Bart Scott is playing checkers against 13-year-old Ashlee Black. The Ravens' star is bouncing his red pieces across the board, like pebbles skipping over a pond, and the pile of Ashlee's black discs next to Scott keeps growing.
"No mercy!" he says with a laugh.
That part probably isn't surprising. It doesn't matter whether Scott's on the playing field chasing some unfortunate soul carrying a football, or if he's in his living room playing on his 21-month-old son's miniature basketball set, swatting Bartholomew's shots all over the house, this is how he competes. So why should Ashlee get a break?
Not because she's in Kennedy Krieger Institute, one of the world's best pediatric facilities. Not because she's half his age and half his height. And apparently not because simple tasks like balance, standing and walking are torturous for her.
"I only know one way," Scott says, raising his arms above his head once his checkers win is secured.
The entire scene probably raises more questions than answers. Why is Scott at Kennedy Krieger? Why did he specifically ask to see children with spinal cord problems? And why is winning so darn important?
We'll get there, but know that the journey has some twists and turns along the way. There is the silent prayer. The three premonitions. The gunshots at the Detroit nightclub. An apple, of course, forever a forbidden fruit in Scott's life story. And the one NFL team that saw something the others didn't.
"There are so many places and so many times where things shouldn't have worked out," says Scott, 26, "but you know, they always have. Things have always worked out. For the longest time, I didn't know why. But I do now."
Ian Flanagan is a 12-year-old patient at Kennedy Krieger. He suffers from Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that makes many motor movements difficult. He has red hair and glasses, and his right hand quivers as he holds a small ball, attempting a pass to Scott. His eyes grow big when he gently flings the ball toward to Scott.
"That's what's up," Scott says. "That was a good one."
"I cheated a little," Ian says in a near-whisper.
The first word Bart Scott ever spoke was "ball."
"Not 'mama,' but 'ball,' " says Dorita Scott, his mother. "Can you believe that?"
He grew up in Detroit, on Hurlbut Street with the rest of his family. Relatives filled six homes on Hurlbut, anchored by his grandmother's house right in the middle.
"You say cousins, but they're really all brothers and sisters," says Gwendolyn Pippen-Osborne, who has lived on the street for nearly 45 years. "Everybody looks out for everybody else."
There were only 24 players on his high school football team. When something didn't go just right, there was a paddle waiting. It's Detroit football, Scott figures, and it instilled a brand of toughness that most players can't understand.
"For whatever reason, it seems like Bart's always been the underdog," says Drake Wilkins, Scott's coach at Southeastern High. "He's always against the odds. ... He isn't from the best neighborhood, the best school. He could've been gang-banging, could've been one of these kids on the corner. But his mother, his father, his faith, it all made him much different."
Despite a successful high school career, only Southern Illinois - a Division I-AA school - offered Scott a full scholarship. So that's where he went, and it's nearly where his football dream ended.
In the middle of his sophomore year, defensive coordinator Michael Vite caught Scott chewing an apple during halftime. The coach thought Scott wasn't focused enough on the game, and the two exchanged words. The disagreement escalated until Scott not only didn't play in the second half, but also was eventually suspended for the remaining six games.
"It's like anything else, you learn from your mistakes," Vite says. "Hopefully he learned from what happened there, which I know he did, otherwise he wouldn't be where he is now."
The coaches say there's a bit more to the story than the apple but refuse to explain further. Scott still contends they tried to "ruin" his career.
"I'm not sure he realized at the time what it would take to succeed athletically," says Jan Quarless, the Salukis' former head coach. "I think Ray Lewis probably did a better job than we did in showing him what it takes to be the best."
Quarless was fired after the 2000 season, and the new coaching staff allowed Scott to stay and clear his name.
The NFL was in his future, Scott figured, even though after his college career was finished, only one NFL team - the Ravens - showed up at his pre-draft workout at Southern Illinois. He wasn't invited to the NFL combine, either. To this day, Scott blames the Southern Illinois suspension for scaring away NFL scouts.
Scott's name wasn't called on draft day. But still, he knew something the NFL didn't - three premonitions already told him he'd be a pro football player.
Adam Seldy, 11, suffers from complex regional pain syndrome, and he's in a recreational room at Kennedy Krieger. Scott stands 10 feet away and the two bat a beach ball back and forth.
"I didn't know I was gonna get a workout today," Scott says. "I got to save something for the playoffs."
A hospital worker interrupts, "OK, Adam, you have therapy now."
"Oh, yippee," Adam says flatly.
Scott laughs. "That's exactly how I feel when I have to go to practice," he tells Adam.
The smile from Scott's face disappears, and he pauses to catch his breath.
"I never tell this story to anyone," he says, "because No. 1, I get real emotional, and two, so many people don't really believe, like they don't have the faith to believe."
Scott was leaving the final game of his college career, in Paducah, Ky., where Southern Illinois had just lost to Western Kentucky. Outside the stadium gates, a man, covered from head to toe by his red suit, approached Scott. "I thought he was a pimp," Scott says, "maybe a runner for an agent or something."
The man approached Scott, congratulated him on the game and said he had to talk with him. "He said, 'God is going to give you all the desires of your heart. He has a plan. Keep doing what you're doing,'" Scott says.
