Miami-Dade High Schools

South Florida’s deep connection to the NFL playoffs runs through high school football

St. Thomas Aquinas alumnus James White scored the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 51 last year and is one of 21 NFL players on the final eight playoff teams who played high school football in Miami-Dade or Broward counties.
St. Thomas Aquinas alumnus James White scored the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 51 last year and is one of 21 NFL players on the final eight playoff teams who played high school football in Miami-Dade or Broward counties. AP

If George Smith ever needs a reminder of how prevalent St. Thomas Aquinas has been in the NFL, all the high school athletic director has to do is step into the athletic department’s main office and take a glimpse at the 35 pictures hanging for all to see.

Included among the slew of players who have made it to the highest level of professional football are Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, 2016 first-round pick Joey Bosa, six-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins and Super Bowl 51 hero James White.

“This is not a dream,” Smith said. “It certainly came to fruition.”

It still is. St. Thomas Aquinas had a league-high 13 alumni on NFL rosters at the conclusion of the regular season.

“If you sit back and look at that, it’s quite remarkable,” said Smith, who also served as St. Thomas Aquinas’ football coach from 1975-1992 and again from 1995-2010. “You’re watching those guys come through here and compete and work as hard as they have.”

It’s not just St. Thomas Aquinas, though.

Overall, 85 players on active rosters in the NFL — about 5 percent — played high school football at one of 46 high schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Another eight are on injured reserve. Every NFL team has at least one player from one of the two counties.

And when the divisional round of the NFL playoffs commences this weekend, 21 players who saw their careers begin at the high school level in Broward and Miami-Dade counties will suit up as part of the last eight teams vying to be Super Bowl champions. That list doesn’t include Steelers starting linebacker Ryan Shazier (Plantation) or Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook (Miami Central), both of whom are on injured reserve.

Among the notables:

▪ Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, a Norland High alumnus who was the lone player this year to unanimously be voted All-Pro. Brown led the league with 1,533 receiving yards despite missing the last two games of the regular season after suffering a calf injury against the Patriots in Week 15.

▪ Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, a Miami Central alumnus and two-time Pro Bowl selection. Freeman led the Falcons with 865 rushing yards in 14 games. His 61.8 yards per game ranked sixth among NFC running backs who played in at least 10 games.

▪ Vikings All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick out of Norland who earned his first All-Pro recognition this season as a cornerstone of Minnesota’s top-ranked defense.

▪ Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson, who played at both South Miami and Gulliver Prep. Robinson leads the Eagles with four interceptions this season.

▪ Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert and Jaguars center Brandon Linder, both of whom played at St. Thomas Aquinas.

“It doesn’t make a difference if those [high school] teams are 1-9 or 9-1,” Smith said. “They’re going to have one or two or more guys that are going to make great college players and have a chance [to make it to the NFL]. It’s remarkable.”

And even though most aren’t playing with their high school teammates at the NFL level, the camaraderie is still there.

Antonio Brown and Xavier Rhodes exemplify that.

Brown and Rhodes played together in 2005 at Norland. Brown was a senior, Rhodes a freshman.

Eight years later, both were in the NFL. Brown was in his fourth year with the Steelers — and second as a regular starter — after being a sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan in the 2010 NFL Draft. Rhodes was a rookie with the Vikings after being selected with the 25th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft out of Florida State. Rhodes became a full-time starter in his second season.

And both are among the players on the final eight teams still alive this season.

“We both didn’t know that we were going to be here, but we’re both thankful,” Rhodes told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review when the Vikings visited the Steelers earlier this season. “We both give the man above all the thanks. We appreciate everything we have done. We work hard every offseason together.

“We try our best to be the best.”

For some — like Brown and Rhodes — there are more opportunities to be the best.

For others, making the most of a rare chance to stand out is what it takes.

Just look at New England Patriots running back James White, the St. Thomas Aquinas alumnus who came out of nowhere to be the hero in the Patriots’ 34-28 Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons last season.

White, a fourth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2014, caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes for 110 yards and had three total touchdowns — including the game-tying score with 57 seconds left in regulation and the game-winner in overtime.

“Wow. What a game,” Smith texted White after the game.

Smith said that he received a text back from White about a half hour later.

“Thanks coach. Love you,” it read.

Smith has four alumni still playing this weekend: White, Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, Gilbert and Linder.

All four are already on the wall outside his office, along with the other 31 alumni who reached the pinnacle of professional football.

“Obviously people stare and look at that,” Smith said. “Our players use that [as motivation]. ‘Hey these players started here on this campus. It’s a possibility if we do what we’re told to do.’

“They have a chance.”