There is little doubt No. 5 Xaverian will be considered the underdog when it hosts No. 1 Everett this weekend, but if the Hawks are looking for inspiration, they need only to look to the sidelines to assistant coach Brian Mann.
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the first time the two schools met, and Mann was the quarterback that year. The 1996 season hardly had the appearance of a Super Bowl season, at least at the beginning.
The Hawks were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1994 and 1995 behind quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, who would go onto Boston College and then the NFL. As the 1996 season rolled around, Mann found himself competing with Tyler Grogan, son of Patriots' legend Steve.
"Tyler and I started dividing time freshman year," Mann said. "I just went in with the mentality that I was not going to be looking over my shoulder. The coaches kept it an open competition and gave us a fair shot."
Mann earned the starting job, but it was an inauspicious debut for the junior. The Hawks began the season on the road at North Attleboro, and soon found themselves in a shootout. Mann showed both flashes of brilliance, as well as his inexperience. He would throw for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he also fired a couple of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
Xaverian would win the next three games before losing to Brockton. At 3-2, no one was anticipating a Super Bowl season, except the team itself.
"We battled back," said Mann. "The team really got on a roll. The last several games of the year, we were back to playing Xaverian football. We really turned things around, and that momentum carried through."
Indeed, after the loss to Brockton, the Hawks outscored their opponents 144-21 in the final four games of the season. They thrashed St. John's Prep on Thanksgiving with a devastating ground attack, gaining over 300 yards from the likes of Brian Daoust, Jamie Lenkaitis, Jason Morgan and Brian Landolfi.
Still, the Hawks were flying under the radar as the Super Bowl approached. Ten years ago, the playoff system did not exist. Capturing a league crown meant a trip to the Super Bowl, but there were two Super Bowls in each division. Xaverian would face Everett in Division 1B, while Brockton and Bridgewater-Raynham would battle in Division 1A.
Everett had rolled to a perfect 10-0 season, and featured mammoth running back Omar Easy, who had already committed to Penn State. (After a successful career with the Nittany Lions, Easy would go on to play in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs.) Most prognosticators did not think Xaverian could stop the Crimson Tide's running attack. One publication even went on to suggest that Brockton would be better-suited to play Everett. The Hawks just used all the fodder as motivation.
"There were plenty of newspaper clippings lining the hallway of the locker room," said Mann. "It was a foregone conclusion that they would roll over us. There was even a half-page spread on Omar Easy, with a picture of him with his shirt off, in the Herald."
As the game drew closer, the Xaverian coaching staff reminded the team of where they came from. Senior Stephen O'Connor was arguably the finest wide receiver in the state, and he along with classmates Lenkaitis and Daoust had been a part of Xaverian's previous Super Bowl wins.
On game day, Xaverian jumped out to a 24-0 lead. A swarming defense, led by Lenkaitis, perhaps the finest linebacker in the state, stifled the Everett running attack. Defensive end Scott Bradley, who would go on to be a captain at Boston College, was a constant presence in the Crimson Tide's backfield. Bradley also played tight end on offense, and hauled in a pass from Mann for a touchdown, but it was called back on a holding penalty. Bradley would not be denied though, and eventually scored on defense, gathering an interception and bringing it back for six points.
But it was Mann who stole the show, completing 13 of 19 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, including a beautiful connection with Daoust for 65 yards down the left sideline. The Hawks would win decisively, 31-12. It was a typical cold December day, and as the clock was winding down, the media had made its way to the field from the press box at BU's Nickerson field. That was when Mann doused head coach Charlie Stevenson with the Gatorade bucket. As Stevenson whirled around to see who the culprit was, a smile spread across his face, and the coach and quarterback hugged.
"It was the final big sigh of relief," recalled Mann. "We had been through so much together. I think a lot of guys were unsure of me. Tim (Hasselbeck) was so polished by the time he got there, but I was not, and they stuck with me."
It's been an eventful 10 years for Mann. Entering his senior season at Xaverian, he was a highly sought-after recruit, but then he broke a bone in his right (throwing) hand against Brockton, when he hit a helmet following through on a pass. Incredibly, he finished out the game, but his season was curtailed soon after. As a result, many of the schools stopped calling.
"I had just come onto the radar screen," said Mann. "I had come onto play at a level where some of the guys before me had played. After the injury, the schools basically said 'Don't call us, we'll call you.'"
Rather than be bitter, Mann looked at it as a learning experience, and started applying to the Ivy League schools.
"I realized football would not be forever," said Mann. "I applied early to Harvard and got in, but it just didn't feel right. I looked at Penn. I had one more visit to Dartmouth, and I didn't even want to go, but my parents insisted on it."
Mann immediately felt comfortable on the Dartmouth campus.
"It reminded me of Xaverian," said Mann. "It's a small community. There's not much else around there, but it really creates a great community and atmosphere."
Mann was the starting quarterback his senior year at Dartmouth, when he again broke his right hand. However, he was able to play a fifth year after getting a medical red shirt. He holds the single-season record for touchdowns and passing yards, ahead of Jay Fiedler, who played in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Miami Dolphins, and the New York Jets.
From there, Mann has gone on to the Arena Football League, while also occasionally trying out for NFL squads. It was while playing in the AFL that Mann's life took another interesting turn. After one game, a film crew came into the locker room and asked if anyone knew how to throw a football. Mann volunteered, and he soon found himself serving as Adam Sandler's stunt double for "The Longest Yard". Any sympathy you might have felt for Adam Sandler after getting buried by Bill Romanowki, should not be re-directed to Mann.
"Ya, Romanowski killed me a few times," said Mann with a laugh. "It was a lot of fun getting to know those guys."
The same movie company produced Mark Wahlberg's film, "Invincible." "I play the quarterback in that," said Mann. "You can actually see me in that, but I got the curly afro going on."
This summer, Mann was to begin filming "The Game Plan" back in Boston, with The Rock. But The Rock ruptured his Achilles, and production was put on hold. While in town, Mann met with Stevenson.
"We were talking, and he said 'Maybe you could come by and work with the kids,'" said Mann. "I thought it would be great. It was sort of one of those, 'Well I'm serious if you're serious' moments."
Stevenson has been grateful for the help.
"Brian's just a great kid," said Stevenson. "He's really done a great job for us. He really relates to the kids. He's always stayed close to the program, but it's been great to see him more often. He was a great quarterback for us. I have great respect for him. We were very fortunate to have him give his time to us."
Of the many bonds that Stevenson and Mann share, one is that they both grew up on the same street in Canton.
"Brian lived about two houses down from where I grew up," said Stevenson. "He would shovel my parents' walkout for me, which I really appreciated because my parents were elderly."
Filming has started back up on "The Game Plan," so Mann has been busy, but he is still finding time to work with his alma mater.
"There was a JV game the other day that I couldn't get too, but that's the only day I've missed," said Mann. "I'm happy and thankful to give back. I could not possibly express what Xaverian meant to me. At a time when I really needed it, it was just a positive influence on my life."