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What 15 Super Bowl stars were like in high school: Tales of teenage Mahomes, McCaffrey and more


Over 100 million people will watch some of the best athletes in the world compete for the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday, but there will be a select group of observers who remember those athletes when they were less famous.

High school coaches or teachers of 15 players were asked to recall their most vivid memories of interacting with the future stars. The recollections included snagging a tuba player for kicking duties, convincing a linebacker not to be afraid of a hamster and sharing a poignant moment during a shiva with a tight end who would go on to be one of the greatest in NFL history.

Here are their stories.

Jump to a player:
Mahomes | Kelce | Butker | Pacheco | Rice
Jones | Kittle | Greenlaw | McCaffrey | Juszczyk
Moody | Purdy | Samuel | Ward | Karlaftis

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Patrick Mahomes’ leadership was obvious as a sledgehammer

There’s a tradition at Whitehouse (Texas) High School in which a player earns the right to carry a sledgehammer while leading the team onto the field for a football game. Whitehouse coach Adam Cook saw a motivational talk about how Georgia Tech used a sledgehammer to symbolize the strength it takes to get through a tough game.

Mahomes probably could have carried the sledgehammer each week, but that wasn’t his style. Mahomes knew it was something his teammates might like to do, so he told Cook to let other seniors have the honor. Mahomes finally took his turn before a playoff game his senior year.

“He was such a great leader, understanding those little things that most high school kids are unaware of,” Cook said.

Mahomes also would tell Cook which of his teammates hadn’t scored a touchdown, so they could try to get him the ball, and whose birthday it was, so Cook would make sure to wish the player a happy birthday before the end of practice. — Michael Rothstein


Why Travis Kelce’s high school coach is ‘forever grateful’

It was hours after the funeral when then-Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High School football coach Jeff Rotsky looked outside at who was walking toward his house. Rotsky was surrounded by family and friends as he mourned the death of his father, Mort Rotsky, but the person walking up the driveway was somewhat unexpected.

It was Kelce, then a Cleveland Heights senior.

Rotsky joked that Kelce might have eaten seven sandwiches while he was there, but Kelce paying a shiva call during a time his coach was hurting stuck with him. It’s one of the reasons Rotsky, who now coaches at Villa Angela-St. Joseph in Cleveland, will be “forever loyal” to his former star, who has become an All-Pro tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“It’s not necessarily a comfortable thing for a high school kid coming to his coach’s house who just lost his father,” Rotsky said. “So, forever grateful. Forever grateful.”

How Rotsky helped Kelce, both in high school and during some turbulent days in college at Cincinnati, remained with Kelce, too. At some point during Kelce’s college career, Rotsky received a handwritten letter from Kelce, telling him he understood what his coach was trying to teach him.

“It was powerful,” Rotsky said. “And you know, he might not even remember, but his old coach does.” — Michael Rothstein


George Kittle’s aggressiveness reflected in … pie eating?

Kittle played safety during his early years at Iowa City West High School, where former defensive backs coach Garrett Hartwig would reward a player getting an interception with a slice of pie from a local store.

But on one occasion when Kittle picked off a pass, only pie halves were available. Hartwig bought it anyway and gifted it to Kittle during a 20-minute period between the team lift and a meeting.

In minutes, the pie was gone.

“I don’t even know where he found a fork,” said Hartwig, now the head coach at Iowa City West. You know, most players will take it home. I looked over, and he was just stuffing his face with this pie. I’ll remember that until the day I’m done coaching.

“He’s just aggressive. He played hard. He lifted hard. And then he attacked that pie aggressively. I was honestly shocked.” — Kris Rhim


The time Dre Greenlaw was afraid of … Mr. Fluffypants?

There’s nothing Greenlaw is afraid of on the football field, but there was something that spooked him during his high school days.

When the 49ers linebacker attended Fayetteville (Arkansas) High School, one of the pet hamsters in the home of assistant coach Brian Early got loose. The Early family took in Greenlaw when the group home he was living in shuttered.

For days, Mr. Fluffypants’ trail was spotted in the house, but he was not seen until one day when Greenlaw saw something scurry out of a shoe. And Greenlaw alerted the whole house.

“Here’s this 230-pound NFL linebacker now, and he’s screaming at a 5-ounce hamster that just runs out of his house shoe,” said Early, now an assistant coach at Missouri. — Ben Baby


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McCaffrey’s competitiveness has made the 49ers running back one of the best in the NFL, but when he was a teenager at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, it made for challenges on the team’s 4×100-meter relay team.

McCaffrey originally ran the anchor leg — typically designated for the fastest runner — for the school’s record-setting unit. But Brian Kula, then the head track coach, had to move McCaffrey out of the anchor spot because of a moment when his competitiveness got in the way.