Scott didn't really give it much thought. Not long after, his mom called saying that a friend had a dream, and in that dream Scott was playing in the NFL, running around in a blue uniform. Dorita Scott thought the second premonition was confirmation, but her son still wasn't sold.
One night, midway through the semester, Scott says he knelt down and started throwing questions at God. What do You want from me? What am I supposed to be doing? Why do you bless me with so much?
The semester ended and Scott returned to Detroit. He drove his mother to work one day at a Chrysler plant and when they pulled into the parking lot, Dorita spotted a co-worker, a woman named Aldita. The woman approached Scott and said hello.
"She didn't even take time for no pleasantries," Scott says. "She said, 'You've been asking God why he's blessing you. Well, I'm going to tell you. God came to me, and he said he blesses you because you have the heart of Daniel, and he knows he can trust you with the responsibility.'"
Tears started rolling down Scott's cheeks.
"Remember, I'd never told anybody about me praying to God, and that lady answered a question that I asked Him. It was like we were already in the middle of a conversation and she saw the question mark and kept on going with it," Scott says.
He eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Ravens. He was given a $500 signing bonus. After taxes, it was barely enough to fly from Detroit to Baltimore.
"So why I do what I do?" Scott says. "It's because I truly feel that God has blessed with me the responsibility to help others, that he wants me playing football because it will help me help others."
His growth as a person, though, was outpacing his growth as a football player. From 2002, when he joined the Ravens, into 2005, the Ravens used him primarily on special teams. Even before the 2005 season, when linebacker Ed Hartwell left for the Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens decided to sign free agent Tommy Polley rather than promote Scott to the first team.
In fact, it wasn't until Ray Lewis went down with a torn hamstring in October 2005 that Scott was able to crack the starting lineup. The timing was fortunate because his Ravens contract expired at the end of the season, and Scott finally had a chance to showcase his capabilities.
Because so much was on the line, he didn't find out about his cousin until after the season ended.
Jimmy Pitt was adopted by a Maryland couple 22 years ago, a 3-month-old baby saved from an El Salvadoran village torn apart by civil war. He grew up loving football and was studying theater at Marshall University when everything changed.
Returning home from a class, another driver ran a stop sign and slammed into Jimmy's car. Only two bones were broken - the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, life-changing breaches for Jimmy, now paralyzed from the chest down.
After 10 months of recovery, Jimmy saw his favorite player walk through the doorway.
"Before that, we didn't see Jimmy smile very much," said his father, Jim Pitt. "Well, he never stopped smiling while Bart was there. It raised his spirits. He talks about it all the time. It's amazing how one thing like that can help a kid."
Jeffrey Pippen grew up just a few doors down from his cousin on Hurlbut Street in Detroit. He and Scott are the same age and the two used to do just about everything together - football, video games, wrestling. They'd prop up milk crates on the asphalt and play hockey using lids to jelly jars.
On Dec. 22, 2005, Pippen went to a nightclub where a friend was a disc jockey. A couple of club-goers were thrown out that night and returned later with guns. They opened fire, and one bullet found Pippen's back.
"We knew Bart was going to be a free agent, and we wanted him to keep his mind on his goal," says Nelwyn Pippen, Jeffrey's mother and Scott's aunt. "My son was recuperating, and we decided that we wouldn't tell Bart until after the season."
When the season finally did end a week later - after 92 tackles and four sacks for Scott - they called Scott and almost before he could hang up the phone, Scott was behind the wheel of his Lincoln Navigator, making the 8 1/2 -hour drive back to Detroit.
"I guess they knew I'd drop everything, go home and miss the rest of the season," Scott says.
Pippen, who will spend the rest of his life with that 12-gauge bullet lodged in his spine, was paralyzed from the chest down. Scott had never been around anything quite like it, and he says he's even more amazed at how his cousin has dealt with it.
"He's my hero," Scott says. "The strength and resolve he has is amazing."
Scott has helped pay to make Pippen's home more accessible to a wheelchair, and he's decided to make spinal-cord injuries his primary charitable cause. That's why he wanted to visit Kennedy Krieger, and that's why he chatted so long with Jimmy Pitt and that's why it's so important to Scott that his cousin Jeffrey is in the stands for tomorrow's playoff game.
When he was very young, Scott fancied himself an international businessman (he even learned to speak Japanese) but for most of his life, he says it's been clear to him that he belonged on a football field. The obstacles turned out being the most important part of the journey, and Scott knows now that it was no accident that he came from a small high school team in a tough neighborhood, that he had to fight to stay on the team at a small college and then found just one NFL team that would even give him a chance. There's reason behind it all.
"Come on," he says. "Why does the coaching staff at Southern Illinois change? Why does Ray's hamstring pop on my contract year? Why is this the only team that showed up at my workout?
"It's part of God's plan. Not so I could play football, but so I could be here," he says, waving his hand over the Kennedy Krieger lobby. "While you're in the moment and you're playing football, that's when this is strongest. These kids see you on TV every Sunday, and that means something to them. You have to use this short period of time to affect as many lives as you can."