It’s hard to believe that it’s already been more than a year since former University of Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw stood on a stage inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome and yelled “Touch That Thing” while handing his defensive MVP award for the BCS National Championship Game to teammate Mark Barron.
Courtney Upshaw hopes to be part of another championship celebration in New Orleans this weekend.
Not too many get the opportunity to try and top a moment like that during their rookie season in the National Football League, or ever for that matter.
Upshaw, of course, is back in New Orleans this week with the Baltimore Ravens, who on Sunday will face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Naturally, he would like nothing better than for history to repeat in the place where Alabama pulled off the first shutout in BCS history, 21-0 over LSU.
“That defense was dominant,” Upshaw told reporters in the Big Easy this week. “The way we came out and played that game and the atmosphere here too. Winning the MVP was great.
“I’m in the Super Bowl now so I have to put that feeling behind me and try to win this Super Bowl.”
What a ride it’s been for the former Eufaula, Ala., product, and not just as a football player. Upshaw once lived in a house with no electricity or running water, and was taken in by an aunt. He still considers childhood friend Will McKenzie and his parents Tom and Leigh McKenzie to be a second family.
As part of the illustrious recruiting Class of 2008, Upshaw arrived at the Capstone with very few possessions, yet before his senior season helped raise nearly $20,000 in his hometown for Tuscaloosa tornado relief.
With two national championships in tow, Upshaw finished his Crimson Tide career with 141 tackles (88 solo), 17.5 sacks (minus-103 yards), 36.5 tackles for a loss and six forced fumbles. His only interception was returned for a touchdown, and he also returned a fumble for a score as well.
As a senior, the All-American led Alabama with 9.5 sacks, and even though Adrian Hubbard had 11 tackles for a loss this past season the Crimson Tide still had the reputation of lacking a premier pass-rusher like Upshaw.
Despite his stellar career, Courtney Upshaw still fell into the second round of the NFL Draft.
Thus, it was probably only fitting that he landed with the NFL team run by a Crimson Tide legend, Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome – who still bleeds crimson.
“You cannot find a player that played for Coach (Paul W. “Bear”) Bryant that wouldn’t say the things he taught us while we were there are what we’re living right now,” Newsome said during the Super Bowl's Media Day. “It was all about the team. He never allowed anyone to become complacent. The man that I am right now, Coach Bryant had probably 80 percent to do with that, along with my parents.”
But not even Upshaw’s draft selection by Baltimore last April went without some emotional turbulence, as he was one of five Crimson Tide players tabbed as first-round worthy, while only Trent Richardson, Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Donta’ Hightower had their names called that night.
The Ravens, which seemed to be an ideal fit for Upshaw all along and had just lost former Alabama player Jarrett Johnson to free agency, traded out of the first round, its 29th-overall pick to Minnesota for its 35th and 98th selections.
“I was disappointed,” Upshaw said. “Honestly, I’m not going to lie to you, I was disappointed. I went back to the hotel, and a couple people with me and my agent prayed a lot about it. I was hoping Baltimore would take me the next day and that’s what happened.”
When Newsome finally talked with him the general manager was his usual upfront self and simply said it was a business decision that worked out. Upshaw was still their top selection, just without the first-round label.
“I think the biggest thing is when you’re dealing with the players you have to be truthful with them,” Newsome said. “They’ll start to trust you if you tell them the truth, and sometimes you are telling them some things that they don’t want to hear.”
Upshaw played in every game this season, with nine starts, was in on 60 tackles and made two fumble recoveries. For the Super Bowl he’s listed as the starting strongside linebacker, while former Alabama teammate Terrence Cody is the backup nose tackle behind Pro Bowl selection Haloti Ngata.
The ring that linebacker Courtney Upshaw is playing for is a lot bigger this time.
Like with the Crimson Tide, they’re part of a team that’s developed a reputation for tough defense.
Depleted by injuries (24 different players have started at least one game), Baltimore’s defense allowed 350.9 yards per game, ranking 17th in the NFL, but as the season progressed improved. Over the final six games the Ravens yielded just 299.0 yards, the fourth fewest.
It gave up 21.5 points per game, but was second in red-zone defense (23 touchdowns allowed on 53 possessions inside the 20, 43.4 percent). Baltimore also forced eight turnovers in its three playoff games, and since 2000 is 62-2 when having a plus-two turnover margin over its opponent.
“There are not too many differences with this team and with Coach (Nick) Saban back in the day,” Upshaw said. “They’re kind of similar. This is a hard, tough and physical defense with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed back there. You’ve got guys like Dannell Ellerbe who I look up to for his play on the field and for the kind of guy he is off the field.”
Upshaw went from filling in for injured All-Pro Terrell Suggs at rush end to taking over at the other outside linebacker spot next to Lewis in the base defense. He had a postseason start against the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round, and came off the bench against Denver and New England in the AFC Championship Game, where the Ravens manhandled their way to New Orleans.
Upshaw already knew the way.
“I’m always humble, number one,” he said. “What I say about the Super Bowl is that I have to win it first. Those championships, I won those, but now I’m in the Super Bowl. I’m on a whole different level and I have to execute on the opportunity to win my first Super Bowl.
“I dreamed it and never thought I would be here. I didn’t even think I was going to go to college to play football and luckily I had people back home that put my name out there and sent my high school film to colleges. I never thought I’d be here to be honest with you.”