Super Bowl Sunday was a big day around the house when Ben Bartch ’20 was growing up.
“We always had a big Super Bowl party,” recalls Bartch, a graduate of Blanchet Catholic High School in Salem, Oregon who went on to become an All-American offensive lineman at Saint John’s University.
“It was a tradition. We’d have food. We’d all play football outside and everybody would wear the jersey of their favorite team.”
Of course, Bartch dreamed of one day wearing an actual jersey in the actual game. And now, that childhood fantasy has become reality.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pounder is currently an offensive lineman for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and is expected to be in uniform and active when his team takes on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in the Las Vegas area Sunday.
Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. CST. The game will be broadcast nationally on CBS, streamed on Paramount+ and shown in a youth-focused telecast on cable’s Nickelodeon.
“It’s really all still sinking in for me,” said Bartch, whose team arrived in Las Vegas Sunday (Feb. 4). “This is what any player dreams of – regardless of whether they came from Division I, Division II, Division III or NAIA.
“If you love the game of football, this is what you dream about when you’re growing up playing in the backyard with your brothers, cousins and friends.”
First Johnnie in the Super Bowl
But the fact that Bartch did not come from a traditional Division I powerhouse certainly makes his story more unique.
He became just the 10th player in SJU program history to be selected in the NFL Draft when he was picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 10th pick in the fourth round (116th overall) in 2020.
And he will now become the first former Johnnie to play in a Super Bowl.
“It’s an honor to represent not only my family, but also Saint John’s,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. It’s a great opportunity and I feel very blessed and honored to have the opportunity to play in this game.”
Bartch still keeps in close contact with the coaches and teammates who meant so much to him during his time in Collegeville.
“We talk regularly – even before I was playing in the Super Bowl,” he said. “I built so many great relationships and friendships during my time there.
“I had a lot of great coaches who gave me a lot of direction and guidance and were great resources for me,” he continued.
Those coaches and teammates could not be more excited to see Bartch get to where he’s now at.
“It’s certainly unprecedented for us,” said SJU head coach Gary Fasching ’81, whose program boasts four national titles – two at the NAIA level and two in NCAA Division III.
“We’ve never had a Saint John’s guy play in the Super Bowl before. I know we’re all really proud of Ben – of the path he’s taken to get to the NFL and how hard he’s always worked. He is one of just a few players who have been able to live their dream of not only playing in the NFL, but (now) getting to play in a Super Bowl.
“I told him when he was drafted that he was a self-made NFL player,” Fasching continued. “He did all of the things it took to get him where he’s at today.”
From SJU to the NFL
Indeed, Bartch arrived in Collegeville as a 230-pound backup tight end in the fall of 2016 before switching to offensive tackle following his sophomore season.
Through a combination of diligent work in the weight room and a diet that included his now well-chronicled protein shakes (ingredients included seven scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, quick grits, peanut butter, bananas and Gatorade), he put on 50 pounds and started for two seasons, earning All-American and MIAC lineman of the year honors as a senior in 2019 while helping lead SJU to a berth in the Division III national semifinals.
“It’s a special time and I’m really happy for him,” said Dan Greenheck ’20, a fellow All-American alongside Bartch on the Johnnie offensive line who also joined him on a study abroad experience in South Africa during the spring semester of 2019.
“I’m a fan of Ben, no matter what team he’s playing for. But it’s super-exciting to see him getting this chance now with the 49ers. It’s something very few people ever get the chance to experience.”
Greenheck, who now resides in Hudson, Wisconsin, said he will be watching Sunday.
“It’s a really cool thing,” he said. “Not many people can say they have a friend playing in the Super Bowl.”
Sunday’s game will cap a wild last year-and-a-half for Bartch, who started 20 games in all during his almost-four seasons in Jacksonville.
He suffered a knee injury during the 2022 season and began training camp this past summer on the team’s physically unable to perform list. But he was activated in late August and started the first three games of the season for the Jaguars.
However, when the team traded for former Minnesota Vikings guard Ezra Cleveland, Bartch was released, then added back to the team’s practice squad. That left him available to be signed by another team, which is what the 49ers did in late November.
“It’s been a crazy year, but I’ve tried to keep working hard,” Bartch said. “I’m just happy to be feeling healthy now. My focus is on trying to contribute and helping us win games.”
Which the 49ers have done – knocking off the Green Bay Packers 24-21 in the NFC Divisional round on Jan. 20, then beating the Detroit Lions 34-31 at home in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 28.
That victory set off a sea of sailing confetti and a joyous celebration on the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
“I actually had a couple of SJU teammates at the game with me to share in the moment along with my girlfriend,” Bartch said. “So that was really fun. I was doing my best to take in the moment and enjoy it. It was definitely surreal.”
Super Bowl week
Things will likely continue that way this week in Las Vegas as all the hoopla that leads up to Sunday’s game unfolds.
“We’re game-planning and handling our business – working hard and getting ready,” Bartch said.
“As far as the schedule, I really don’t know what to expect. I’m sure it’s going to be a crazy week. I’ve never been in one of these games before so I don’t know. I guess I’ll just roll with the punches and find out.”
While Bartch played in big games at Saint John’s, Sunday’s matchup will be a whole different level – a level he imagined himself reaching back in those Super Bowl Sunday pick-up games in the backyard growing up.
“This is what it’s all about,” Bartch said. “You want to be part of a team that’s playing its best ball in February and peaking at the right time.”