It was always about Atlanta for Dante Fowler Jr., when he was in college. Win the division and go play for a championship in Atlanta.
Atlanta, Atlanta, Atlanta.
He finally made it. He just didn’t know he’d have to take such a circuitous path to get there.
“When I was at Florida, it was a very good experience, got a great education and they developed me into an elite player,” he said. “But I wasn’t able to win championships or take the Gators to a championship.
“Now, I’m going to the Super Bowl in Atlanta. It’s funny how it worked out. It’s really cool. I’m just honored to be one of the Florida Gators playing in the Super Bowl.”
Fowler will be playing on the biggest stage in sports Sunday after making one of the biggest plays of the season in last week’s NFC title game.
Let’s forget the no-call for a second (please, New Orleans?) and focus on how the Rams won in overtime. The Saints got the ball first, which usually dooms the other team with the NFL’s archaic OT rules.
Then came Dante.
Fowler put a lightning-fast spin move on his blocker and smacked New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees from the front, forcing Brees to throw a flutter ball that John Johnson intercepted falling backward at the Los Angeles 46.
It was all over but the field goal and Los Angeles was off to the Super Bowl.
On the field after the game, NFL Films captured Fowler almost in tears as he got a hug from teammate Aaron Donald.
“You made that big play, you hear me?” Donald told Fowler. “You made that play for us. I appreciate you, you hear me? Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
The realization hit Fowler almost immediately. His last game at Florida had been the lowly Birmingham Bowl in front of a small crowd in a dump of a stadium (my words, not his). The year before, he played on a Gator team that won four games.
Now, well, this.
“As soon as that kick went through, it hit me,” Fowler said. “All the hard work, all the trials and tribulations. Man, you’re about to play in the biggest game in any sport and the game you grew up dreaming of playing in.
“It’s a little surreal.”
That he is even in La-La Land is a little surreal. Fowler was the third pick of the 2015 NFL draft, the kind of edge rusher that fit perfectly into the plans to make Jacksonville into Sack-sonville.
But he tore his ACL in mini-camp as a rookie. He bounced back to record 12 sacks the next two seasons. But in the middle of the 2018 season, the Rams had issues with injuries (coincidentally, one of them was to former Fowler teammate at UF Dominique Easley) and were looking to improve their pass rush.
Fowler had seen his playing time drop in Jax, a season low 35 percent of the snaps against the Eagles in the seventh game of the season, so it wasn’t a total shock that he was trade bait.
Rams general manager Les Snead offered a pair of draft picks for Fowler and Jacksonville bit. After a career of playing football in Florida — high school in St. Petersburg, college in Gainesville, pro ball by the St. Johns River — Fowler was on a plane just hours after being told he was traded.
“It was a blessing, a clean start,” Fowler said. “I haven’t looked back since then.”
If he did, he’d see the carnage of Jacksonville’s season while he is part of the only two teams still practicing.
“The only crazy thing was there was nervousness,” Fowler said. “It really sunk in when I was on the plane. Dang, I’m leaving Florida. I’ve been here all my life. Now I have to make this quick, sudden change.
“But once I got here the first day, met all these beautiful people, I was fine.”
Fowler made a quick impression on the Rams, who were ascending with the same speed the Jags were descending. He played more snaps in his first game with L.A. than any game in Jacksonville.
“Once that happened I knew I would fit in fine,” Fowler said. “I showed them right from the start that I’m a guy they can depend on.”
On Sunday, he’ll see a familiar face across the line of scrimmage the times he lines up opposite New England’s left tackle. Former UF teammate Trent Brown, all 380-pounds of him, is another guy who was traded to a Super Bowl team, although he was acquired before this season started.
“I know how great a player he is,” Fowler said. “Watching him evolve and now we’re playing in the Super Bowl (chuckles). I always wanted to get reps against him at Florida. We sharpened each other up for moments like this.”
Surreal moments like this.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.