Rookies key Super Bowl components

MIAMI - Hey, kid, what do you think you're doing? Rookies don't play in Super Bowls.

Maybe in the prehistoric NFL they didn't. In this season of super rooks, not only do they play, they start.

Take the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester. All he did in 2006 was set an NFL record for running kicks to the end zone with six; become the only first-year player on the All-Pro team; and scare the daylights out of every opponent.

"It means a lot for me to be here," Hester said Wednesday. "It's hard for a rookie. We have veterans on our team who have been in the league for 10, 12 years who have never been to the Super Bowl. For me to be here as a rookie, it's a great honor."

Or take Indianapolis Colts' Joseph Addai, the 30th overall pick last April, 27 spots before Hester. The running back led all rookies in rushing this season with 1,081 yards. He scored eight touchdowns.

Combined with veteran Dominic Rhodes, he made Indy forget star Edgerrin James, who ran all the way to Arizona as a free agent.

"I didn't think I was going to get 1,000 yards," said Addai, who scored the winning touchdown on a 3-yard run in the AFC championship game. "It feels good because I didn't get 1,000 yards in college (at LSU). I knew I wasn't the starter and I knew Dominic and I were going to split the carries, so we both talked before games about taking advantage of what they give us out there and that's what we've been doing."

Hester and Addai are the most spectacular of the five rookies who could play huge roles in the biggest game of the season Sunday. Indianapolis also starts strong safety Antoine Bethea, a sixth-rounder from Howard. Chicago starts free safety Danieal Manning of Abilene Christian, a second-rounder, and often uses DE Mark Anderson, a fifth-round choice from Alabama who had 12 sacks, tops among rookies.

Bethea said he's made a smooth adjustment from a small college program to the pros, crediting the coaching staff and several veteran Colts for their guidance.

He became a starter in the preseason, and except for being inactive for two games with a shoulder problem, Bethea has been a regular. And a key contributor.

"I thought if they need me on special teams, OK, I'll do that," said Bethea, who made 64 tackles and had one interception. "And I'd practice hard and when I came in, I'd fight to stay in and try to play well. I guess it worked out."

Bethea's freshman counterpart in the Chicago secondary is Manning, who left Nebraska and wound up as a three-year starter at Division II Abilene Christian. He was unsure entering the draft how soon he might go, even after an impressive showing at the NFL combine.

Then the phone rang during a draft party at his house, and coach Lovie Smith asked Manning: "Are you ready to be a Chicago Bear?"

Although Manning was a lifelong Cowboys fan - even claiming he still roots for them - he wasn't about to say no.

"The place just erupted when my name flashed across the screen," he said. "Lots of crying and tears. I couldn't even hear what coach Smith was saying."

Clearly, he heard what Smith and the other coaches were saying this season and started the last 14 games. He had 80 tackles and two interceptions in replacing Mike Brown, one of Chicago's defensive leaders who hurt his foot in Week 6, forcing Manning to switch from strong safety.