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Underestimated Ihedigbo proving his value to Ravens

By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun

7:40 PM EDT, October 4, 2013

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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.

“He just became a dominant player for us,” Brown said. “Not having that scholarship may be one of the things that has driven him his whole athletic career.”

Finding his home

After being a consensus All-American his senior season, Ihedigbo was not drafted. He had to try out for the New York Jets before they signed him as a rookie free agent.

He spent four years with the Jets, playing in two AFC championship games, before signing with the New England Patriots in 2011 when the Jets chose to keep safeties Eric Smith and Brodney Pool over Ihedigbo.

He started 12 games for the Patriots and every playoff game during their run to the Super Bowl, but they released him after the 2012 preseason. He took that personally at first but is at peace now.

“I didn't feel at home there,” Ihedigbo said. “And they wanted to move on in a different direction. So it worked out perfectly. I'm here with the Ravens and I feel at home. I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.”

Ihedigbo never thought of quitting. He knew he had a lot of football left in him and that he would wind up somewhere.

The Ravens signed him in September 2012. He started three games for the injured Pollard. But his primary role was on special teams, which got him on the field for the final play of Super Bowl XLVII.

“Winning the Super Bowl kind of brought everything together for him, for me and for the family,” said Rose Ihedigbo, who recently published a book, “Sandals in the Snow,” about the family's journey. “Throughout his career, he has been underestimated and under-graded. He was not recruited. He was not drafted. And he continued on. Finally, getting that victory with the Ravens and him having that Super Bowl ring, it's amazing.”

This season, he has been a steady presence in a secondary that is still bonding.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees raves about how Ihedigbo explains concepts to his teammates in the meeting room. Elam, the team's starting free safety, says the wisdom Ihedigbo imparts is helping him find his way as a rookie. Cornerback Lardarius Webb calls him “the captain back there.”

“He's big, not just on the field,” Webb said. “He's big by being a leader, by being that voice, being that motivational guy. That's him.”

The football analytics website Pro Football Focus has graded Ihedigbo the highest among Ravens defenders through four games. He is tied for fourth on the team with 23 tackles, including two for loss. He has defended three passes and has one quarterback hit.

After years of being underestimated, Ihedigbo is now making it hard to overlook his impact. His next opportunity to prove his worth comes Sunday, when the Ravens (2-2) travel to play the Miami Dolphins (3-1).

“I'm a firm believer in my faith, and I believe that what God has set in stone, no man can change,” Ihedigbo said. “That's something that has been throughout my career. ... I knew what it was going to take to be a starter. … That was my goal. Earn that starting job so everyone understands why you're [playing].”

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

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