If McCaffrey saw an opposing team’s anchor taking off before him, he would run too, sometimes running out of the legal baton exchange zone and disqualifying the team. One time, Kula recalled, McCaffrey didn’t get the baton because he left early with an opposing team’s runner. Instead of stopping, he finished the race, beating the other anchor legs who had their batons. The team was disqualified, of course, and Kula moved McCaffrey to the first leg of the relay.

“We had coaches up in arms, yelling like, ‘They’re cheating. They didn’t have the baton,'” said Kula, who is now McCaffrey’s personal trainer. “But, that’s Christian, man. It didn’t matter. He was going to keep competing anyway.” — Kris Rhim


When Kyle Juszczyk took matters into his own hands

Justin Vorhies, who was the receivers coach at Cloverleaf High School during Juszczyk’s days at the Lodi, Ohio, school, recalled a game in which Juszczyk saved the day with some quick thinking. In an early-season game against Green High School during Juszczyk’s senior year, unbeaten Cloverleaf was about to attempt a game-tying 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

Juszczyk, who was the holder, had a better idea: win the game outright.

“He saw something that [suggested] we could try a fake field goal,” Vorhies said. “So he checked to the fake without us coaches knowing and threw a touchdown pass.

“And the funny thing is, after the game, in the paper, the other team’s coach said, ‘Everyone knew they were going for a fake field goal.’ When in actuality, none of us knew.” — Katherine Terrell


Jake Moody’s secret talent may be surprising

Moody’s kicking honors are well known: two-time All-American and Lou Groza Award winner at Michigan, third-round draft pick of the Niners and the NFL record holder for longest kick by a rookie (57 yards).

His coach at Northville (Michigan) High School, Matt Ladach, takes no credit for Moody’s success in football, but Ladach can take some credit for helping him along at another sport.

“The games of badminton that Jake and I used to have were phenomenal,” Ladach said. “I would hit the drop shots, he would dig them out, then I would hit it clear to the baseline, and there was not a shot that he could not get to.”

Ladach said Moody has one skill that might come in handy if the 49ers call for a fake field goal.

“He was our emergency quarterback his senior year, and I would not have hesitated to put him in a game to play quarterback,” Ladach said. “But early on, we made the commitment to Jake that we were moving him up to the varsity to be a kicker. … The intent was always for him to just be our kicker. But could he have played other positions? Absolutely.” — Katherine Terrell


Who wears a cowboy hat to a Great Gatsby party?

Those who knew Brock Purdy well in Perry High School in Gilbert, Arizona, use similar terms to describe him: serious, mature and passionate about school and faith. There was the time Purdy kicked his coaches out of the locker room ahead of a state championship game because he wanted to talk to the team without them, or when he helped his economics class with a challenging project.

But Purdy also has a playful side, which can shine sometimes without him trying. Purdy’s English teacher his junior year, Katie Cambra, threw a Great Gatsby-themed party for her class. Students were asked to wear 1920s Gatsby-inspired clothing (typically a suit and bow ties, dresses or something close).

Purdy showed up in a cowboy hat.

“I’m like, ‘Brock, you’re wearing a cowboy hat,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, that’s dresswear,'” Cambra said while laughing. “He is exactly who he acts like he is. He doesn’t care. That’s who Brock is, genuine to the core.”– Kris Rhim


How playing the tuba changed Harrison Butker’s career arc

The Chiefs’ Butker is the second-most accurate kicker in league history, behind the Baltimore Ravens’ Justin Tucker, and it’s all thanks to playing the tuba.

Butker and Jeff Oser were tuba players in the band at Westminster High School in Atlanta. Butker also played club soccer, while Oser was the football team’s kicker. When Oser was about to graduate, he told the football team’s kicking coach, Joe Sturniolo, about Butker.

Butker gave football a shot. Within a year, he gave up club soccer to focus on a new sport.

“He thought his future was in soccer,” Sturniolo said. “I told Jeff Oser … he should be an NFL GM, because he’s the one that found Harrison.” — Katherine Terrell


Why Isiah Pacheco wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out

As a running back at Vineland (New Jersey) South High School, Pacheco had a way to celebrate a touchdown that was easy to miss, which was kind of the point.

As he crossed the goal line for many of his 33 touchdowns over his final two years at school, he would stick his neck out like a sprinter crossing the finish line.

It was Pacheco’s way of being able to add some flair to his game in a situation where any sort of celebration might be penalized.

