forgotten. The first time he ever played football was when he was eight. He was playing for the Oxford Circle Raiders, a club team based in Philadelphia, when he took a handoff, got whacked to the ground and started crying – screaming for his mother. That’s right. One hit and he was done, out of the game.

Mom wasn’t having it.

“Yeah, that was me, big crybaby,” Brown says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now. You can say I’ve done a lot of growing up since then. But that’s my first experience with football. I told my mom I never wanted to play again. My mom forced me to sign up. I didn’t have a choice. It’s funny because I love football now – it’s my life. It’s been my life. Nothing has really changed that much since then. It’s just after that first game, we didn’t lose another game again. My mom convinced me to play. By the second game, I was fine. I really don’t know what changed it. Maybe I needed that first game, that wake-up hit.

“Now here I am playing in the Super Bowl, the kid that cried the first time he played. I love contact now. If I have to, I’ll lower my shoulder and run over people. I love making people miss more.”

Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury in led to a lot of questions about the Panthers’ receiving corps. Cam Newton was left with Ted Ginn, who never caught more than 38 passes in a season, 33-year-old possession receiver Jerricho Cotchery and reliable tight end Greg Olsen.

Then there was Brown, who caught 21 passes his rookie season.

“We really didn’t pay attention to the talk about the receivers, and honestly, none of us cared what anybody had to say,'' Brown said. “We don’t play for the people who said we stunk or whatever. It doesn’t matter. You go out there and make the plays when the ball is thrown to you. That was my focus. It’s the way we all think. It’s what we’ve been doing all year.”

Brown will be playing with one regret on Sunday. That his former high school coach, Dan Algeo, won’t be there to see it. Algeo died of a heart attack at age 49 on July 3, 2014.

“Coach Algeo opened the door for me to go to O’Hara, we moved from Germantown to Upper Darby, and I can say it did change my life,” Brown admitted. “I can he’s responsible for the majority of my success. He helped me get into college. He was always on me about my grades and he helped me really look more at where my future could be. He was a very special man in my life, almost like a father in a lot of ways. I miss him. I would like to think that he’s going to be watching me somewhere on Sunday.”