Like many young men who labored through youth football leagues, high school competition and eventually the college gridiron, Gino Gradkowski had visions of reaching the pinnacle of his profession and playing in the NFL. But Gradkowski — whose dream became reality when the Ravens used the first of two fourth-round picks in April's draft to select the Delaware product — conceded that there was one facet that gave him reason to pause.
"You hear the horror stories about the NFL, about the guys who tell you the wrong thing or just won't talk to you at all," the rookie center-guard said. "But it hasn't been like that at all. [Guard] Bobbie [Williams], [center] Tony Wragge, all the veteran guys we have around here are great guys. They're all willing to help."
One of those teammates who could be pivotal in Gradkowski's development is Matt Birk, the 36-year-old center who is in the midst of his 15th training camp in the NFL. Birk is the undisputed starter, but with age and durability issues looming, the sentiment inside and outside the organization is that Gradkowski is poised to become the starting center of the future.
Birk has been bothered by neck, elbow and knee injuries in three seasons with the Ravens, but he has not missed a game. In 2010, he played despite a swollen knee that had to be drained at least once a week. He sat out a good portion of last year's preseason after undergoing surgery on his left knee.
Birk was absent from a few minicamps this offseason after undergoing surgery to repair varicose veins in his legs. He said the procedure could benefit his leg strength during a rigorous 16-game schedule.
"I feel better," Birk said. "[The doctors] say it'll help me feel better during the season. My leg won't get as fatigued. So it's a good thing."
Mentoring younger players is not an unfamiliar task for Birk. In 2008, his final season with the Minnesota Vikings, Birk counseled a sixth-round project in John Sullivan, who is now the Vikings' starting center and signed a five-year contract extension worth a reported $25 million in December.
With the Ravens, Birk has worked with Chris Chester, Bryan Mattison and Justin Boren. Now he gets a chance to tutor Gradkowski.
Birk said his objective is not to replace a coaching staff that includes offensive line coach Andy Moeller and assistant offensive line coach Todd Washington. In fact, Birk said he usually opts for a hands-off approach.
"[I've learned] just try to stay out of the way. Don't try to suffocate the guy," he said. "We have coaches. Coaches are going to coach and they are going to do a job, and that's their job. I have a job to do as a player, just little things here and there, maybe little technique things.
"I think it's most important — for any type of player, but especially a young player — when there's something they just aren't getting and they ... really get down on themselves, just tell them it's OK. Encourage them. Try to address the problem and try to fix it. But most of the time with guys who are really competitive, it's just settling them down and getting them to relax a little bit and not [try] too hard."
Gradkowski said Birk's door has always been open to him, Boren and Cecil Newton, who was a member of the team's practice squad last year.
"Any time I go up to him, he's open about that, letting me ask him questions and things like that," Gradkowski said. "It's not a constant thing, and it doesn't need to be. Anytime I need help, I know I can go to him and he'll help me out. That's a great feeling."
Birk is in the delicate position of counseling Gradkowski while also maintaining his status as the starting center. It would seem to be an area of contradiction, but Birk said he is reminded by the teachings that several Vikings players gave him when Minnesota drafted him in the sixth round in 1998.
"I remember the way that [center] Jeff Christy and [left guard] Randall McDaniel and [tackles] Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer and those guys looked out for me and kind of helped me along," Birk said. "Eventually I replaced Jeff Christy. So it's just part of the deal. It's how this thing works, but I still remember what those guys meant to me and my career and how fortunate I was to learn from guys that really were the best at their positions. I just try to be a resource for Gino and for any of the young guys and help them along because they are going to have bumps along the way, especially early on in training camp."
Birk's longevity has helped him accumulate loads of advice and pointers on how to play the center position. Nearly as significant, coach John Harbaugh said, is how Birk has successfully navigated the pitfalls of being a professional athlete.
"A player can give him some ins and outs through his career, and it's not just football," Harbaugh said. "It's probably how to approach becoming a pro and all that. It's really important. It's also important to have a great O-line coach. Andy Moeller does a great job. All those young offensive linemen are benefiting from the veterans, and the veterans are benefiting from the young offensive linemen pushing them. We have a good situation there."
Birk said he has already noticed Gradkowski making strides in his grasp of the blocking schemes and formations and developing a foundation upon which to build. That should come in handy for Gradkowski, but the 23-year-old younger brother of Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski isn't buying into the hype that he is Birk's heir apparent.
"I don't really think about it too much," he said. "Matt Birk is one of the greatest centers in the game today, and he's been in the game for a long time. So I know I still have a long way to go before I can fill his shoes. I try not to think about it like that, because Matt's a great player and I still have a long way to go."