Jeremiah Ledbetter hopes to have a lot of years left in his NFL career, but it’s going to be hard to top being a part of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.
The Gainesville High graduate knows it’s all real, memories ingrained in his mind for life of being on the sideline as the time ran off the clock and the confetti began to stream from the sky after Tampa Bay beat Kansas City, 31-9 on February 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
“Every day I wake up, I’m like, ‘dang, we won the Super Bowl,” said Ledbetter, who was inactive for the Super Bowl, but played in five games in 2020 for Tampa Bay.
Ledbetter knew the exact moment that the Bucs had it in the bag.
Late in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. broke up a pass in front of Tyreek Hill from Patrick Mahomes.
That’s when he knew a lifelong dream, one visualized by countless kids playing football — winning the Lombardi Trophy — was about to become very real.
“I remember the anticipation building up as we were getting ready to celebrate,” said Ledbetter.
Ledbetter spent just one year in Gainesville, his senior year in 2011, which was crucial to his development and a wonderful example of how important it is to never stray from your dreams.
A native of Orlando, Florida, Ledbetter relocated that year with the blessing of his parents, Weldon and Sharon Ledbetter, to live in Hall County with his sister, Irene, and her husband Stephen Nicholas, who was then a starting linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.
Ledbetter, now 26, said relocating to Gainesville was a huge part in making his dream come true, even though it was the first transition in a long path filled with many twists and turns before making it to the NFL.
My season at Gainesville was huge for me,” said Ledbetter, who was a sixth-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions in 2017. “I played with guys and played for coaches who I still talk with to this day.”
And they all want to know what it was like being in the Super Bowl.
Since the game ended Sunday night, Ledbetter said his phone has been blowing up with congratulatory messages and joyous talks with family and friends.
His answer is that winning the Super Bowl is as good as it gets.
Ledbetter was hampered down the stretch this season with a calf strain that kept him out for the first few rounds of the playoffs and ultimately relegated him to being a spectator for the Super Bowl.
Still, he had many highlights where he played a part on the field for the Buccaneers, including a sack in Week 16 against his former teammate, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Now, the defensive tackle will have a Super Bowl ring for life.
That’s an experience nobody will be able to take from him, no matter what happens the rest of his career.
And, a lot of it, Ledbetter said, was that one season with the Red Elephants.
In 2011, Ledbetter was a dominant run-stopping interior lineman who was quick get into the other teams backfield. To this day, he looks back fondly on the game against Stephens County when Gainesville strolled to a 62-7 win to garner the Region 8-3A championship.
That night, Ledbetter remembers recording several tackles in the backfield on Stephens County running back Chaz Thornton.
And the defensive lineman also got into the action with the ball, taking a direct snap on a fake punt and running for a first down, he recalled.
Ledbetter left Gainesville with a great sense of camaraderie among guys, who just months prior were strangers to him.
“We had some great guys on that team,” Ledbetter said. “We had Fred (Payne), Deshaun (Watson), JJ (Johnson), Devan (Stringer), Jay (Gaudlock). Just a bunch a great guys.”
Red Elephants defensive line coach Stacy Young has a compelling anecdote about Ledbetter’s toughness. Playing against Burke County in the state playoffs, Ledbetter stayed on the field, despite having a dislocated shoulder. The defensive lineman was unable to get into a four-point stance, due to excruciating pain, but stayed in and still played at a high level.
“As a coach, if I had a Jeremiah Ledbetter every other year, we’d never get beat,” Young said. “He’s a kid who wanted to practice, chomping at the bit to get on the field. I use Jeremiah as an example all the time to players about doing what it takes to be successful.”
Still, when the season ended, Ledbetter didn’t have the Division I scholarship opportunity he wanted.
That’s when he knew it was time to take the best opportunity and do whatever it took to make his dreams come true, which meant going to Hutchinson Community College (Kansas) for two long but productive seasons where he developed enough good game tape to make him a premier Junior College prospect.
By the end of his second year on the field in 2014 (he redshirted his first season), Ledbetter had a number of Division-I scholarship offers, but the decision came down to Arkansas (which he eventually chose) and Florida (which was only a couple hours from home).
With the Razorbacks, Ledbetter was a stalwart on the defensive line, starting 25 of 26 total games and recorded 49 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks as a senior in 2016.
Then, Ledbetter started to see a little momentum in a potential career in the NFL. He got an invitation to the NFL Combine and played in the East-West Shrine Game. In fact, at the NFL Combine, Ledbetter was able to reconnect with Watson, who just finished three seasons at Clemson and was about to go in the first round of the draft to the Houston Texans.
Ledbetter said they chatted a lot about those times playing together at City Park Stadium.
As a rookie, Ledbetter played in 14 of 16 games with the Lions.
Now, with two years complete in Tampa Bay and a Super Bowl champion, Ledbetter is turning his goal to earning a starting spot on the defensive front.
However, for now, he’s going to take a little way to celebrate.
“I’m definitely taking some time to enjoy winning the Super Bowl,” Ledbetter said.