A decade ago, Shea McClellin thought his football career might end at Marsing High. Today, he’s getting ready to play in the Super Bowl.
College football did not become a serious option for McClellin until he entered his senior year at Marsing, nestled along the Snake River about 45 minutes from Boise. He thought basketball was a more likely option — until Boise State football expressed interest after seeing him at a summer camp.
Once the Broncos offered, his decision was easy.
Last year, McClellin faced another big decision. After four disappointing seasons with the Chicago Bears, the former first-round NFL Draft pick signed a three-year, $9 million free-agent deal with the New England Patriots.
The fifth-year linebacker will become the ninth former Bronco to play in a Super Bowl on Feb. 5 against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston (4:30 p.m., Fox). Seven former Boise State players have won rings, including two from area high schools: Korey Hall (Glenns Ferry, Packers in 2011) and Matt Paradis (Council, Broncos in 2016).
“I’m trying to soak it in,’’ McClellin said. “The first day or two after we made it, I was just kind of shocked that I was going to be playing in a Super Bowl. I know not many guys get the chance, so it means a lot to be a Marsing guy, a Boise State guy and represent that.”
McClellin did not play in an NFL playoff game until this year. He hit the free agent market in the offseason, also visiting the Jets and Seahawks, but found a place that felt familiar with the Patriots.
As he did when he came out of Marsing in 2007, McClellin went to a program where the expectation is to win championships, thrive while thinking outside the box, and one with its own unique culture.
“It’s kind of funny, they’ve used me like they did at Boise State, and it’s really fit me in so many ways. It was obviously the right decision,” McClellin said about the Patriots.
Playing for the four-time Super Bowl champions, McClellin has enjoyed his most productive NFL season. Playing a multitude of roles, he had 41 tackles and a sack in the regular season, starting four games. He also had a 69-yard fumble return in the regular-season finale and has blocked two kicks.
He even took a snap on offense, technically as an offensive lineman, on Dec. 19 against Denver, with Von Miller thinking he was an eligible receiver and did not rush quarterback Tom Brady. McClellin fits the Patriots’ mantra of “Do Your Job,” a phrase emblazoned on team gear and used as their official Twitter hashtag.
“Sometimes you just try to sprinkle in a wrinkle or two and Shea we’ve been working with on different things, and that happened to make its way into the game plan and on to the field,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the Denver game. “Shea did his job.”
The Bears took McClellin with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, but did not find a comfortable landing spot, moving him from defensive end to outside linebacker to middle linebacker. He had 81 tackles in 2015, but the Bears opted not to re-sign him. The “bust” label started to be used.
“Being a first-rounder comes with expectations, but sometimes the production doesn’t match it,” McClellin said. “It was turbulent in Chicago. The staff gave me a fair shake, they tried to make it work. It was a learning experience football-wise, and outside of it, that noise, I wasn’t used to it.
“I listened to all that criticism the first two, three years. It got into my head, it affected my play.”
In the Patriots, he’s found a team that turns negative energy into a driving force. McClellin also said bouncing around positions on the field in Chicago has helped him be versatile in New England, which has the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL.
“They find what guys are good at and use them to make plays, don’t put them in situations where they might not succeed,” McClellin said. “For me, some games I’ll come in and rush the passer, or I’ll get into coverage, or I’ll try to thrive on special teams, whatever they need.”
On special teams is where McClellin finally got to flex the athleticism that Boise State fans know all too well.
Against the Ravens on Dec. 12, he jumped over long snapper Morgan Cox and blocked Justin Tucker’s field goal attempt in the first quarter of a 30-23 win. ESPN ranked it as one of the team’s top five plays of the year. Special teams ace Matthew Slater called the soft-spoken McClellin “the quiet assassin” after the game.
“Before it ever happened, I was nervous for weeks, like, what if I get a flag or I trip?” McClellin said. “But all the film study, the practice, when it came time to do it, it worked perfectly.”
New England coach Bill Belichick has a reputation for taking reclamation projects and turning them into successful players. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis and fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy are unheralded pickups who have played well this year.
Playing for the mercurial coach has been a special experience, McClellin said, working with a figure he’d seen for so many years on TV.
“He’s his own entity,” McClellin said.
Getting the chance to play for a Super Bowl ring was a key draw for McClellin. Now that the Patriots are putting him in positions to succeed, and he’s using a business-like focus in the team headquarters, it’s obvious McClellin made a wise choice.
“It’s a big part of why I came here, and I’m really happy it’s worked out,” he said.
Boise State players in the Super Bowl
▪ 1976: Rolly Woolsey, DB, Cowboys
▪ 1988: Markus Koch, DE, Redskins
▪ 1992: Koch, DE, Redskins*
▪ 2005: Quintin Mikell, DB, Eagles
▪ 2006: Kimo von Oelhoffen, DT, Steelers
▪ 2011: Korey Hall (Glenns Ferry High), FB, Packers
▪ 2011: Daryn Colledge, G, Packers
▪ 2014: Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos*
▪ 2014: Jeron Johnson, DB, Seahawks*
▪ 2015: Johnson, DB, Seahawks
▪ 2016: Matt Paradis (Council High), C, Broncos
▪ 2016: Clady, OT, Broncos*
▪ 2017: Shea McClellin, LB, Patriots
Winners in bold
*Did not play