James Ihedigbo

James Ihedigbo "has been kind of the glue back there" in the defensive backfield, coach John Harbaugh said last week. (Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports / September 22, 2013)

James Ihedigbo knows what it is like to be overlooked and underestimated.

He was lightly recruited, undrafted and cast aside by two NFL teams before landing with the Ravens.

He entered camp as the starting strong safety, but outsiders assumed it would be only a matter of time until it belonged to first-round draft pick Matt Elam.

Ihedigbo had other plans — not just to keep the job, but to stand out on a defense full of stars.

“I knew I was a proven starter in this league,” Ihedigbo said. “I just needed to showcase my talent, show people that they weren't just putting me in there [as a placeholder], that I was more than qualified to play the position.”

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The American Dream

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

When James was a boy, his mother watched in wonder as a small army of children in helmets and shoulder pads pumped their little legs all over a football field. Rose didn't know much about American football, but she excitedly signed up all four of her boys for Pop Warner.

“It was such a thing that we had not seen in Nigeria,” Rose Ihedigbo said.

Rose and Apollos did not have much money. They wore secondhand clothes. They collected, washed and sold empty bottles and cans that college kids left behind. They worked extra jobs while raising their family and attending school.

James Ihedigbo's father, who died in 2002, and mother both earned doctoral degrees at Massachusetts — where James would eventually go — worked in education and opened a small technical and agricultural college in Nigeria that is still in operation.

“I see that if my parents accomplished that, then there is no reason that I can't accomplish what I set out to do growing up here in the United States with the resources that I have and the people I have around me and the spiritual foundation that they laid out in front of me,” said Ihedigbo, whose HOPE Africa foundation provides financial aid to students of African descent.

“That's kind of my mindset.”

Don Brown likes to tell a story about a young James Ihedigbo.

During a UMass practice, Brown stood in the defensive backfield, watching a drill. Ihedigbo, streaking through the secondary, did not see the coach as he tracked a pass.

“He hits me right in the face. I mean, blows me up,” said Brown, a former Maryland defensive coordinator who now holds the same job at Boston College. “I'm bleeding. I'm staggering around. The trainer is putting cotton in my nose and putting my whistle back around my neck. [Ihedigbo] was just 100 miles per hour at all times, and that probably signifies his career.”

Brown says Ihedigbo is one of his favorite players — and one of the smartest — he has coached. Brown was hired before Ihedigbo's sophomore year and used Ihedigbo, a hometown kid who was a walk-on, all over the field, often deploying him as a blitzer.