By Kevin Van Valkenburg
November 28, 2008
The financial markets are in turmoil, 401(k)'s have evaporated, the Obamas and the Clintons are suddenly best of friends, teenage vampire literature is all the rage, the auto industry is on the verge of implosion, Guns N' Roses released an album after 15 years and Somali pirates are wreaking havoc on the high seas.
But sports, throughout history, have often been used as a panacea in uncertain times. During the Great Depression, a nation on the verge of economic collapse found itself captivated by a knobby-kneed racehorse named Seabiscuit. Joe Louis' 1938 heavyweight victory over German boxer Max Schmeling was seen as a defeat of Nazism and a blow for racial equality. Babe Ruth might have been the most famous person in the United States, memorably declaring the reason he earned a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover was that "I had a better year than he did."
Sports, however, do not have to change the world to make us feel that they are a worthy distraction from real-life concerns. Sometimes, all we ask is that some of the participants reflect the values we aspire to in our own lives.
It is in that spirit that we offer you: Five Reasons to be Thankful that Ben Grubbs is a Baltimore Raven.
Grubbs, an offensive lineman in the middle of his second season in the NFL, is not the flashiest man donning purple and black each Sunday. You will not see his face in commercials or his jersey on the backs of many parking-lot tailgaters. But in a season when first-year coach John Harbaugh has found surprising success by emphasizing the forgotten concepts of humility and unity, Grubbs might be the perfect man to celebrate.
1. He understands the impact one strong person can have on another's life: Grubbs, an oak tree of a man who speaks in a slow, almost shy baritone, lost his father to a blood clot when he was just 5 years old. In the tiny town of Eclectic, Ala., it would have been easy for Grubbs and his older brother, Cedric, to wander through their childhoods without direction or discipline, causing trouble in a one-stoplight community where dirt roads outnumber paved ones and where jobs can be scarce in difficult times.
His mother, Deborah, refused to let it happen. She took a job in a middle school cafeteria and worked until her hands were raw and her back was sore, pushing a heavy mop around the room until the floors shined. Grubbs would catch her sometimes, late at night, on her knees with tears streaming down her face, asking God to help her find the strength to raise two young boys alone.
"She sacrificed a lot," Grubbs says. "She could have easily looked for someone else, someone who could provide that companionship she was missing, but she didn't do that. Instead she made sure her two sons were taken care of and worked to put food on the table. She continued to pray. I'd always see her on her knees praying and crying, crying and praying."
It was, in part, for this reason that Grubbs did not hesitate to say yes when Melanie LeGrande, the Ravens' community relations manager, asked him whether he would be interested in getting involved as a spokesman for the Maryland Mentoring Partnership. The program matches up Grubbs with a student from New Town Elementary and has him serve as a mentor.
"I know how important that is, just to have someone be a mentor in your life and just be there when they need someone to talk to," Grubbs says. "One thing that kids need to know is that the circumstances that they're in doesn't have to affect the outcome of their lives. Look at me, growing up in a single-parent home. But I had the right people around me to keep things in perspective."
It certainly doesn't hurt that he graduated from Auburn University with a degree in public administration and a minor in business.
Stop by Grubbs' house and you're more likely to catch him watching CNN than you are ESPN.
"I was just reading that the graduation rate in Baltimore area is about 85percent, but in the city it's like 35percent," Grubbs says. "That's sad. I know if these kids had someone they could look up to, it can make an impact on their lives. If I can change one person's life, then I think I've done my job."
2. Grubbs' best friend on the Ravens? Fellow lineman Marshal Yanda: We've heard a lot this year about the way we view race in this country and how it affects the way we vote, the way we make friends and the way we pray.
Sports, though, come up far less frequently in those discussions, in part because sports are usually well ahead of the curve when it comes to social progress. Take Grubbs' friendship with Yanda. A white guy from Anamosa, Iowa (population 5,500), and a black man from Eclectic, Ala. (population 1,000), are not only the young building blocks of the Ravens' future running game (though Yanda is out for the year with torn knee ligaments), but they are also close friends.
