Back to their roots on football's biggest stage

HOUSTON -- As a senior at John Horn High School in Mesquite, Texas, Taylor Gabriel didn't see himself playing in the NFL let alone at the college level.

Recruiters told Gabriel his 5-foot-8 frame was too short, too small and too slow to play Division I football. So he accepted an offer from Abilene Christian University in 2010, a Division II program at the time. After going undrafted in the 2014 draft, he signed with the Cleveland Browns. After two seasons, he was released and picked up by the Falcons before the start of the 2016 season.

As one of the 16 players from Texas on the Falcons and Patriots returning to play at home in Super Bowl LI, the 25-year-old Atlanta wide receiver will suit up in Houston, 240 miles south of his hometown.

Gabriel learned early that his success wouldn't be handed to him. Instead, he chose to use his setbacks as motivation to work harder.

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder because it drives you," Gabriel said. "It makes you focused. It makes you stay after practice late and catch balls with Matt (Ryan) and run routes and just have the feeling of someone not outworking you."

His high school coach, Rodney Webb, saw this same work ethic from Gabriel. Webb accepted the head-coaching job at Horn in the spring of Gabriel's junior year, stepping into a program he said lacked a blue-collar, hard-working mentality. Webb relied on Gabriel as someone he could use to help others understand the value of hard work.

"He was one of those guys that you never had to coach effort," Webb said. "It was every play in practice, he'd give tremendous effort."

Webb moved on to Rockwall High School in 2013 and still points to Gabriel as a role model. The player visited Rockwall recently to share the difficulties he has overcome and to give encouragement to guys who may not think they can make it.

Webb said he was hopeful the NFC Championship game would be played in Dallas so Gabriel could play in his hometown. But being able to play anywhere in Texas adds a special element nonetheless.

Gabriel said playing close to home has added to the excitement and he expects around 15 friends and family members at NRG Stadium.

"To have reporters from Dallas, Fort Worth or from Mesquite that I had in high school, coming out here to report on me playing in the Super Bowl, it's a dream come true just to have this opportunity," Gabriel said. "It's a blessing."

The Atlanta roster has six other Texas high school football players, including 41-year-old kicker Matt Bryant, who played at Bridge City High School in Orange.

"It's great to be back," Bryant said, "Like you said, playing the best game you can play here."

Bryant, a 15-year NFL veteran, has been with the Falcons since 2009 and has been a reliable resource throughout the season. He will appear in his first Super Bowl after connecting on 37 of 41 field-goal attempts this season.

The Patriots sport nine guys on their roster with a Texas background. Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon played at Odessa High School in his hometown.

Cannon, who is in his sixth season with the Patriots, expects about 30 friends and family to be at the game Sunday.

"It means a lot," Cannon said, "Of course you're trying to stay focused on the game and everything, but you know it's awesome to play in Texas (and) have everybody be able to come around and see the game."

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