Early last year, an unknown 412 number popped up on the screen of A.Q. Shipley's cell phone.
On the line was a fellow Pittsburgh native with the accent to prove it and an offensive lineman who was gearing up for the 2012 NFL draft.
Shipley, who was already with his third NFL team, chatted with Gino Gradkowski for a few minutes and let him know what was waiting for him in the NFL. After the friendly call ended, they went their separate ways.
Just over a year later, the Ravens traded for Shipley and they are now pitting him in a training camp competition with Gradkowski, the young center they drafted in the fourth round in 2012. They aren't exactly best buddies, but that familiarity has alleviated some tension in the battle.
"We both want the same thing, but that doesn't mean we have to hate each other," Gradkowski said. "We're helping each other out. We're talking on the field. We're talking in the meeting room. I think we're doing a great job of being professionals about this competition. The team comes first."
The starting center position is one of a few that remain unsettled for the Ravens, who are hoping that one will seize the spot vacated by the retired Matt Birk. The center position is a critical one that not every lineman can play, as it challenges the body and the mind simultaneously. Both Gradkowski and Shipley are athletic and bright but relatively inexperienced. Despite that, the Ravens are confident one will emerge to anchor their offensive line.
"They're both playing really well right now," coach John Harbaugh said. "They're both very similar. They're very athletic. They're very quick. They're very smart centers. They've all gotten us in the right protection. They've gotten the run calls made correctly. ... So it's going to be a great battle."
Shipley, 27, played his high school ball at Moon, which is northwest of Pittsburgh and a short drive from downtown. Gradkowski, 24, went to high school south of the city at Seton-La Salle and also had to zoom through the Mount Washington Tunnel when traveling "dahn-tahn." Both idolized Pittsburgh Steelers interior linemen; Shipley was a Mike Webster fan and Gradkowski looked up to Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca. And each one stayed close to home for college, with Shipley attending Penn State and Gradkowski going to West Virginia before transferring to Delaware.
But their paths to Baltimore have been very different.
Shipley was drafted by his hometown Steelers in the seventh round in 2009 and added to their practice squad. The following year, he joined the Philadelphia Eagles and made their practice squad. Last season, he finally cracked an NFL roster, playing 14 games and starting five for the Indianapolis Colts. But in May, they dealt him to the Ravens for a conditional 2014 draft pick.
"The biggest challenge is learning the new terminology, learning new people, new faces, how guys do things. Every quarterback is different. Things like that," Shipley said. "But all in all, football is football."
Gradkowski, meanwhile, spent much of his rookie year watching Birk's every move. For the fourth straight season, Birk started every game. Gradkowski usually only found the field on special teams, though he did play most of the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals and held his own.
"I definitely consider myself lucky that I got that year with Matt," Gradkowski said.
During June's mandatory minicamp, Gradkowski practiced with the first-team offense and appeared to be the frontrunner to replace Birk. During the minicamp, quarterback Joe Flacco praised him for his football intelligence, saying Gradkowski was quickly making calls at the line of scrimmage and helping set the offensive tempo and that working with him felt comfortable.
But Shipley says he is a quick study and has learned a lot with the Ravens since May — so much that he doesn't believe Gradkowski's familiarity with Flacco is an advantage at this point.
Throughout the first week training camp, Gradkowski and Shipley both spent significant time with the starters. And outside of some struggles against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who poses problems for plenty of NFL linemen, neither has looked out of place.
Shipley, who is listed at 6 feet 1 and 309 pounds, believes his height gives him an advantage, allowing him to get underneath defensive linemen and move them where he wants them to go.
The questions about Gradkowski coming out of the draft centered on whether he was strong enough to hold the point of attack. But Gradkowski, who is listed at 6-3 and 300 pounds, used his redshirt rookie season to bulk up his upper body and is stronger than he was a year ago.
"He's always had a really strong lower body. He's been a good bender with great feet," Harbaugh said. "He's taken a year in the weight room with [strength and conditioning coach] Bob [Rogucki] and [assistant strength and conditioning coach] Juney [Barnett] and those guys, and he gets after it every day. ... He's a lot stronger than he was."
But offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell says intelligence is the most essential quality a center in his offense must have. The center must identify the MIKE linebacker, call out the blocking assignments for his fellow linemen and relay the word down the offensive line if Flacco audibles or makes a change to the play called.
"It's a very difficult position because of the fact that you have to be, obviously, a guy who understands defensive systems and looks," he said. "Literally, you have to echo and repeat what the quarterback says, just in terms of when he makes checks and things of that nature, for the offensive line. Sometimes, you have to certainly be the lead on that. So you have to have a guy that has good football knowledge, which we do."
Though neither has a Harvard education, both Gradkowski and Shipley think they are savvy enough to take over for Birk. They are nimble for their size and quick enough to get to the second level, particularly Gradkowski. And they both believe they can go toe-to-toe with bigger defensive linemen.
Despite their similarities, only one can win the job. The competition between these Pittsburgh boys probably won't become contentious, but that doesn't mean they don't badly want to start.
"I think Gino is a great player, but they brought me in here and I want to win the starting job," Shipley said. "Competition is competition and I'm going to do everything I can to win it."
twitter.com/mattvenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun