From small town to Super Bowl: A look at Truckee grad Ted Popson’s unlikely path to the NFL
Thousands of players dating back to the 1950s contributed to the Truckee football program’s 383 wins all time — as well as its 223 losses.
And to think, not a single one is named Ted Popson.
“I did actually try out, and I was told by the coach at that time that I was a little undersized for the game and I should maybe look elsewhere, which was fine,” Popson said. “It might have been a blessing in disguise.”
Popson is not one to hold a grudge. On Dec. 14, the 6-foot-4-inch, 255-pound former NFL tight end presented the school with an autographed, gold-colored football as part of the NFL’s Super Bowl High School Honor Roll program.
“It’s all centered around the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. It was just an opportunity for me just to recognize and acknowledge the community and some of the people who really had a positive influence on me,” said Popson, who spoke to a crowd gathered in the school’s auditorium for the presentation, which was organized by Truckee football coach Josh Ivens. “It was great. Coach Ivens really put a nice thing together.”
A 1984 Truckee grad, Popson would have played on the Wolverines’ 1983 state championship team had he made the cut. He wrestled instead, a sport that suited him well at 145 pounds.
Seven years after high school Popson was drafted by the New York Giants. He went on to play for the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, and was a member of the 49ers team that defeated the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX — hence the golden football presented to his high school.
“It was exactly what you think it would be like; it was just a whirlwind,” Popson said of playing in the Super Bowl, in which he caught one pass from Steve Young for 6 yards — and was tackled by Junior Seau and David Griggs, according to pro-football-reference.com. “Fortunately for us, when the dust settled, we won. It was a great experience.”
Grooming for the game
Born in Granada Hills and raised by a single mother, Popson’s family moved on several occasions before settling in Truckee his sophomore year. Popson fit right in to the small mountain town, which was then centered around logging and skiing, he said.
“For me, based on what was going on in my life, Truckee was a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I liked the outdoors, and the community welcomed my mom and myself. I made some great lifelong friends.”
After graduating Popson went to work at local ski resorts and gas stations to “squirrel enough money away” for college. He also did some growing in accordance to his mountain lifestyle.
“When I got out of high school I grew a little bit taller and filled out a little bit more. Splitting and stacking wood and shoveling snow builds muscle, and I did plenty of that,” he said.
Popson eventually enrolled at College of Marin, where he decided to give football another shot. Problem was, he knew next to nothing about the game.
“In fact, I ended up going to a local public library and checked out a book called ‘How to Play the Game of Football,’ and it said linebacker was probably the easiest position to learn,” said Popson, who learned enough to earn a spot on the roster.
“The head coach at the time, Jim Hickey, was short at the tight end position, and he saw that I was athletic and he approached me one day and asked if I’d be willing to move to tight end … I just wanted to play. I had no intention of football going anywhere. The learning curve was extremely steep, and it was so new to me. But things just clicked.”
In a 1996 interview, Hickey told the San Francisco Chronicle that Popson had an incredible work ethic, which complemented his “pure athletic ability and a body in the development stage.” He also called Popson “the best tight end in the country coming out of JC.”
He was not offered a Division I scholarship, however, and instead walked on at Division II Portland State. He played well enough there to attract attention from NFL scouts.
Polished for the big time
The New York Giants signed Popson in the 11th round of the 1991 NFL draft.
“It was a big culture shock, going from a small town in Truckee and ending up living in New Jersey,” said Popson, who spent a year on the practice squad, got injured and was allocated to the newly formed World League in Europe, where he played for the London Monarchs.
After rehabbing for a season in London, Popson again was signed by the Giants but was released after a half season.
He bounced back and in 1993 signed with San Francisco, where he enjoyed some of the best years of his career. He speaks fondly of this time, and of the organization that gave him another chance.
“The year I went to San Francisco was the year Joe Montana went to Kansas City and Steve Young took over, and we had a great run,” he said. “That whole organization was just such a positive experience. I was real fortunate. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was just an unbelievable owner, and coach (George) Seifert was outstanding, and all the players we had too. I really had an opportunity to play and work and be teammates with the best of the best.”
While Brent Jones was the main starter at tight end, Popson received significant playing time at the position — thanks in part to his speed and blocking skills, as well as the Niners’ double-tight-end formation. He also was a long snapper on special teams.
Popson played for the 49ers until signing as a free agent with Kansas City after the ‘96 season. Ironically, just as he did in San Francisco, Popson narrowly missed playing with Montana, as the soon-to-be Hall of Famer retired that year.
Like the Niners, Popson also speaks highly of the Chiefs, where he started at tight end his final two seasons, ‘97 and ‘98, before retiring.
“That city and that stadium were incredible. Two of the best stadiums I’ve ever played in were Kansas City and Green Bay,” he said. “The fans came out week in and week out and filled that place. They are a football town. Everything shuts down. When there’s a home game, the whole town is nothing but red and Chiefs flags waving, and they really support the players and the team. It was unbelievable.”
According to NFL.com, Popson retired with 980 yards receiving on 103 catches, with eight touchdowns and one fumble. His most productive season was ‘97, when he caught a career-high 35 passes for 320 yards and had two touchdowns. He recorded six touchdowns with the Niners in ‘96.
Post NFL career
Popson, who now lives in Auburn, got into real estate after his NFL playing days and is an assistant football coach at Sierra College in Rocklin.
He said he makes the one-hour drive to Truckee on occasion, where he enjoys hiking, snowshoeing and fishing. He also still follows the Truckee football team, which made headlines with a 41-game winning streak and four consecutive state titles from 2009 to 2012. Last year Popson made an appearance at a spring practice.
“He’s a super humble guy, and he definitely has a unique story,” Ivens said, referring to Popson’s indirect route to the NFL. “I’m hoping he can make it up again.”
Ivens said the gold football honoring the roots of former Super Bowl players is a cherished piece of Truckee history. It’s proudly displayed in a trophy case near the school’s front desk.
“It’s sitting there for everybody to see,” he said. “It looks awesome in there. It sticks out.”