Ravens center Gino Gradkowski grabbed his phone as soon as he heard that Matt Birk was retiring last Friday, saluting the six-time Pro Bowl center in a text message.
It wasn't long before Gradkowski heard back from his mentor, who ended his career to spend more time with his wife and six children after capping his 15th season winning a Super Bowl.
"I was congratulating Matt on how awesome it is that he's going out on top because he really deserved that, and he got right back to me," Gradkowski said while traveling back to Delaware after visiting his older brother, Cincinnati Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, in Ohio. "Matt's a very special person, and he told me he looks forward to watching me play. That meant a lot coming from a 15-year veteran and a guy I looked up to who always had his door open to me and answered any questions I had. There was an understanding between both of us that he was there to help me with whatever, and that was awesome."
That understanding stemmed from the Ravens' intention to make Gradkowski their center of the future when they drafted him out of Delaware last year in the fourth round with the 98th overall pick. Now, the future has arrived.
Gradkowski spent his rookie season soaking up knowledge from Birk: learning how to snap the football precisely to quarterback Joe Flacco, how to diagnose defenses' blitz and stunt packages to make line calls and acquiring the work habits of a professional offensive lineman.
As the lone center on the roster, Gradkowski is poised to replace Birk as the Ravens' new starting center. A Pittsburgh native, Gradkowski approaches football with a blue-collar style.
"I don't think I could ever replace a guy like Matt, especially off the field, with his leadership qualities in the locker room," Gradkowski said. "He's unlike any other person I've ever been around. I'm just excited for the opportunity. I know I'll have to earn this spot because nothing is ever just handed to you."
That's true, but the Ravens will give Gradkowski every opportunity to succeed Birk. And that could lead to countless upcoming center-quarterback exchanges between two Delaware alums in Gradkowski and Flacco.
Birk strongly endorsed Gradkowski, who played in every game last season with his most extensive action coming in a regular-season finale loss to the Bengals where he was in for 73 of 89 offensive snaps.
"Gino will be fine," Birk said during his retirement announcement last week at Battle Grove Elementary in Baltimore. "The one thing about football is there's a lot of tangible things or requirements that you need, but I think the biggest thing about football is that it's a character game, because it's hard.
"It's different from other sports, and Gino's got that. He's a great guy. He's got a fantastic family, and Gino will do whatever it takes to be successful."
Gradkowski isn't the biggest center, slightly undersized at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds. Gradkowski ran the 40-yard dash in 5.2 seconds when auditioning for the NFL, bench pressing 225 pounds 29 times.
"Gino is a tremendous person, and football is so important to him," former Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "I told every scout that Gino made everything better — the locker room, weight room, practice and games — because he's all in. He comes from a football family, and he's a football junkie. He's tremendously smart, has a tremendous work ethic with some pretty good skills. He's a tough guy from Western Pennsylvania, so he grew up with this.
"He's the perfect guy to play center, a guy who commands respect. He's intelligent. He had a big year learning from Birk. Gino understands how to keep his feet, understands pad level. He's a student of the game. I told our kids after Gino left, every snap was important to him. He played every snap like it was his last."
Gradkowski said that he doesn't intend to gain a lot of weight to play center on a full-time basis. He does want to continue to upgrade his strength. He plans to spend the majority of his offseason working out at the Ravens' training complex under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki.
"I don't think I necessarily have to bulk up," Gradkowski said. "One of the keys for me is I have leverage. As long as I can still play low and still play with athletic ability, I don't want to bulk up and lose that."
The largest body of work from Gradkowski is the Cincinnati game, where he received a solid grade from Pro Football Focus.
Playing against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and other accomplished defenders, Gradkowski held his own as the Ravens produced 352 yards of total offense, including 206 rushing yards.
"It's definitely something I can build off of," Gradkowski said. "To get that experience against a really good front seven in Cincinnati, it really built my confidence. It's a good starting point. I would say to anyone: 'I'm just a tough guy who's going to work hard and do all he can to help the team win.'"
The agent for free agent offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said he hasn't held any discussions with the Ravens. McKinnie revitalized his career in the playoffs when he started four games and allowed just two sacks.
The expectation is that McKinnie, 33, will test his market value while remaining in touch with the Ravens.
"Bryant's preference is to come back to Baltimore, but it's got to be a market-value deal," agent Michael George said. "They're as smart as any organization, so I have no doubts about the Ravens. But, if Bryant leaves, it won't be because of us. We just want him to get a fair agreement."
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