Ex-UMass star James Ihedigbo is playing in his fourth AFC title game
Don Brown's voice was on the other end of the phone, but one could imagine the smile on his face when he talks about James Ihedigbo.
"How many guys go from being a walk-on from Amherst Regional High School, earning a scholarship, becoming an All-Conference player to being a starter for the Patriots in the Super Bowl?" said Brown, the former University of Massachusetts football coach who coached Ihedigbo with the Minutemen.
Ihedigbo was part of the Class of 2006 and was not only a first-team defensive back on the All-Atlantic 10 Conference first team, but he was also named an All-American on three different teams.
The former Minuteman is playing in his fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game on Sunday as he and the Baltimore Ravens visit Gillette Stadium to play the New England Patriots -- the team he played in last year's title game with.
"No, [it's] not strange at all," said Ihedigbo on Wednesday, when asked during a media availability if it was strange being on the other side of this matchup after playing against the Ravens last year.
"It's exactly where it's supposed to be. I'm here as a Raven," he said. "I love being here. I'm proud to be here and I'm proud to go out with these guys and fight for the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl."
Ihedigbo went to two AFC championship games with the New York Jets, losing to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Last year as a member of the Patriots, Ihedigbo got a win, beating the Jets. The Pats did lose in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
"He did a great job of earning a scholarship when he came to UMass," said former UMass quarterback Liam Coen, a teammate of Ihedigbo's, now the quarterbacks coach at Brown University. "He absolutely worked his way up from a high school in Western Mass., walked on at UMass. Everything he got in life, he had to work for. He's never just let something be give to him."
For the second consecutive year, the defensive back has played in all 16 games for his team. He started three games for Baltimore after starting 12 in last year's regular season. Ihedigbo had 25 tackles, 18 solo, on the season. He had one sack and one pass breakup. The former Minuteman is still looking for his first career interception.
One thing is certain, James Ihedigbo has learned his New England Patriots lessons well. He was asked during a media availability in Baltimore about providing insight on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Spoken like a true believer, Ihedigbo didn't say much.
"A lot of coaches who are coaching here have gone against him a lot longer than I've been in the league -- six years," he said. "So, I don't know how much intel I can give into that."
Brown took over the Minutemen in 2004 when former UMass coach Mark Whipple took a job as quarterbacks coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"When I started, he was kind of standing up in the back when I was at my press conference," Brown said. "He asked me a question about what kind of defense we were going to run. I started talking about pressure and this and that. He was ready to jump out of his skin."
Brown described Ihedigbo as pound-for-pound, the toughest player he has ever coached. The former UMass coach recalls his pupil as having good cover skills with a linebacker mentality. Brown said the most memorable hit came in the 2006 NCAA Division I-FCS Championship Game, when Ihedigbo hit Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards on a running play. UMass lost the title game 28-17.
"We knew if we were going to have a chance in that game, we needed to rattle Edwards. Up until that point, we hadn't done it," said Coen. "He came up and made that big hit. We all thought that ‘Here we go, here's our chance.' Unfortunately, Edwards popped up with his 155-pound frame and threw us the first-down signal, which was a little deflating."
Just don't ask Brown which team he's pulling for, his hometown Patriots or the Ravens. He said it was tough to choose last year because Ihedigbo played for the Pats and former Minuteman Victor Cruz played for the Giants.
"Let's just say that I'm a New England football fan," Brown said, "but I have a special place in my heart for James. That's for sure."
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