Carlson: Super Bowl was about Tom Brady, Bucs' defense & Gronk — but this Oklahoman had a part, too
Codey McElroy watched Tampa Bay transform in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
He could see it from his apartment in the city’s downtown; there is a park across the street where the NFL erected tents and held events. He would notice the change on his drive to work, too. There were billboards and signs and all sorts of things that were never there before.
But the Oklahoma native saw changes when he was at work, too.
Tight end on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad.
Even though his name is not widely known — people in Frederick where he was born and Chattanooga where he went to high school might beg to differ — McElroy had a hand in the Bucs’ championship season. He never got into a game or even spent any time on the active roster, though that could’ve changed in a heartbeat during this season of COVID, but every week, he played on the scout team and gave the defense a look at the offense it was about to see.
These past two weeks, as he helped mimic the Kansas City offense, he saw the Tampa Bay defense transform just like the city.
“They were just on top of their game,” he said. “They knew what was coming. They knew their assignments. They stayed true to that.
“It was fun to watch them go out there … and dominate.”
Tampa Bay kept Kansas City out of the end zone for the first time this season, and while Buccaneer defenders such as Shaquil Barrett and Devin White, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Sean Murphy-Bunting will get the much-deserved praise for that, don’t forget about Codey McElroy.
He’s a reminder of just how many people it takes to win a Super Bowl.
A reminder, too, of what can happen when you embrace opportunity.
McElroy, you see, is as unlikely a Super Bowl champion — yes, he’ll get a ring — as you will find. He’s been in professional football more years (three) than he was in high school and college football combined (one).
To say he has an unconventional path would be an understatement similar to “Tom Brady has won a few big games.”
McElroy grew up in Frederick and played every sport available. But when his dad, a teacher and coach, got a job in Chattanooga, football wasn’t an option, so McElroy focused on baseball and basketball.
He went on to play junior-college baseball for a year at Eastern Oklahoma State in Wilburton, then went to Texas for a season before returning home to play at Cameron in Lawton.
That’s only the beginning of his far-flung odyssey. Over the next four years, he crisscrossed the country as he played — and even coached — three different sports.
2014: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves. Played rookie and Class A ball.
2015: Played Class A ball, then retired from baseball. Returned to Oklahoma and walked on to the OSU basketball team.
2016: Hired as a coach on the Wichita State baseball team.
2017: Returned to Oklahoma and enrolled at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
“I was just trying to finish up my degree,” McElroy said of his decision to go to the small college in Durant.
Then, he realized Southeastern had a football field, so it must have a football program. McElroy hadn’t played football since middle school, so he had no illusions of grandeur. He just figured he’d walk on and have some fun.
“Why not do it?” he thought.
But a couple weeks into the season, he was playing receiver and catching touchdowns. Some pro scouts attended one of Southeastern’s games to look at a player on the other team, and instead, McElroy got their attention.
Soon, he was hearing from NFL types.
In 2018, he spent the preseason with the Los Angeles Rams.
In 2019, he landed with the Dallas Cowboys. He again made it through the preseason, but after he suffered an injury, the Cowboys cut him.
A few weeks later, the Buccaneers called.
Tampa Bay signed him to the practice squad midway through the 2019 season, and before the regular-season finale, he was activated. Darned if he didn’t catch a pass against Houston, too, a 30-yarder that he nearly scored on.
McElroy, a tight end listed at 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, entered the offseason hoping for more in 2020, but of course, his world got turned on its head last spring. First came the COVID shutdown. Then Tampa Bay acquired not only Tom Brady but also Rob Gronkowski.
The opportunities for McElroy to move onto the active roster dried up, but he believes he made the biggest strides of his career this season. He has gotten to work alongside one of the greatest ever in Gronkowski, plus up-and-comers Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
Also, McElroy got work on his skills against Tampa Bay’s defense, which was among the best in the league. The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl he mimicked Travis Kelce, Kansas City’s all-world tight end.
“He’s got a ton of freedom in that offense,” McElroy said. “He kind of just gets to get open, so it was a lot of fun to run his routes.”
While he acknowledged he’s not Kelce, McElroy worked hard to give the Bucs a good look and a worthy challenge heading into the Super Bowl.
Safe to say he did well — Tampa Bay kept Kelce out of the end zone for the first time in seven games.
By the time McElroy and the other practice squad players made their way onto the field Sunday night, the Bucs were well on their way to victory. McElroy was on the sidelines when White sealed the championship with an interception in the end zone.
The wonder of those moments was still evident the next day.
“It was awesome,” McElroy said via telephone Monday night from Tampa. “It was just crazy.”
As great as it was, the 28-year-old doesn’t want this to be his pinnacle.
“I don’t want to be done playing football,” he said. “I just can’t get enough of it right now.”
He plans to return to Oklahoma for a few weeks to relax — “And not get a nasal swab every single morning,” he said with a chuckle — but he will be back at work soon. He plans to keep improving. He wants to make the active roster.
Codey McElroy has seen transformations.
He wants to be the next big one.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.