“It was kind of hilarious,” his high school coach, Dan Russo, said. “And usually with something like that, they throw a flag in high school, but it was so quick and he really was trying to get over the goal line, but you know how a sprinter always puts their head over the line? That was his patented move.” — Michael Rothstein


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When Deebo Samuel nearly gave up football

Samuel’s basketball coach at Chapman High School in Inman, South Carolina, might be the reason the world knows Samuel as a star receiver for the 49ers.

Samuel earned all-state honors as a football and basketball player in high school, but basketball was his main focus, his coach, Greg Wilson, said.

As he is on the football field, Samuel was a physical basketball player and loved finishing layups with contact, bouncing off defenders for leaping-twisting-turning scores.

Samuel’s love for basketball was so strong that he once told Wilson he was planning to quit football for fear of getting hurt for the basketball season. But Wilson said he told Samuel he wouldn’t allow him to return to the basketball team if he didn’t keep his commitment to football.

“The irony is he’s now made millions of dollars playing football,” Wilson said with a chuckle. — Kris Rhim


The day before Ward showed up to summer workouts for the first time at McComb (Mississippi) High School in 2013, rain soaked the field, turning it into mud. Marquis McFarland, who was the team’s wide receivers coach, was getting ready to put his group through drills when Ward stepped out of a car wearing white, shell-toe Adidas shoes.

Everyone else was in cleats. Ward hadn’t played high school football until that day during his junior year. And yet, while everyone slipped in the mud, Ward went through all of the cone drills and footwork drills without falling.

McFarland went to head coach Malcolm Jones to learn more about the mysterious player who asked to join the workouts.

“[Jones] looked at me and said, ‘Coach, that’s the best athlete in the school,'” McFarland recalled.

Ward initially wanted to play wide receiver but switched to cornerback to get playing time immediately. It was a prescient move for the future Niners cornerback.

“He locked up everybody who lined up in front of him,” McFarland said. — Ben Baby


Why Rashee Rice’s cheering section was so ‘impactful’

A couple of days before his son, Drew, was about to play in his first tackle Pop Warner football game, Richland (Texas) High School coach Ged Kates mentioned it casually to his team.

As Drew’s game was about to kick off at the Richland Youth Association, Ged did a double-take when he looked at the crowd. His star receiver, Rashee Rice — then a high school junior, now a rookie receiver with the Chiefs — walked into the facility with a couple of teammates.

They sat behind the bench “almost like a little rooting section,” cheered on Drew’s team and stayed for the entire game, patting the players on the helmets throughout.

“That meant just volumes,” Ged Kates said. “As a matter of fact, my kid still has that picture in his room, and he’s now a 17-year-old kid. So it’s impactful. [Rice] has always been that way.

“Rashee took that to heart, and now he really understands his platform is much larger than just high school kids to middle school kids, stuff like that. And that’s why he’s becoming what he is becoming.” — Michael Rothstein


When Karlaftis and his family moved from Greece to West Lafayette, Indiana, in fall 2014, he had never stepped onto a football field. He had grown up as a water polo goalie and played other sports, but it wasn’t until his move to the United States in eighth grade that he decided he wanted to try football.

“He had no idea what football was or how to play football or anything,” West Lafayette High School football coach Shane Fry said. “So he was like a little kid learning football for the first time, but just in this monstrous body and with all this ability. … And I had to constantly tell our coaches … when he asks a question that seems very, very basic, he’s not messing with you. He really needs to know.'”

On Karlaftis’ first play — the final game of his eighth grade season — he went in and jumped offside on the first play.

“He had no idea what that meant or why he was being flagged and yelled at,” Fry said. “And then the next time he just kind of went by the offensive line and he didn’t get touched, and he came back over — and the varsity staff, we’re all on the sidelines watching. And he said, ‘I got past the center, which was easy, but what do I do next?’

“And we’re all looking at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh.'”

Karlaftis went on to become the Indiana Class 3A Player of the Year and a four-star defensive end, as ranked by ESPN. He was also a two-time state champion in the shot put. — Sarah Barshop


Chris Jones built a reputation in high school

During the summer between Jones’ junior and senior years at Houston (Mississippi) High School, the school was renovating its fieldhouse. And every day, football coach William Cook said, Jones would show up ready to work with the coaches to help with whatever they needed, including building the lockers.

Jones played only two years at Houston High School after transferring from Nettleton High School, but he made an impact. Cook said he remembers when Jones’ teammates had to do extra conditioning and Jones would stick around to do it with them.

“He was exceptionally gifted on the field, but like I said, he’s a great person, working with other students and other teammates,” Cook said. “Easy to get along with, but he knew when it was time to get serious.

“He could be the one to keep the room laughing, or he could be the one [to say] it was time to get down to business too.” — Sarah Barshop



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