By Keith MacPherson, Register Sports Editor
Darcel McBath is going to the Super Bowl. And – technically – it won’t be his first trip.
The San Francisco 49ers special teams ace and 2004 graduate of Gainesville High School will be taking part in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Sunday – nearly 16 years after playing in a game by the same name with less on the line.
The 49ers will take on the Baltimore Ravens at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in the Super Dome.
McBath’s first encounter with the Super Bowl came as a sixth grader as a member of the First State Bank Broncos while playing pee-wee football at the Cooke County Youth Center.
McBath led the Broncos to a 26-13 win over Valley View to claim the championship. He was a Super Bowl champion – of pee-wee football.
Now he’s looking to claim the same title, only on a bigger stage.
After making the team in the final days of training camp, McBath has worked his way into a major piece of the 49ers’ special team puzzle. His No. 28 jersey can be spotted on every aspect of special teams – punt, kickoff, punt return and kick return.
“It’s exciting,” McBath said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. It’s something you always dream of growing up. To be a part of the history and the atmosphere – it’s exciting.”
While the Super Bowl is the ultimate stage in sports, McBath has been no stranger to the big game in his career.
From Prep to Pro
As a Leopard, McBath was a member of the 2001-2002 state championship basketball team – a year he sat out of playing football. The multi-talented then-sophomore provided a 3-point threat off the bench in a sixth man role.
Perhaps what Leopard fans remember him most for, though, is his monster season as a senior in football. As a two-way player McBath recorded 75 tackles, intercepted six passes while also catching 14 touchdown passes as a receiver and returning two punt returns for touchdowns.
McBath helped the Leopards capture the 2003 Class 3A Division I state championship with a 35-24 win over Burnet and future NFL players Stephen McGee and Jordan Shipley.
“(The feeling between the state title game and Super Bowl) really feels about the same,” McBath said. “I’ve got a lot of pride in my team and we’ve all been through a lot to make it to this point. The state title was a big deal because it was me with the guys I grew up with against guys our age from similar towns. It’s the ‘us versus them’ mentality that is most similar.”
McBath carried the success from high school with him out west to Lubbock where at Texas Tech he became an All-Big 12 Conference safety in helping the Red Raiders to one of the best seasons in the program’s history.
After a successful career at Texas Tech, the Denver Broncos selected McBath in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft – 48th overall.
Road to San Francisco
Following a handful of setbacks that included injury problems and a coaching regime change in Denver, McBath found himself as a free agent heading into the 2012 offseason.
The three-year pro sat out nearly the entire 2011 season and was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars on April 23, 2012 after only playing one game with the team.
“It was really tough,” McBath said. “When I got cut I was out the whole year. I watched every Sunday just wishing I was out there.”
That’s when McBath got help from a Gainesville legend – Kevin Mathis.
Mathis, a 1992 Gainesville High grad, spent nine years in the NFL as a cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
The two former Leopards formed a plan aimed at getting McBath healthy and back into the league for good.
“Kevin was huge in helping me get back,” McBath said. “He’d been there and done that already. He helped me adopt the work ethic and technique to constantly be in game shape. He always said, ‘You never know when that call will come.’ So I had to be ready when it did.”
That call came in late July from the 49ers, inviting McBath to training camp as the 90th man on the roster – the maximum number allowed by the NFL to begin camp.
McBath worked his way onto the roster after an impressive preseason that saw him record five tackles and intercept a pass in San Francisco’s final tune-up – a 35-3 thrashing of the San Diego Chargers.
“Those final three preseason games were huge for me,” McBath said. “I got a lot of playing time and really took advantage of it. I always showed up at practice and played real hard. I guess they liked what they had in me.”
McBath went on to record seven tackles including two in a 27-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 to close the regular season.
On to the big game
McBath is always the first to celebrate a big play with his teammates.
Big tackle? McBath is there with the high-five. Touchdown? McBath is on the sideline ready for a flying side-bump.
Make no doubt about it, McBath has enjoyed the journey to the Super Bowl.
“It just goes back to being out that year,” McBath said. “Just seeing how temporary all this really is. I get excited when my teammates do something good because I see all the hard work that goes into their success. There’s no where I’d rather be than out on that field.”
McBath has fit right into the loose, yet business-like atmosphere that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has cultivated in the rejuvenated franchise that is in search of its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
A mostly veteran team, McBath has had a chance to learn from perennial Pro Bowl players such as Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Randy Moss.
The always-competitive McBath enjoys being able to line up against some of the greatest players to play the game in practice including the Hall of Fame-bound Moss.
“I’ve been ‘Mossed’ a time or two,” McBath joked. “But Randy’s been ‘McBathed’ once or twice, too. It’s a dream to be playing out there every day against someone you grew up watching.”
Now the Super Bowl is set and McBath has a chance to the first former Leopard to bring home a ring from the big game. But while the bright lights will shine down on his gold helmet and millions of people watch from around the world on Sunday, McBath said he’ll never forget his roots and he’s grateful for where he came from.
“I’m proud to be from Gainesville,” he said. “I love representing my town out there. My fans from Gainesville have been with me through the ups and downs. They’ve always believed in me. Hopefully we can finish this out and I can bring back a Super Bowl title.”
It won’t be the first time.