(Appeared in the Asbury Park Press - Written by Stephen Edelson - Staff Writer)
Scott Simonson is the first to admit it's been a crazy journey from Middletown South to the NFC Championship game, with stops at Assumption College and the Oakland Raiders along the way.
But as the 23-year-old tight end and his Carolina Panthers teammates prepare to meet the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, with a trip to Super Bowl 50 hanging in the balance, he's constantly reminded about how fleeting it all can be.
"Coach tells us all the that he was on the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl,'' Simonson said of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a former Bears linebacker. "He said they were such a young team, too. I think he was only 25 or 26, and he thought when they won it they we're going to be on top for a while and go to a couple more Super Bowls. But he said he never got that far again, and that you never know when you're going to get another shot, so enjoy it, and embrace it.and take full advantage of it.''
That shouldn't be difficult for Simonson, who has taken advantage of every opportunity he's been given.
When he landed on the Raiders' practice squad last season as an undrafted free agent, he showed enough to get activated for the final five games of the season. And when the Raiders released him during the offseason, he got a workout with the Panthers within a week and they signed him.
Once again he showed enough for the Panthers to add him to their practice squad, and after six games he was added to the active roster, where he's been ever since. He even made his first career catch, a a 10-yard reception against Atlanta in Week 14.
"It's exciting for me,'' he said. "Guys who have played in the league for 10 years have never experienced something like this or gotten to experience getting to a championship game and being this close to the Super Bowl. And for me to experience it at 23 years old, my second year in the league, it's definitely pretty crazy. And I appreciate all the support, all the emails and texts, I've gotten.''
The top-seeded Panthers (15-2) got out to a 31-0 lead on the Seattle Seahawks in last weekend's divisional round playoff game, before hanging on for a 31-24 victory. it was reminiscent of their win at MetLife Stadium in December, when they let a 28-point second half lead slip away against the Giants, before winning it 38-35.
"Unfortunately, it was familiar territory for us,'' he said. ``The New York game was the same situation. All the guys at halftime were making it a point to keep foot on pedal and not let them back in the game. Obviously, it didn't go that way, but we had a good enough first half to hold them off.''
If the Panthers are able to make it to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, Simonson would be the third Middletown South product to play in the highest profile sporting event there is, joining running back Knowshon Moreno, who played for the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium two years ago, and defensive tackle Christian Peter, a member of the Giants' team that lost to Baltimore in Tampa to close the 2000 season.
"There's just been a lot of talk from guys like Greg Olson and Jericho Cotchery, who have been in this position,'' Simonson added. "They relay the same message. Enjoy the feeling and the attention we're getting, but you don't want to look back at this game and wonder what might have been. So just know that you did everything right, and hopefully it pays off in the end.''