From Citrus County to the NFL’s biggest stage, Nate Varnadore still couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“It’s a lot to take in,” he acknowledged Sunday, sitting in the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a few hours before the start of Super Bowl LII.
“Take a guy who works in Inverness, Florida, put him in a place where it’s below zero to watch professional football. Years from now, I can tell people I was at that game.”
And he can thanks Citrus football fans for it.
Varnadore was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers high school football coach of the year, decided upon by votes for semi-finalists. In his first year at Citrus High School, Varnadore posted a 5-4 record.
Along with $2,000 for the football program at CHS, the Bucs sent Varnadore and his wife to the Pro Bowl last weekend in Orlando along with top nominees from all 31 other NFL teams for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year. The recipient was the Los Angeles Chargers nominee, Robert Garrett of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles.
Few teams, though, sent their top high school coaches to the Super Bowl. The Bucs picked up the cost of the flight, hotel and four seats for the game.
Varnadore and his wife, Melissia, assistant principal at Crystal River High School, attended, as did Varnadore’s brother Seth, who is an assistant coach at CHS, and Dave Marino, a coach at Palmetto high School who is a mentor to both Nate and Seth.
Marino is from New Jersey and a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan. That made allegiances easy for all four.
They weren’t alone.
“It’s probably 3-to-1 Eagles fans,” Melissia Varnadore said during a phone interview Sunday before the game.
Her husband agreed.
“Eagles fans have taken over, that’s for sure,” he said. “Whether they win or lose, their fan base has slowly taken the place over. It’s like a college atmosphere. It’s a very neat experience.”
There were some national media stories that Minneapolis was cold — no pun intended — to Eagles fans since Philly knocked off the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game two weeks ago, denying the host city the opportunity for a home Super Bowl.
Melissia said that wasn’t the case.
“They’re being very nice. We haven’t run into anybody rude or anything,” she said.
Minnesota, though, is cold — especially for a foursome of Floridians. Melissia said they awoke to 25-below temps Sunday morning.
“We literally walked from our hotel across a parking lot for lunch and my eyes were watering, my face frozen,” she said.
Like in all northern cities hosting a Super Bowl, the stadium is domed and protected from the elements.
Their seats, she said, are a “coach’s dream” — above the corner end zone, on the Eagles bench side of the field, easy eye access to the entire playing field.
“I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the stadium,” Melissia said.
Coach Varnadore said he’s kept in touch on social media with players and friends back in Citrus County.
“The kids are very excited,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive. They know it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Not surprisingly, this is Varnadore’s first Super Bowl.
“It’s probably my only time,” he said. “The Super Bowl is history. It’s very humbling when you look at it from that perspective.”
Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.