The Tri-Cities area is assured of a connection to Super Bowl 47 with the matchup in this Sunday’s NFC Championship game.
The Atlanta Falcons, coached by former ETSU linebacker Mike Smith, will face the San Francisco 49ers, which has former Dobyns-Bennett lineman Daniel Kilgore who plays guard and center.
They are among a half-dozen individuals from the immediate Tri-Cities area who made a major impact in the NFL this season.
Others include Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, Dallas Cowboys defensive back Gerald Sensabaugh and Tennessee Titans defensive back Coty Sensabaugh.
Smith, who played at ETSU from 1977-81, has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier coaches in five years with the Falcons. He was the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2008, and became the winningest coach in Falcons history with an October win over Philadelphia, his 50th career victory.
Overall, he has posted a 56-24 record in the regular season, while Atlanta’s 30-28 win over Seattle this past Sunday was Smith’s first career playoff victory.
Smith coached for 17 years in the college ranks before joining his brother-in-law Brian Billick on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff in 1999. Two years later, they celebrated a 34-7 Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants.
In 2003, Smith was named defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he served for five seasons before getting a shot as NFL head coach. This season, the Falcons finished 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff bracket.
Kilgore, a 6-foot-3, 308-pound lineman, was a fifth-round pick for the 49ers and the 163rd pick overall in the 2011 NFL draft. Playing left tackle at Appalachian State his senior season, Kilgore anchored an offensive line which allowed just eight sacks in 13 games.
It wasn’t all about pass protection as Mountaineers ranked seventh in the nation in scoring and eighth in rushing. For his efforts, Kilgore was named to both All-Southern Conference and All-American teams.
The 49ers traded up to draft Kilgore as a guard and center, although last year was used as more of a development season, which he played in only one contest. Second on the depth chart, he has been an intregal part of the offense this season and has appeared in all 17 games.
The San Francisco offense ranked 11th in points scored, yards gained and fourth in rushing yards among the 32 NFL teams this season. The 49ers were the second seed behind the Falcons with an 11-4-1 record in the regular season.
Among the others, it was a banner year for Witten as the former Elizabethton star set the NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end.
Witten tied an NFL single-game record with 18 catches against the Giants and followed it up by passing Michael Irvin as the Cowboys’ all-time leading receiver a week later.
With the record 110 catches this season, Witten was named to the Pro Bowl for an eighth time and the AP All-Pro team for a sixth time over his 10-year career. Setting records is nothing new for Witten, who posted school records of 39 catches for 493 yards his final season at Tennessee.
This year’s record-setting campaign came after Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the preseason opener against the Raiders. He caught only two passes in the regular-season opener after questions whether he would be medically cleared to play.
Witten’s 806 career receptions and 8,948 receiving yards rank him third all-time among tight ends. If Witten stays healthy, he should pass Shannon Sharpe for second-place in career receptions list early next season. One of the most respected players in the league, Witten was recently honored with the Bart Starr Award, which recognizes character and leadership on and off the field.
Like his former Tennessee teammate, Franklin is also a 10-year NFL veteran. The former Science Hill lineman started nine games and appeared 12 games this season as a nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers. Franklin posted 20 tackles despite missing three games with a bone bruise and the final game of the season with a knee injury.
Franklin was drafted in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens and saw limited action his first two seasons. He worked his way into a larger role for the 2005 and ‘06 seasons before being traded to the 49ers.
Given an opportunity at a starting role, Franklin flourished over the next four seasons with a high mark of 46 tackles in 2008. His play in 2009, a year which he made 36 tackles and had a rare interception for a defensive lineman, earned Franklin the 49ers’ franchise player tag.
He played one final season in San Francisco, starting all 16 games, before playing one year with the New Orleans Saints. Midway through this season, Franklin had appeared in 73 consecutive games, third most in the NFL for a defensive tackle. The streak ended after suffering the bone bruise against Tampa Bay.
Over his career, Franklin has 224 tackles, solid numbers for an interior lineman.
Gerald Sensabaugh, who ended his college career at North Carolina after ETSU dropped football, recently finished his eighth NFL season and fourth with the Cowboys.
An outstanding all-around athlete, Sensabaugh won the state championship in the long jump his senior season at D-B, and his 46-inch vertical jump still ranks as the all-time best at the NFL combine.
He had nine starts his first two NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and played only two games an injury-plagued third season. Coming back more determined than ever, Sensabaugh started 13 of 16 games his final season in Jacksonville.
The starting safety for Dallas each of the past four seasons, Sensabaugh has career marks of 411 tackles, 14 interceptions and four forced fumbles.
His cousin Coty Sensabaugh is the latest Dobyns-Bennett player to make it to the professional ranks, selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans.
Sensabaugh was a special teams player and reserve cornerback at Clemson before breaking into the starting lineup. He started all 14 games his senior season, setting a school-record with with the most snaps played (993) for a defensive player.
He impressed at the NFL combine with his time of 4.42 seconds the fourth-fastest, 40-yard dash among cornerbacks. Displaying the determination that eventually made him a star in college, Sensabaugh appeared in all 16 regular-season games for the Titans, promoted to starting corner late in the season. He ended his rookie year with 31 tackles.
Over the 90-year history of Dobyns-Bennett football, 13 former Indians have been chosen in the NFL draft including the famed brother duo of Bobby and Ed Cifers.
Ironically, Bobby Dodd, perhaps the most famous name in D-B football history, didn’t play professionally. After compiling a 27-1-2 record as a quarterback Tennessee, he enjoyed a three-decade career as a college coach at Georgia Tech where he led the Yellow Jackets to the 1952 National Championship.
Counting Franklin, three former Science Hill players have played in the NFL. After winning the 1966 Heisman Trophy at Flordia, Steve Spurrier played for 10 seasons with San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Running back Van Williams enjoyed a four-year career with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.
Bo Austin, the 1957 Sun Bowl MVP, was drafted by the Washington Redskins before an injury in a preseason game cut his career short. Likewise, his high school teammate Bob Taylor, who was Vanderbilt’s leading receiver in 1956, played in the 1957 preseason with Baltimore Colts before a career-ending hamstring injury.
Shawn Witten, the current Elizabethton coach, earned a free-agent contract with the New York Jets in 2003, although he was released before the start of the preseason. Another former Cyclone, offensive lineman Jesse Birchfield, was picked by the Green Bay Packers in the 1956 NFL draft.
Birchfield, who as college senior helped then football powerhouse Duke score wins over defending national champion Ohio State and Tennessee, as well as an Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska, opted to play for Ottawa in the Canadian Football League before his career was cut short by a knee injury.