The world of Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller was shaped inside a fire station, where co-workers weren't just considered family. They were family.
Three generations -- from his great-grandfather to grandfather to father and three uncles -- have battled blazes and rescued lives.
He heard the stories of staring down danger. He watched his father put his life in his partners' hands.
Teamwork wasn't taught on the playground growing up. It was a way of life.
"You have to count on your boys to be right next to you," said Boller, 22, whose father is helping fight the wildfires in Southern California, which included extinguishing flames in his own backyard. "That's real similar to football."
As the Ravens' season reaches the halfway point Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Boller's teammates are learning they can count on him while he learns some harsh lessons of his own. By directing a run-dominated offense that limits his opportunities for personal glory, Boller has reaped more punishment than rewards.
Pass rushers have hit him from behind, from the front, from high and from low. They have buried him in the dirt and driven him into the turf, spraining his left shoulder earlier this month.
Critics have pounded him for his unspectacular passing numbers. They have singled him out as the weak link in the Ravens' playoff hopes.
While these blows have left him with countless bruises along with a bruised ego, nothing has been able to dent his will.
He waved off trainers despite grimacing in pain with a shoulder injury three weeks ago and took a shot to kill the pain at halftime Sunday to remain in the game. The next day, he jokingly asked teammates in the locker room whether the quarterback of the Super Bowl champion automatically goes to the Pro Bowl.
"He has a swagger that says, 'I might be a Cal kid with blond hair and blue eyes, but I'm a pit bull inside,' " said Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker generally regarded as one of the toughest players in the NFL.
A large part of Boller's maturation can be traced back to the fire station, which sat 20 minutes from his house.
He experienced the bond among firefighters, frequently eating with them and sometimes sleeping there. He felt the rush of riding 24-hour shifts with his father, flying through intersections with the siren blaring to reach those hurt in accidents.
"To be honest with you, if Kyle wouldn't have made it in the NFL, he might have taken a shot at being a fireman," said Bob Boller, Kyle's father.
His fate instead took him to the Ravens.
After failing to land quarterback Byron Leftwich (now the starter for Jacksonville) in this year's draft, the Ravens traded up to nab Boller with the 19th overall pick.
Considered a long shot to start the season, Boller missed the first week of training camp and still strong-armed his way past Chris Redman. From minicamps to midseason, there have been mistakes in his decision-making but there has been no mistaking his character.
Boller is now in position to be the first rookie quarterback since the Cleveland Browns' Bernie Kosar in 1985 to lead his team to the playoffs.
"All quarterbacks have confidence," coach Brian Billick said. "But there's an energy about this kid that I couldn't see him cracking under the pressure. He has a presence about him that lends you to believe he's special in that regard."
Scapegoat at Cal
His NFL rookie season is a dream compared to the nightmare two years ago.
Once hailed as "Jesus in cleats" by the University of California student newspaper, the most heralded quarterback recruit in school history went from savior to scapegoat.
During a 1-10 season as a junior, Boller was harassed everywhere.
He heard "I hate Boller" chants from his home crowd. He buried his face under a hooded sweatshirt around campus to avoid sarcastic comments like, "Hey, you going to win a game, buddy?"
"They were brutal," Boller's father said. "They pretty much blamed him. It was rough to go through. But what it did for his character and who he is kind of makes a parent proud."
The turmoil pushed him to the brink.
"I'm not really one to question my abilities or whether I can do this or not," Boller said, "but going through that season, there were definitely some times when I thought long and hard: Is this what I want to do?"
A coaching change became Boller's salvation.
Jeff Tedford, who has tutored David Carr, Trent Dilfer and Akili Smith in college, was hired at Cal, where he transformed Boller from "a clumsy giraffe" -- as one NFL scout described him -- to a top quarterback prospect.
He compacted Boller's throwing motion, taping his left wrist to his bicep to keep his forearm from swinging out. He prevented Boller from overstriding by making him wear tennis shoes on grass. And he increased Boller's knowledge by simulating different defenses on a checkerboard.
Boller went on to set career highs with 2,815 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, and he tied a career low with 10 interceptions as Cal went 7-5.
"When we first got here, he was a low as he could go," Tedford said. "Through hard work and dedication, he was able to build back confidence, and it all started with his technique and fundamentals. There's no better person or one with stronger character than Kyle Boller."
To take charge of a huddle that includes two Pro Bowl players and the league's leading rusher, practice really does make perfect.
During his first minicamps, he absorbed as much of the offense as he could from cramming the playbook. But the quarterback with the Hollywood looks wanted to make sure he delivered his lines right.
Standing in front of a mirror at his apartment, Boller would watch himself call out the plays. He might not have known what they meant at the time, but he wanted to make sure the other players believed him.
"I think at the quarterback position, confidence is everything," Boller said.
Boller didn't have to show his confidence. He basically announced it to his teammates.
"When you even hear a [rookie] quarterback say, 'I'm coming into camp to compete to win a job,' you have to look over your shoulder and say, 'Huh?' " Lewis said. "This guy from Day One has said it, meant it and is still taking care of business. I know Jamal [Lewis] is having a great season, but we're winning with a rookie quarterback."
Off the field, the biggest adjustment for Boller this season comes long after digesting film. He needs to find dinner, and fast food only goes so far.
He usually resorts to either stir fry or pasta bake (which requires throwing noodles and mozzarella cheese in the oven).
With all the expectations placed upon him, it's easy to forget Boller was born in 1981.
One minute he's talking about how he messed up an easy screen pass to Jamal Lewis, and the next he's daydreaming about dating actress Jessica Biel. There's laundry piling up at his place and cobwebs hanging in the bathroom.
"I really need to find a woman," Boller -- who doesn't have a girlfriend and dates only occasionally -- said with a smile, "or a cook."
Progress has come in baby steps for Boller, who is still the lowest-rated passer among AFC starters.
Bit by bit, the speed of the game is slowing down and his reads are becoming quicker. Such intricacies as timing with his receivers -- whose drops have further hindered Boller's statistics -- will continue to take time.
"You can see when he can set his feet and read things right, he can throw the football," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "I'm not sure it's all clicking yet. But it's starting to click."
His completion percentage has steadily increased while the interceptions have decreased. The coaching staff estimates he has made an average of only four mental mistakes (from taking the wrong drop to calling the wrong blocking protection) in a 60-play game.
The most troubling statistic is his 140 yards passing per game, which ranks third-worst in the NFL among regular starters.
"I feel the yards will come," Boller said. "That's the best part about it. We're winning right now, and we don't have that many yards. But just imagine what could happen when we have those 300-yard games, Jamal runs for 150 yards and we're putting the ball in the end zone when we're inside the 10-yard line. And it will happen. It's just a matter of time I think."
The playoffs could rest on how Boller handles the pressure.
In the Ravens' four wins, he has committed three turnovers. In their three losses, he has produced seven turnovers.
But, if he is anything like his father and uncles, it's a good bet that he can withstand the heat.
"Knock on wood, if he stays healthy, he's going to be a damn good quarterback because he has all the tools," Cavanaugh said. "I don't want to use the word 'great' yet. But I think he's going to be an excellent quarterback."
NOTES: Nickel back Tom Knight (groin) was upgraded to probable and is expected to play. ... Cornerback Corey Fuller (groin and hamstring) remained doubtful and likely will sit out Sunday's game.
Next for Ravens
Matchup:Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) vs. Ravens (4-3)
Site:M&T; Bank Stadium
When:Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line:Ravens by 7