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Sergio Kindle's course correction makes a big impact

The silence was probably what concerned Calvin Walker most.

It made the 5-minute car ride from the Ravens' complex to their Owings Mills apartment feel like a cross-country trip. It marred meals and lingered over nights at home.

Walker moved from Texas to Baltimore last July to help out his older brother, Ravens outside linebacker Sergio Kindle. But on plenty of days last fall with Kindle's frustration growing, it was Walker who felt helpless.

"I was kind of frustrated, too," said Walker, 23, one year younger than Kindle. "I didn't know what was going on at the training facility, why he wasn't playing, why he wasn't even suiting up. He was angry about it. That's kind of how he is. He lets things build up inside him without sitting down, relaxing, thinking and talking about it."

Fading dreams, poor choices, missed opportunities. There was so much for the brothers to talk about, so many emotions for Kindle to confront.

About three months after the Ravens took him in the second round of the 2010 draft, Kindle fell down the stairs at his friend's home in Austin, Texas, resulting in a fractured skull and permanent hearing loss in his left ear. He was arrested for driving under the influence five months later, his third brush with the law in a four-year span. And last year, when Kindle finally appeared to have things in order following a rookie season spent on injured reserve, he couldn't grasp the playbook and was active for just two of the Ravens' 18 games.

"I'm just a smarter guy now. I'm more of a humble guy. I'm a better decision maker," Kindle said last week as he stood outside the Ravens' locker room, pondering all that has happened in the past two years. "It was gradual, but now I think I've arrived at steady, level ground."

In just his second full training camp, Kindle has plenty of ground to make up. But with each bull rush of an offensive lineman, each burst off the edge toward the quarterback, the outside linebacker gains some traction in his long road back.

Kindle has been one of the Ravens' biggest surprises in the early going of training camp and last Friday — in what he called his best practice ever — he had four sacks and an interception.

"Everybody was like, 'Man, Serge looks good,'" said Ravens cornerback Chykie Brown, also a teammate of Kindle at the University of Texas. "I said, 'I've been telling all you guys that he's getting back to his old self.' That's the Serge I used to see at UT. Last year, he looked kind of lost. This year, he looks like the Serge I used to know."

First glory, then trouble

The head football coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, Bobby Estes still hears from people who watched Kindle play in high school and believe he could have been the next Earl Campbell, the punishing running back who won a Heisman Trophy at Texas and then gained more than 9,000 yards in a Hall of Fame NFL career.

"A beast," said Estes, who watched Kindle rush for more than 7,000 yards in high school. "Always the biggest, fastest and strongest guy in the room."

Longhorns coach Mack Brown toyed with using Kindle at running back, but thought he projected more as an NFL linebacker or defensive end. By the time Kindle was done in Austin, he had developed into one of nation's finest pass rushers and a team leader.

"One year before the Oklahoma game, he started saying, 'We have to get our swagger back. We have to walk in that stadium confident.' He said, 'I grew up outside that stadium and I could hear the games but I couldn't see them and I'm going out a winner in the Cotton Bowl,'" Brown recalled last week. "We put little dog tags on the kids the rest of the year that said 'swagger.' He was so proud because it was something he stood in front of the team and came up with."

Estes and Brown overflow with stories about Kindle's selflessness, like the time he presented a handicapped child a game ball or how he never turned down an autograph and treated the children of his coaches as if they were his own. But for all those things and for Kindle having what both coaches described as a "heart of gold," he couldn't stay out of trouble.

He was arrested in 2007 for drunk driving. He was involved in a series of bar fights. In 2009, he crashed his car into an apartment building while text messaging one of his coaches.

"He does understand that he's made some poor decisions in his past and he's doing everything in his power to fix them," Brown said. "He wants to do things right. He's really a great person."

There have been accusations that Kindle was drunk when he fell down the stairs on that July 2010 night, but both he and Walker deny the rumors . Kindle, who was at a charity event earlier that evening, doesn't remember much about the incident . And frankly, all that mattered at the time was his NFL career, which was in serious jeopardy just days before it was supposed to start.

"I knew I'd have to start over and build things back up, both mentally and physically," Kindle said.

A long road

The process has been slow and shaky. Kindle struggled to do even the most fundamental football task in 2011. Last season, he felt better physically but there were times where he had no idea where he was supposed to be on any given play and found himself relegated to the scout team.

