FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Two of the best quarterbacks in the game will square off in Sunday's Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. Darnell Dinkins once thought he could get there, too.
He did, just not quite as he expected back when he was a star quarterback at Schenley High School. Not only did he not make it as a Super Bowl quarterback, he never played quarterback in the NFL or even in college at Pitt.
But Dinkins is here, playing in his first Super Bowl, and so is another former Pitt Panther, Clint Session. They are here in part because they changed positions during their days at Pitt.
Dinkins went from Johnny Majors quarterback recruit to safety with the Panthers under Walt Harris to tight end in the pros. Session went from middle linebacker under Harris to outside linebacker under Dave Wannstedt.
They are on opposite sides, in uniform and in position, in age and in stature this week. Dinkins, who cut his teeth on special teams before the New York Giants turned him into a tight end, plays behind star New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey and mostly blocks. He is 33. Session is a rising star in the league and plays the weakside linebacker for the Colts. He is 25.
Dinkins took a more roundabout route to the big game. At Pitt, he was told he would not play quarterback by Majors and he was bitter after leaving high school as the Post-Gazette's City League MVP and playing in the Big 33 game. When Walt Harris arrived, he convinced Dinkins to play safety, where he started for three years.
The NFL, though, did not come calling. Like Johnny Unitas a long time earlier, he wound up playing in Pittsburgh on a semi-pro team. He later signed with the Giants, played in NFL Europe and then-Giants coach Jim Fassel converted him into a tight end.
"I made a lot of plays on special teams and they said we have to find a spot for this kid to make the team and tight end was it," Dinkins said. "I was able to make plays and adapt and learn fast. That's one thing I learned from coach Harris at Pitt. When you love the game you find a way to adapt and make it happen."
He has played for the Giants, Ravens, Browns and now the Saints, who will appear in their first Super Bowl Sunday after years as mostly the laughingstock of the league. But those fans who once wore paper bags over their heads at "Aints" games are now on board. Their success this season has been compared to the Steelers of 1974 when they shed their own longtime losing image to reach and win their first Super Bowl.
"I have heard that people in Pittsburgh back then were like those in New Orleans now, super excited," said Dinkins, too young to remember those early, heady Super Bowl days in his hometown. "You're talking about guys walking around with dresses on because a reporter once said if they ever made the Super Bowl he'd walk down Bourbon Street in a dress. The fans are real excited just for this moment; for the whole city it just means a lot."
Session, too, has enjoyed the trip. He was a middle linebacker when Wannstedt arrived at Pitt, looked at him and H.B. Blades and shuffled his linebackers.
"I remember our first spring practice," Wannstedt said. "I think he had torn cartilage in his knee and I watched about two practices, and the school I come from, if guys can run and make plays, that's kind of what our defense was made on. I remember saying to my coaches, 'Somehow, some way -- this guys is more explosive than H.B, faster than H.B -- we have to figure a way to get him on the field and get him on board with the program.'
"He was playing in the middle some, H.B. was playing on the weakside. I said, 'Here's what we're going to do: H.B, you move to the middle and Clint, we're going to move you outside because you have the ability to cover in space.' "
Both Florida natives flourished. Blades earned Big East defensive player of the year. Session started two seasons and became a team captain. Although overshadowed by Blades at Pitt, Session was drafted in the fourth round by the Colts and Blades in the sixth by the Redskins.
Session became a starter in his second season, 2008, with the Colts at strongside linebacker and this season moved to the weak side, where he often plays behind end Dwight Freeney in the 4-3 defense. He had 104 tackles and two interceptions in 2009.
One year ago, Session watched on his TV as linebacker James Harrison intercepted a pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown to end the first half for the Steelers on way to their victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Session watched Steelers linebackers at work while training next door to them at their shared facility with the Panthers on the South Side UPMC complex.
"Ah, man, to be a game-changer in a big game like that! That's what we all dream about," said Session, sporting a Mohawk haircut he promised to get if the Colts reached the Super Bowl. "The big hits are fine, but you talk about a game-changing moment, he did that. That's what I'd like to have, too."
Just in case, he signed a contract with Disney, you know, where the Super Bowl MVP goes after the game.
You "pretty much know what the deal is," Session said. "They only give that to offensive players."
Despite Harrison's record-breaking touchdown, the MVP in last year's game went to wide receiver Santonio Holmes. What might it take for a weakside linebacker to earn such an honor?
"Probably like three or four interceptions, two of them to the crib, 15 tackles, eight sacks, maybe," Session said.
As both Session and Dinkins know, you can't win if you don't play the game.