Whether it was going up against Sammy Watkins in a high school region final playoff game, the Under-Armour All-American game, the East/West Shrine game in college or the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, Brian Poole shines in the big football games.
And there’s no grander stage than Sunday’s Super Bowl for the Southeast High and University of Florida alumnus to thrive.
“He steps up, meets the challenge and then does what he’s asked to do without a great amount of fanfare pre- and post-opportunity,” former Southeast High head coach Paul Maechtle said.
Poole, an East Bradenton native, is suiting up for the Atlanta Falcons, who are aiming to win their first Super Bowl title, against the New England Patriots in Houston on Sunday.
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He’s one of two Manatee County players on Atlanta’s roster. Braden River High alumnus Sharrod Neasman is the other.
To earn a chance at the franchise’s first championship, the Falcons defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round and the Packers in the NFC title game.
The latter brought mixed emotions for Maechtle, a Wisconsin native and longtime Packers fan.
“That was a little taxing ,” Maechtle said. “It was definitely a different feeling. Because the game got so out of hand, you could really focus on Brian and what he was doing. ... Every time he was out there, I was focusing on him and seeing what you could see from the TV copy. He played well. Had two great blitzes.”
With the Falcons, Poole is a nickelback. Sunday’s Super Bowl will see him go up against future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, and he’ll most likely get tasked with defending Patriots’ slot receivers.
“I mean, I haven’t really even thought about it yet,” Poole said in Thursday’s media session in Houston. “I really just approach it like it’s another week. Here, we don’t really pay much attention to our opponents or what they do or what they’re good at. It’s more just us, what we have to do, the game plan we have to execute.”
Back in high school, Poole followed Mike Jenkins and Jonathan Dowling as a shutdown corner at Southeast High. Both Jenkins, who starred at the University of South Florida, and Dowling, who played for Oregon head coach Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky, reached the NFL.
Dowling was the guy at Southeast before Poole entered the Seminole program. Filling Dowling’s shoes wasn’t an easy task after he set the program record for interceptions in a season. But as a career harbinger, Poole became the next star in a wave of Manatee County cornerbacks.
He became the guy in Southeast’s pass defense that matched up with the opposition’s best receiver. His final game with Southeast against South Fort Myers in the 2010 Class 3A regional final was no different. Both Maechtle and former Southeast defensive backs coach Craig Roundtree said they were confident matching Poole against Watkins, who starred at Clemson and is with Buffalo.
“I don’t think the stage is too big for him,” Roundtree said. “He’s grounded. He’s not a big-head type guy.”
Poole received one more crack against high school athletes in the 2012 Under Armour All-American game that featured current NFL players Jameis Winston, Amari Cooper and Landon Collins among others. His 93-yard interception return for a touchdown was the longest in the game’s history.
His shutdown corner skills earned Poole a five-star recruiting rating and a scholarship to the University of Florida, where he produced a standout four-year career. But on 2016’s draft day, Poole’s name wasn’t called.
Perhaps it was because of his size at 5-foot-9 or the fact two other players in the Gators secondary (Bucs corner Vernon Hargreaves and Falcons safety Keanu Neal) were taken in that draft.
“Who’s going to expect to have three top draft picks coming out of the same defensive backfield,” Maechtle said. “Now Florida’s going to have two again (this) year. That would’ve been five in two years.”
Poole didn’t lose faith. He signed with Atlanta as an undrafted free agent signing, where he knew head coach Dan Quinn, who had served as his defensive coordinator at Florida.
Poole asserted himself as a training camp standout, parlayed that into a Week 1 start against Tampa Bay and stood out in the playoffs for hits on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Neasman was a wide receiver for the Pirates during the program’s infancy, before transitioning to defensive back at Florida Atlantic University. Like Poole, he didn’t get drafted. Instead, he worked his way to Atlanta as an undrafted free agent and earned himself a shot at the roster off the practice squad. Neasman hasn’t appeared in a playoff game, yet, and played his only minutes of the season in the last three regular season weeks.
Still, the two are generating buzz around the area.
“You start hearing kids in the locker room talk about it, and that’s pretty cool,” Braden River High head coach Curt Bradley said. “And (Pirates defensive back) Tyrone Collins is related to Brian Poole, who is going to be playing in it, so that’s very special for him. Once you start getting ties with guys that are, one in the NFL and two in the Super Bowl, it’s pretty special and gives a little more motivation or aspiration for the young men here.”
Super Bowl LI
Who: Atlanta vs. New England
When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. (approx.)
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
More coverage, pages 4C-6C.