"The perfect storm was that he had to overcome an off-field injury and he had to learn how to be a pro at the same time," said Estes, who speaks regularly with Kindle. "I think that learning curve was more difficult than he thought it was going to be. But he's coming out of the other side of this right now and that experience and humility is paying off."

Walker, who lived with Kindle during last season but has since moved back to Dallas, started noticing signs of a potential breakthrough late last year. There were suddenly more smiles and laughs when he picked up Kindle following Ravens' practices.

Walker agreed to start going to the gym regularly after Kindle noticed his brother was always out of breath while climbing up the stairs to their fourth-floor Owings Mills apartment. And Kindle slowly but surely started letting go of his frustrations.

"Even if I'm irritated with him, he's persistent and eventually he'll get out of me what the issue is," Kindle said. "He doesn't have the best words, he doesn't have the magic words, but he keeps trying and trying. Holding things in isn't good for you. When you release them, it eases pressure and stress."

Kindle, whose license was suspended following his December 2010 DUI arrest, initially thought nothing of asking Walker to drive him to a bar or club. Walker mostly refused, reminding Kindle that he needed to focus on his job and providing for his 6-year-old son, Sergio Jr. or "Little Serge." Eventually, those requests from Kindle stopped altogether in favor of nights spent hunched over the playbook.

"Before the [head] injury, he was not necessarily a party animal but he liked to hang out with friends," Walker said. "But I think after the injury and the trouble off the field, he realized that what he was doing wasn't working for him and he had to change. He's created a different image for himself, and so far, it's working. He started reading the Bible and he's studying the playbook a lot more."

Walker knew that Kindle had gotten serious when he asked him to buy a dry erase board so Kindle could script and study different formations. He then got more proof when he entered Kindle's room in their Dallas-area apartment this past offseason and found "four or five" Ravens' pads filled with notes and diagrams.

"My comfort level is a whole lot higher than it was just because I'm starting to get the playbook now," Kindle said. "If you don't have the playbook down, you're not going to play."

When Ravens coaches are asked about the progress Kindle has made, they'll fixate more on his mental approach and his knowledge of the defense than anything he's doing physically.

"He's made a quantum leap in terms of his mental approach to practice and film study and simply to just being a pro," said Ravens linebacker coach Ted Monachino.

Hurdles remain

As much progress as he made, Kindle, who has lined up with the first-team defense during training camp because of injuries to Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw, still has challenges to overcome.

"I think the biggest thing is the hearing," Estes said. "I don't know if he's adjusted to that."

Kindle said he only hears "muffled" noise in his left ear. When he is in a conversation, he shifts his body so that his right ear is pointed toward the person he is communicating with. On the field, Ravens' linebackers and safeties know to get close to Kindle so he can hear the calls, or they use hand signals.

"The best thing with Sergio is that right now he is really aware of what we're doing," Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain said. "As far as communication goes with him, it's easy, like it is with everybody. I know I sometimes have to communicate directly to him, but I also have to communicate with everyone else. Sergio is more in tune with our scheme and his assignments now, and like anybody, you get more in tune with age and understanding."

The Ravens are seeking to make things even easier for Kindle and have discussed outfitting him with a helmet equipped with a microphone so he could better hear the calls and the coaches. The Ravens would have to get league approval and right now, according to a team spokesman, things are still in the experimental stage.

Kindle, meanwhile, is focused on giving back to the Ravens, and justifying their investment. They could have opted not to sign him to a rookie deal following his accident, knowing he may never be healthy enough to play a single snap in the NFL. They could have released him after his DUI. They could have let him go last year when Kindle was an afterthought on game days.

Instead, John Harbaugh spoke in March about giving Kindle an opportunity to complete what the Ravens head coach called "an unparalleled accomplishment," a comeback from such a serious head and nerve injury and the uncertainty, inactivity and silence that followed.

"The biggest lesson that I have learned is this opportunity isn't given to everybody," Kindle said. "With my incident and the whole nine, that could have ended it right there. The team didn't have to bring me back but it's a great organization and they did. They gave me a shot and my goal is to make it worth while."

Asked if he can still be the player that Chykie Brown remembers, the one that the Ravens drafted and envisioned developing into an impact pass rusher, Kindle said, "Of course I can. The work that I put in is going to make that happen."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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