Retired Malden High basketball coach Peter Carroll still remembers the feeling of bewilderment the first time he fielded a phone call from the University of Louisville 10 years ago regarding his senior hoops star, Breno Giacomini. Standing 6-foot-7 and blessed with huge hands, fleet feet and the occasional ability to step out for a 3-pointer, Giacomini was good -- but good enough for Rick Pitino?
"I remember thinking, 'God, he can't play at Louisville, there isn't a player in the state that could play there,'" Carroll recalled.
It was all a misunderstanding. He asked the Louisville coach where the Cardinals saw Breno playing, to which the coach on the other end said, "We think maybe tight end, but we'd like to bulk him up and move him to tackle." Carroll was taken aback -- this was a kid who had fielded no other interest for college football.
Ten years later, Giacomini is playing for another coach named Pete Carroll, but that's about the only constant in a world that has changed drastically thanks to a little serendipity. The son of two Brazilian immigrants, Giacomini grew up idolizing Drew Bledsoe and started out as a quarterback on the Golden Tornadoes' freshman team. Now he is following in his hero's Super Bowl footsteps as he suits up at right tackle for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
And it all started with a whim and a phone call.
After taking a season off to focus on basketball, Giacomini returned to the gridiron his senior year at the urging of his friends, playing defensive end, linebacker and tight end. While injuries prevented him from playing a full season, everything seemed to finally click in the Thanksgiving matchup with Medford, a 6-0 Tornadoes win highlighted by his 14 tackles and a sack.
"He didn't have great size at the time -- he was about 225 pounds -- but he had great athletic ability," then-head coach Rich Cullen recalled of that day. "That was the first time he just felt comfortable and turned it loose."
Said Carroll: "He was an extraordinary high school athlete who didn't really have a position in basketball and was all over the place in football. No one had really noticed how good he could be."
A few weeks after the season, Ray Boghos, Malden's defensive coordinator at the time, reached out to an old friend of his, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whose father had coached Boghos at Carroll College (Mont.) nearly four decades earlier. Boghos sent Petrino film of that Medford game, and six days later Giacomini was on the Louisville campus accepting a scholarship offer. Remarkably, no other college program had expressed interest; at the time, he was planning on pursuing a postgraduate season at prep school.
Thanks to injuries in the depth chart, Giacomini got on the field as a true freshman, ultimately splitting his time as a blocking tight end and offensive tackle over his career as he put on 65 pounds. In 2008, Giacomini was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers. After two seasons in Green Bay, he was signed by the Seahawks in September 2010 off the Packers' practice squad, and he became the full-time starter at right tackle a season later.
"I always make it a point every time something happens to text him or call him," Giacomini said last week of Boghos. "I just want to make sure he doesn't forget, because I know where it started, I know who helped me out and all that stuff."
Said Boghos, "I've coached and taught for 35 years, and I don't think I've ever seen something like that."
Giacomini wasn't even the best player on that 5-6 Tornadoes team -- he was never even a league all-star. But in hindsight he was the most projectable, with a frame that had yet to fill out, exceptional foot speed and an incredible work ethic. It's been a long process, but Giacomini has become an exceptional run-blocker, athletic enough to get out to the second level and seal off defenders.
"You don't want to isolate your body when you're young," Giacomini said. "If you've got great feet, strong punch, solid base, you can be a good tackle. Basically, you need really good feet no matter what, just to step on the court, and that's where [basketball] helped me a ton, man. Just being aggressive in basketball translated to the football field."
The Seahawks' other Bay Stater, kicker Steven Hauschka, had his own long-shot journey to the NFL. The Needham native was a soccer player at Needham High and didn't pick up football until his sophomore year at Middlebury (Vt.) College, after getting cut from the soccer team. After setting career and single-season field goal records for the school, Hauschka reached out to 30-plus Division 1 schools that had lost a kicker to graduation. North Carolina State was one of two to respond, offering him a walk-on spot in his final year of eligibility.
After being named a Lou Groza Award finalist after leading the ACC in field goal percentage, Hauschka went undrafted in 2008 and bounced around the league, and even the UFL, before landing in Seattle full-time in 2011.
If this didn't work out? There was always dental school to fall back on.
"My mom was a dentist, my brother was a dentist. It just seemed like a good career path," Hauschka said earlier this week. "There was a period where I was at NC State and I was interviewing at dental schools, got into them, and I had to decide whether I was going to go to dental school next year or am I going to try to play in the NFL? It was pretty crazy."
The journeys of Giacomini and Hauschka are unique but not without precedent for prospects in this area. Twelve Bay Staters opened the 2013 season on NFL rosters, and most of them got there by unconventional methods.
Cowboys guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, a Waltham native, came out of a Division II school, Bentley University. So did former Chargers defensive end and Gardner native Jacques Cesaire, who went undrafted out of Southern Connecticut State but enjoyed a decade-long NFL career. Undrafted Ravens safety James Ihedigbo walked on at UMass out of neighboring Amherst High. Jets practice-squadder John Griffin set single-season rushing records in his one year of varsity at Oakmont Regional before moving on to Northeastern and UMass.
There were three players on NFL rosters this fall who played high school ball in the Greater Boston League, which has awarded its past 20 consecutive league titles to storied juggernaut Everett High. Yet none of the three -- Giacomini, Bernadeau and Somerville's Gosder Cherilus (another basketball convert) -- played for the Crimson Tide.
"This area tends to lend itself to linemen, more big guys. We don't have the speed. Big, raw is the guy they notice more than the skill guy," said Everett coach John DiBiaso.
This year's crop of NFL draft hopefuls lends credence to that. Of the few Massachusetts natives expected to hear their name called, three are tight ends (Cal's Richard Rodgers, Georgia's Artie Lynch, UMass' Rob Blanchflower) and another is a linebacker (UConn's Yawin Smallwood).
Their opportunities are partly a product of the increased attention on the recruiting of high school athletes at increasingly younger ages. But it also demonstrates perseverance on the open market, a trait both Giacomini and Hauschka know well.
"We have some athletes, man," Giacomini said. "There's a lot of tough guys around here. You put it together with athleticism, and someone's gonna want you somewhere. The tough part is Mass. is kinda tucked away.
"It just takes one or two things to turn your life around. Don't ever be afraid to send someone a letter or a highlight tape. Somebody will want you."