It hit Chris Culliver as he was walking out of the Georgia Dome.
He had finally arrived.
Deprived of the chance to play for a championship in college, when a torn pectoral muscle prematurely ended his senior season, Culliver had stood on the Georgia Dome sidelines and watched his South Carolina teammates get whipped by eventual national champion Auburn. That was two years and change ago.
The disappointment of not getting to play in that game still lingered, but Culliver's other goals had been realized. He had made it to the NFL when San Francisco selected him in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He had blossomed into a productive player when the 49ers made him their nickel back and he played in every game as a rookie as a part of one of the NFL's best defenses.
But then he had another championship opportunity taken from him, although he at least got to play this time. The New York Giants won the 2011 NFC championship and went on to win the Super Bowl, sourly ending a season that had seen the 49ers finally reclaim their lost glory.
One year later, they took the next step.
Culliver and the 49ers walked out of the Georgia Dome a winner in last week's NFC Championship Game, sending them to Super Bowl XLVII. Culliver, in his second year in the NFL, didn't take it for granted.
"You don't get this opportunity a lot," Culliver told GamecockCentral.com on Tuesday. "There's a lot of guys that played in this league that never got a chance to get here. I'm thankful to just have this chance."
The one that eluded him during his college career, and doggedly stayed away just when he was on a team that got to play for it. But then again, Culliver has always been prepared to wait for his opportunity - nothing came easy for him.
Growing up mostly in Philadelphia, Culliver lost his stepfather to a gunshot at age 8 and had to adjust to moving to North Carolina as a teenager to escape from the violence of his hometown. It took him quite a while to make the transition, but he became a hotly pursued recruit and grabbed USC's notice.
Culliver struggled as a wide receiver in his freshman year before switching to defense. He banged up his shoulder as a sophomore and went in for routine surgery, only to have a life-altering scare.
Culliver recently announced that in February 2009, he nearly died as a result of a simple shoulder surgery (Click). Kept quiet by USC and undiscovered as he finished his college career, Culliver has a condition called malignant hyperthermia, which causes cardiac arrest when anesthetics enter his body.
He survived, and did well enough at USC to get noticed by NFL scouts. Inconsistency in college became fluidity in the NFL, as Culliver became a part of a defense that helped the 49ers again reach the sport's pinnacle.
Just two days after beating Atlanta 28-24, Culliver was back in San Francisco, studying more film, lifting more weights and getting back on the grind. He also tried to relax and appreciate where he was.
The 49ers will play Baltimore in New Orleans on Feb. 3. USC actually has two alums represented in the game, although the Ravens' Emanuel Cook won't play after breaking his leg in the preseason.
Culliver said he plans to contact Cook and catch up (the two played for two years together, in 2007 and 2008) as part of the preparation. But he also plans to enjoy the experience of getting ready for the Super Bowl.
"I haven't really started studying these guys, but I will soon," Culliver said. "We played them last year (Baltimore won 16-6 in 2011, the first installment of the "Har-Bowl") and they've got the same guys. I know some things about them, things like that, but they have a good receiving corps."
One that he'll be instrumental in plans to shut down. The 49ers trailed 17-0 to Atlanta, thanks to Matt Ryan finding Julio Jones all over the field, before they adjusted and began to take away routes. Culliver intercepted Ryan to squelch a drive in the second half; the Falcons were blanked in the final two quarters after scoring 24 points in the first two.
"Really, they were running routes out of my formation, I had seen it and jumped it and he threw it to where I knew he was going to throw it to," Culliver said. "I'm always trying to get on the field, to be a part of the team. I'm here for my team."
Being on the West Coast, Culliver doesn't have much time to get back home to Philadelphia or Columbia, although he chats with his old coaches and teammates. He's only a couple of classes and an internship short of his USC degree in sports management, and plans to finish it someday, but the 49ers' postseason success during both of his years in the NFL is leaving him scarce time to jet back and forth across the country.
Still, it's always good to see familiar faces and places, like the SuperDome, where he'll play his second career game (the 49ers beat the Saints there on Nov. 25). Walking out of the Georgia Dome last week, Culliver was pleased to see current Gamecocks Victor Hampton and Sharrod Golightly waving to him from the stands.
It brought back a lot of good times at USC, and a reflection on just how far he'd come in a scant two years.
"It felt like it did before, just in there playing," he said. "Any time you get any opportunity, you have to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I'm just happy, happy to be here."
SUPER BOWL GAMECOCKS
A listing of all of the other Gamecocks who have gone to professional football's biggest game (bold means they were on the winning team, listed year is the date of the actual game). These are according to NFL historical rosters, which only lists a player if he got into at least one game during the season (practice squads weren't taken into account).
Robert Brooks (Green Bay, 1997, 1998)
Sheldon Brown (Philadelphia, 2005)
Bobby Bryant (Minnesota, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1977)
Emanuel Cook (Baltimore, 2013)
Steve Courson (Pittsburgh, 1979, 1980)
Terry Cousin (Carolina, 2004)
Chris Culliver (San Francisco, 2013)
Brad Edwards (Washington, 1992)
Harold Green (Atlanta, 1999)
Ira Hillary (Cincinnati, 1989)
Jamar Nesbit (New Orleans, 2010)
Chris Norman (Denver, 1987)
Dan Reeves (Dallas, 1971, 1972)
*Note: Reeves was also the head coach in four Super Bowls. He took Denver in 1987, 1988 and 1990 and Atlanta in 1999 but never won.
George Rogers (Washington, 1988)
Max Runager (Philadelphia, 1981; San Francisco, 1985)
Jay Saldi (Dallas, 1978, 1979)
Duce Staley (Pittsburgh, 2006)
Rod Wilson (Chicago, 2007)
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