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MIAMI — Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann could only smile at Super Bowl Opening Night when he was asked — with a large hint of sarcasm — if he knew anything about San Francisco 49ers star tight end George Kittle.
Because the two former Iowa Hawkeyes have a lot of history together.
"I know him real well," Niemann he said with a laugh. "His locker was two over from me for three years."
Super Bowl 54 will have a strong Iowa feel to it on Sunday night, as Niemann and Kittle will battle it out for the Lomardi Trophy inside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Joining them will be another Iowa product — Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who has started every game this year and was a senior at Iowa in 2013 when Kittle was a freshman.
Hitchens and Niemann, who has started one game in his second season but appeared in all 16 regular-season games, have formed a strong connection during their two years together in Kansas City. Niemann credits their Iowa roots.
"There’s a lot of stories that we share with each other — we missed each other by a year there but there are a lot of common people there that we know," Niemann said of Hitchens. "We share a lot of common experiences so it’s been special to have him in the (Chiefs' locker room). He’s been a role model and a guy that I’ve looked to help me in whatever way he can with my game.
"Hitch is a pro’s pro — he does everything the right way. He’s very detail sound, fundamentally sound and just does all the little things that takes to be successful on Sunday."
Hitchens, a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 NFL Draft, could only rave about the mental makeup of Niemann:
"Ben’s just a good dude, it’s hard not to like him. Coaches and players, we all like him," Hitchens said. "There’s something different about that Iowa — when you go to Iowa you know what he’s been through and he knows what you’ve been through, and it’s just different."
The two linebackers have been working with the rest of their defense for more than a week to figure out ways to limit Kittle, who has proved to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL and is an absolute bear to bring down in the open field.
For Niemann, it's not a surprise his former teammate and friend is doing well in the NFL. He only had great things to say about Kittle, who knows how to have some fun and be a fiery teammate.
"As everybody knows, he has a big personality, and he’s a fun guy to be around," Niemann said of Kittle. "He was a great teammate at Iowa and we had a lot of fun together."
So how do you try to stop him?
"That’s a productive guy," Niemann said. "We just have to go out there and play hard, play within our scheme, everybody do our job and we’ll be ready to roll."
Added Hitchens: "We’ve got things for him. He’s a great tight end and has proven that over the years, but we have some things for him."
Niemann said he texted with Kittle on Monday and the two former teammates exchanged some pleasantries during their first full day in Miami.
So what happens if the Chiefs win? Will Niemann reach out to Kittle for some good-natured trash talk?
You better believe it.
"I’ll probably give him a little smack talk, for sure," he said. "And I know if it goes the opposite way, he’ll do the same to me."
But whatever happens on Sunday, Niemann and Hitchens say they are just proud to be representing the University of Iowa in the Super Bowl.
"It means a lot," Hitchens said. "I’m not sure how many guys went to Iowa and played in the Super Bowl, but that’s a category you want to be in."
"It’s special," he said. "I was born and raised in Iowa. I moved around a little bit, but I was born in Des Moines and played at Iowa so it’s special. There are a lot of great people there, and I’m just happy I can be here to represent them."