For Sunday night’s Super Bowl, they will gather around the TV in the basement of the Saylor family home in Mount Airy. In many ways, it will feel like old times.
Even Rob Havenstein will be present, though not in a way anyone could have previously imagined.
While longtime friends and former teammates on the Linganore High football team, Anders Johnson, Keith Rivers and Kevin and Gary Saylor, settle in for Super Bowl 53 between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, the 6-foot-8, 330-pound Havenstein will be live and in high-definition on their flat-screen television, playing in the game as the starting right tackle for the Rams.
“It’s pretty crazy to say that I actually know somebody that is playing in the Super Bowl,” Kevin Saylor said.
This is largely how the five close friends grew up. After Linganore football games, on slow summer days, on weekends throughout the school year, they’d gather in a basement — often it was the Saylor’s basement — fire up the Xbox, play “Call of Duty” or “Madden NFL,” bust each other’s chops and otherwise discuss whatever was on their minds.
The idea that one of them would one day be starting in the NFL, let alone playing in the Super Bowl, was never really discussed. It seemed like too far-fetched a dream at that point.
“The thing about Rob is he is very humble, very humble about himself,” Kevin Saylor said.
Sometimes, they’d pile into Havenstein’s green Dodge Caravan — an “old-school” car, according to Johnson, and the only one that could comfortably seat someone as large as Havenstein — and head somewhere to eat.
“We are all linemen [except for Rivers, who played tight end at Linganore],” Johnson said. “We like to eat large amounts of food.”
On football Sundays, Kevin and Gary Saylor’s aunt, Diana, would often drive them to Looney’s Pub in Columbia to eat and watch the NFL games.
“Sometimes, these gatherings got to be pretty big,” Johnson said. “There could be as many as 15 of us around the table, just watching football and eating lots of food.”
On other occasions, the green Caravan took them to the mall in search of something to do or a way to pass the time. During some trips, someone might actually buy something.
“We were high school kids,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have much money. We weren’t out there getting into trouble. We were a small group that largely kept to ourselves. We just loved hanging out together. Even today, given all of our current situations, I still think we would make a lot of the same choices and do a lot of the same things.”
There is little doubt among the group that Havenstein — now a multi-millionaire at age 26, playing a prominent position in the country’s most popular sports league, with a wife and a daughter and homes in Los Angeles and Wisconsin — would still fit right in with the group as his normal, everyday self.
“Rob has never let any of that stuff get to his head,” Johnson said. “All of the fame and the fortune hasn’t changed him one bit. He is still exactly the same guy, wanting the same, simple kind of life with the same friends. You know, to all of us, he is still Big Rob.”
Though their lives have taken them in different directions, the five friends stay in pretty close contact.
Football and family commitments now weigh the most heavily on Havenstein’s time. Plus, he no longer lives just a few minutes away like he used to. But he will still send text messages and occasionally speak with the Saylors, Rivers and Johnson throughout the year.
Kevin Saylor was a groomsman in Havenstein’s wedding in March 2017. And Havenstein will return the favor this summer when Saylor gets married. The two had never met until their junior year of high school when they started playing next to each other on Linganore’s offensive and defensive lines.
“People that reach his level in life don’t often talk about the people they grew up with. Rob is exactly the opposite,” Saylor said. “That’s why we are such good friends. He is just a super-likable guy.”
On watching Havenstein play in the Super Bowl, the friends say it will be both an exciting and nerve-wracking experience.
“I couldn’t think of a better person that deserves it,” said Johnson, who met Rob in sixth grade at New Market Middle School. “He’s one of the most humble guys for the position he is in. He just handles it all very well.”