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A thrill for homegrown Patriots

Hernandez leads a trio from N.E.

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 29, 2012
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It’s special enough to be part of a team that makes it to the Super Bowl - just ask Patriots Brian Waters, Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis, or Chad Ochocinco, all of whom have been in the NFL for more than 10 years and are experiencing the thrill for the first time.

But to go to the Super Bowl as a member of the team you grew up rooting for is enough to make even a heavily-tattooed, hard-running, hybrid offensive weapon emotional.

“Honestly, it’s crazy,’’ tight end Aaron Hernandez said Friday. “I don’t sit back and think about it too much because I’m so busy, but when I do get the chance to think about it, it brings tears to my eyes because it’s crazy.

“I always thought about playing in the NFL as a fan of the Patriots and Drew Bledsoe, so just to be able to play, be on this team and contribute, it’s an honor.’’

Hernandez grew up west of Hartford in Bristol, Conn., which is more Giants country, and there are plenty of Giants fan in his family.

But he preferred the Patriots.

New England isn’t a hotbed of NFL talent like California, Texas, or Florida, but when Super Bowl XLVI kicks off next Sunday, there will be five players who call the region home: Hernandez, teammates James Ihedigbo and Ron Brace, and Giants special teamers Will Blackmon, who was born and raised in Rhode Island, and Zak DeOssie, who hails from North Andover.

Ihedigbo, who attended Amherst Regional High before moving on to the University of Massachusetts, spent the first four years of his career with the Jets before being cut during training camp last summer.

“It’s awesome,’’ Ihedigbo said. “It’s a great feeling knowing that I grew up in Massachusetts and now I’m playing for the team that I watched for so many years.

“It’s a surreal feeling, and I’m definitely blessed to be part of it.’’

Brace was born in Springfield, played high school ball in Worcester, and moved on to Boston College. His father Ronald might be more excited than Brace is for the Super Bowl trip.

“Every other day he’s called me, since [New England’s divisional round win over] Denver, or texted me - I barely knew my dad could text,’’ Brace said with a wide smile. “He’s texting me all caps and exclamation points.

“There are just random people coming up and saying congratulations, it’s like, ‘Dang, we are going to the Super Bowl.’ It’s crazy.’’

Brace recalled past Super Bowls, when he was a spectator, hanging out with friends.

“Each day I caught myself reminiscing [about] going to my house with my old teammates back in high school, college, whatever, we’d go to BJ’s, get a bag of honey barbeque wings and just chill and watch the Super Bowl, watch the Pats play,’’ he said.

“Of all my old teammates, I’m the only one that’s still playing, and on the hometown team, getting ready to play in the Super Bowl. I can’t help but think I’m blessed in my own little way. They’ve got their own blessings and this is mine, and I’m loving it.’’

Hernandez, who was part of a number of big games at the University of Florida, including Southeastern Conference and national title games, knows the focus it takes to filter out the noise and zero in on the task at hand. And if you can’t do that, he said, “You probably shouldn’t be playing ball.’’

Still, those games don’t compare to what he’s going through now.

“It’s still a dream come true,’’ Hernandez said.

Ihedigbo also watched the Super Bowl with friends, at The Hangar in Amherst.

“You’d watch and be, like, ‘Wow,’ in amazement at the intensity of the game and what’s at stake and wondering how those guys play under such pressure,’’ he said.

“Now we’re in the same position and you kind of understand the other side of it - how to prepare yourself, and the better prepared you are, the faster you can play on game day.’’

With the Super Bowl creeping closer, is Ihedigbo starting to feel that pressure?

“Nah! I’m enjoying it,’’ he said.

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