NEWARK — It’s improbable enough that two guys from Massachusetts are playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl — only 12 of the 1,696 NFL players on Week 1 rosters hailed from the Bay State.
But that doesn’t begin to describe how unlikely it is for Needham’s Steven Hauschka and Malden’s Breno Giacomini, both 28, to be playing major roles for the Seahawks in Sunday’s big game — Hauschka as the kicker, Giacomini the starting right tackle.
“It’s pretty cool to have another guy from Massachusetts on the same team,” Giacomini said. “He’s had a tough road, too.”
No kidding. Neither player pegged football as his favorite sport while growing up, let alone thought much about making a living in the NFL.
Hauschka was a soccer and lacrosse player at Needham High, and eventually enrolled at Middlebury College to play Division 3 soccer. He wanted to kick for Needham’s football team but it conflicted with his soccer schedule.
He was, however, a huge Patriots fan (and still is), and had an autographed photo of Adam Vinatieri from the Snow Bowl hanging in his room.
“I’m glad we’re playing the Broncos rather than the Patriots,” he said. “I’ve dreamed about kicking a game-winning field goal ever since I saw Vinatieri doing it. He was my idol growing up.”
Hauschka was demoted to Middlebury’s JV team his freshman season, and that spring his roommate, a safety on the football team, encouraged him to try out for the team’s kicking and punting jobs. Hauschka said he could hit 50-yard field goals in high school and easily won the job at Middlebury.
When Hauschka graduated with a degree in neuroscience in 2007, he was preparing to become a dentist like his mother, Barbara, and older brother, Andy. His father, Peter, is a senior research associate in orthopedics and the director of scientific resources at Boston Children’s Hospital.
But Hauschka’s field goal accuracy and booming kickoffs earned the attention of former Boston College special teams coach Jerry Petercuskie, who was about to take the same job at N.C. State with former Eagles coach Tom O’Brien.
Hauschka, who had one year of NCAA eligibility left, enrolled as a graduate student at N.C. State, connected on 16 of 18 field goals that season and was carried off the field by teammates after nailing a game-winning kick against the Miami Hurricanes.
Hauschka used to list N.C. State as his alma mater in his NFL bio, but made sure to switch it to Middlebury this year. Two reporters from Middlebury gave him a school hat as a gift on Tuesday.
“We kicked on some of the worst fields in the country, especially some of those grass fields when they got a lot of rain,” Hauschka said of Middlebury. “So that prepared me for some bad conditions that I would see in the NFL.”
Hauschka has been accurate this year, nailing 33 of 35 field goals, but getting to this point certainly wasn’t easy. He was undrafted in 2008, and bounced between Baltimore, Atlanta, Denver, and Las Vegas of the now-defunct UFL before winning the Seahawks’ job in 2011.
“I never thought I’d be an NFL kicker until about seven years ago,” he said. “I was just an average soccer player in high school, couldn’t even get on a Bay State [Conference] all-star team, now here I am at the Super Bowl. Pretty cool transition.”
Giacomini, meanwhile, hoped he’d be on an NBA court at this point in his life, and never dreamed he’d be on an NFL field instead.
A 6-foot-7-inch power forward, Giacomini was a 21-point-per-game scorer at Malden High, and actually quit football his junior year to focus on basketball, “my first love,” he said.
“I thought I was a good basketball player, then I started playing AAU my junior year,” he said. “Went down to Florida for the nationals and got dunked on. That’s when I kind of figured I’d go back to football.”
Giacomini, a quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at Malden, re-enlisted with the football team as a senior and switched to linebacker and defensive end. His coach, Ray Bogus, had a contact with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, and encouraged Giacomini to send Petrino a highlight tape.
“We made a highlight tape — it was mainly basketball games,” Giacomini said. “The next Friday I was down in Louisville and [Petrino] offered me a scholarship. It was all thanks to coach Ray Bogus.”
Giacomini began his college career as a tight end, but put on 60 pounds and started at right tackle his senior year. The Packers took him in the fifth round in the 2008 draft and kept him on the practice squad for three seasons before he was plucked by the Seahawks in 2010. He has started 33 games the last three seasons, though he missed seven games this year with a knee injury.
Giacomini now loves football so much that he and his college teammate Gary Barnidge, a tight end with the Browns, began a program called American Football Without Barriers. Last offseason they traveled to Shanghai to hold a football skills camp for about 100 Chinese youth, and this offseason they will hold a camp for about 350 campers in Brazil, where Giacomini’s parents are from. They also host camps in Florida and Malden.
“Basically holding a free skills camp to spread the love of football, and it’s a tourist thing for us, too,” he said.
Like Hauschka, Giacomini remains a big Boston sports fan. He was asked if he was pretty pumped about the Red Sox’ recent World Series championship.
“Pretty pumped? I was going nuts, dude,” he said. “I was pissed I couldn’t make it.”
Both Hauschka and Giacomini are soaking up the experience at the Super Bowl this week, texting constantly with friends and spending time with the few that made it into New York City.
“It almost feels like you’re getting married,” Hauschka said. “Everyone wants to be here and spend this special time with you.”
Who can blame them for enjoying the rewards of a long, winding road to the NFL?
“I literally had no idea I’d ever be here,” Giacomini said. “It’s awesome, man. It’s unbelievable.”