"Marshal knows some things that I've haven't told anybody," Grubbs says. "We were just two strangers coming in together, and we began to get that bond."
Their friendship does not have to be cast as a transformative moment in our collective culture because it's a typical example of life in an NFL locker room.
3. He should probably have to arm-wrestle Haloti Ngata for the title of "Most Humble Raven": The Ravens' offensive line has been bruised, beaten up, battered and broken this season. The team has used three different running backs, each with a different running style, and the line has been asked to protect a rookie quarterback who should be running for his life every time he takes a seven-step drop.
Somehow, it has all been working thus far, and Grubbs has been the steady, quiet rock in the middle, helping the Ravens' rushing attack rank fourth in the NFL going into this week's play with 143.5 yards a game. Against the Tennessee Titans' Albert Haynesworth - a man considered by nearly everyone to be the best defensive tackle in the league - Grubbs more than held his own and even drew praise from Haynesworth after the game.
"If he keeps developing the way he is and with the way he is playing, he is going to be a perennial Pro Bowler," Haynesworth said.
Grubbs' offensive line coach, John Matsko, has even compared Grubbs to former Kansas City Chiefs lineman Will Shields, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and probable Hall of Famer.
Just don't expect Grubbs to tell you about it.
"I'm the type of guy who really doesn't give myself the credit I should, I guess," Grubbs says. "I'm a humble guy, and [when I was younger] I think I confused being boastful with being confident. I really didn't learn the difference until later on in my career."
There are still times now, even in between plays during a close game, when Grubbs forces himself to take a deep breath and remember what he's capable of. To stay calm in the middle of the maelstrom, he recites Bible verses.
His favorite? John 4:4.
Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.
4. Under different circumstances, he might have been Frank Thomas or Ryan Howard: If you ever have the chance to meet Grubbs, make sure you shake his hand.
When you do, pause for a few seconds to reflect on just how easily he could crush all the bones in your hand using little more than fingers and forearm muscles if he wanted.
It isn't hard to imagine him gripping a 34-ounceLouisville Slugger, turning on a 97mph fastball and driving it 500feet into the right-field bleachers. Although he has good size for an NFL lineman - he's 6feet3 and 315 pounds - he's still relatively lean. He has the same build as Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, and both are left-handed. Stand the two men next to each other, and you might mistake them for cousins. They even have the same sheepish grin.
Growing up, though, Grubbs' idol was Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, a fellow Alabama native and former Auburn standout. Baseball, not football, was his first love.
"I even had the same nickname as he did, 'The Big Hurt,'" Grubbs says. "That was my dream, to be just like him. Then people told me if I really wanted to make something of myself, I'd better focus on football."
How many Orioles Warehouse windows might Grubbs have endangered with his booming uppercut home run stroke? It's sort of a shame we'll never know the answer, but Ray Rice, Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee can be thankful it wasn't meant to be.
5. Grubbs' biggest aspiration outside football is simple - to be an exceptional husband and father someday: It's no secret that the life of an NFL player is full of temptation and littered with potential pitfalls. A fascinating book, Boys Will Be Boys by Jeff Pearlman, was recently published cataloging the sin and decadence that helped bring down the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s.
That kind of fast life has never really appealed to Grubbs.
He is still the man who makes it a point to return home each offseason to Eclectic so he can sit on his mother's front porch, listen to the birds and the crickets, and think. If he gets bored, he'll wander down to the town's only gas station, the Quick Stop, and catch up on neighborhood gossip. He'll visit his 96-year-old grandmother, Nellie Daniels, and tell her he loves her. He'll never stop appreciating where he came from.
"I'm a family guy," Grubbs says. "I definitely want a wife and kids. I like that idea of having someone you can say: 'That's my son, and that's my daughter. And what he will become, and what she will become, is up to me. That's my responsibility.' It's like taking clay and molding it into whatever you want to mold it into. And they'll look up to you and love you unconditionally forever."
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