Former University of Illinois teammates Kelvin Hayden and Pierre Thomas will be on opposite sides in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV, but both could have a major influence on the game's outcome.
Hayden, a second-round draft pick in 2005 and a three-year starter, will be instrumental in trying to contain the multitude of weapons in the New Orleans Saints' potent passing attack.
Thomas, who was undrafted in 2007, has become the Saint's go-to running back, carrying the ball twice as often this season as Reggie Bush, the second overall draft pick in 2006.
Hayden would like nothing better than a repeat of the fourth-quarter interception he made three years ago of a Rex Grossman pass intended for Muhsin Muhammad. Hayden returned the pick 56 yards for a touchdown to put the finishing touches on the Indianapolis Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
As big as that play was, Hayden wasn't dwelling on it this week in South Florida.
"I try not to think about it," he told reporters in Miami. "It was just one play of my career, and I'm still young, so hopefully there will be more big plays like that. It is what it is. I will probably enjoy it more after my career is over when I'm looking back. Then I can make a big deal out of it to my grandkids or my children and say I ran back a 100-yard interception. You know they say the older you get, the bigger the liar you become."
Thomas, a native of south suburban Lynwood and a graduate of Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, would be lying if he said his path to stardom was an easy one. But he contends he was confident in his abilities even after being ignored in the 2007 draft. Not only that, but the Saints used a fourth-round pick that year on Ohio State's Antonio Pittman, and they already had Bush and Deuce McAlister, the leading rusher in franchise history.
"I wasn't worried at all, actually," Thomas said. "I told my agent, 'All I need is my foot in the door. Once I get my foot an inch in the door, I'm going to break it down. I'm going to do whatever it takes to make the team or to show any team out there that I can play at this level and I can be a top player for them.' "
That's pretty much the way it has gone for Thomas, who overcame nagging knee and ankle injuries this season to rush for 793 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry for the NFL's highest-scoring team. If he can help give the Saints a balanced attack Sunday, they can control the clock and keep Peyton Manning and the Colts' explosive offense on the sideline.
A big part of Manning's success is the protection he gets from, among others, right tackle Ryan Diem, a Northern Illinois product from Roselle and a Glenbard North High School graduate. The Colts led the NFL in fewest sacks allowed, as Manning was nailed just 10 times on 571 pass plays.
"As a group, we work real well together," said Diem, who has been a starter since midway through his rookie season of 2001, when he was a fourth-round pick. "You've got some older veteran leadership with (center) Jeff Saturday and myself, and (left guard) Ryan Lilja."
Those three have started together for most of the past five seasons and this year have incorporated first-time starters Charlie Johnson at left tackle and Kyle DeVan at right guard.
"As a group," Diem said, "we just function well. When Peyton's back there, he can read the defense and point us in the right direction, which always helps."
Offensive linemen rarely get the recognition they deserve, but Manning appreciates the effort of the guys who keep him upright and his uniform clean.
"Ryan Diem has just been a rock out there at right tackle," Manning said. "He has had a great year. He really had kind of an unspoken outstanding year last year. I love those five guys in front of me. I love their effort. I love their attitude. I'm looking forward to playing behind them on Sunday."