As he strolled the cobblestone streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter 11 years ago, Jace Sayler spotted one of his childhood heroes from his days growing up in McHenry.
Heading toward him was William Perry, the former Bears’ defensive lineman.
At least, Sayler thought, he sure looked like the gap-toothed Super Bowl star known as “The Fridge.”
“I remember seeing him and being like, ‘Please don’t have a tooth, please don’t have a tooth,’ ” said Sayler, 33, who now lives in Woodstock. “And then he smiled and he didn’t have a tooth, and I was like, ‘That is him!’ ”
It’s a memory Sayler will never forget.
The same holds true for most of Sayler’s memories from Super Bowl week.
On Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will line up for Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It will be the first Super Bowl game played in New Orleans since 2002, when first-year starter Tom Brady and the New England Patriots stunned the St. Louis Rams, 20-17.
Sayler was a defensive lineman on that Patriots team, which won the first of three championships in a four-year span. He won a starting job in Week 1 but spent the bulk of the season on injured reserve because of a thigh bruise that caused bleeding on the inside of his leg.
Because of his injury, Sayler could not play in the Super Bowl. But the former McHenry and Michigan State standout traveled with the Patriots from New England to New Orleans, and he had a front-row seat to everything on and off of the field as the big game approached.
“I just remember things moving so fast,” Sayler said.
Every day is a party in New Orleans. Imagine Super Bowl week leading directly into Mardi Gras.
Celebrities hosted parties. Athletes hosted parties. High-profile companies hosted parties.
One of Sayler’s college teammates, T.J. Duckett, threw a party. It was tame compared with some of the other events taking place around town, including a Playboy party headlined by Stone Temple Pilots.
It was like a dream – albeit a really, really strange dream.
“This is my craziest memory of the Super Bowl: Seeing Snoop Dogg hanging out with [Patriots teammate] Willie McGinest,” Sayler said with a laugh. “That was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever seen. I mean, I’m from McHenry, Illinois.
“I found out after the Super Bowl that Willie McGinest and Snoop Dogg went to high school together. He was hanging out with us after the game. It was unreal.”
Unlike almost everyone else in the city, the Patriots waited until after the game to let loose.
Patriots no-nonsense headmaster Bill Belichick wouldn’t have had it any other way. Neither would the team’s veteran leaders, most of whom had never been so close to winning a Super Bowl ring.
“The whole team mentality was like that,” Sayler said. “Back then, on that team, it was Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law. Those guys had a chokehold on that team – and [defensive lineman] Anthony Pleasant, he was an old-school vet. When he talked, everyone listened.
“Nobody ever steered away from what was going on. When they said it was a business trip, nobody wanted to mess that up.”
It turned out to be one of the most exciting games in Super Bowl history.
The Patriots jumped out to a 17-3 lead and frustrated the Rams’ record-setting offense. But the Rams regrouped as Kurt Warner led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives to tie the score, 17-17.
With 1:21 remaining, Brady and the Patriots took over on their 17-yard line.
Nine quick plays later, Adam Vinatieri lined up for a 48-yard field goal attempt to win the game.
Sayler was nervous and excited. Not for Vinatieri, but for long-snapper Lonnie Paxton.
“When the kick comes, I’m just sitting there praying to God that it’s a good snap,” Sayler said. “Because that’s my roommate who is the long-snapper.”
It was a great snap.
It was a great kick.
It’s a great memory.
“It’s just a surreal moment,” Sayler said. “It really is. It’s everything you want it to be as a kid.”
Then again, in the mind of a kid, you’re on the field wearing pads and a helmet in the Super Bowl. You’re not injured and watching from an upper-level suite as your teammates compete below.
Sayler isn’t one to complain. He knows how lucky he is to have a Super Bowl ring.
“It’s bittersweet in that way, I guess you could put it,” Sayler said. “But what could I be mad at? I’ve got something that some guys play 15 years for and they’re never going to get.
“In that sense, if I say that [it’s bittersweet], I’m being really selfish. I’m really happy about everything. I’ve got no regrets about my career or how things turned out.”
• Northwest Herald columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tcmusick.