Passion for football trumps competing sports

The Baltimore Sun

As one of the nation's top high school football recruits, Jonathan Ogden had the luxury of being selective. For each college coach who came to visit, Ogden would test the school's level of commitment by making one request.

"My thing was when people came to recruit me for football, I always said, 'If I'm going to come and play football at your school, I also want to do track and field. And if you're not going to let me do track and field, I'm not coming to your school,'" said Ogden, who won an NCAA indoor title in the shot put as a senior at UCLA. "That's how UCLA ended up being my school."

Ogden, now in his 12th season and a 10-time Pro Bowl player, typifies the depth of athletic talent on the team.

From linebacker Ray Lewis, who captured a Florida state championship in wrestling, to quarterback Steve McNair, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners as a pitcher, a sizable number of Ravens excelled at sports other than football. Their reasons for shifting focus varied, but the one underlying element was a passion for football.

"I just loved football more than I loved track," said rookie return specialist Yamon Figurs, who collected Florida state titles in the 100- and 200-meter races in 2001 as well as recruiting letters from track and field programs at Florida, Florida State and Miami. "I just did track to do it and stay in shape and stuff. ... I loved track, but not more than football. That's just the way I went."

Said defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, a three-time Oklahoma state champion in wrestling who was recruited by Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Michigan: "As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, you always want to play football at the University of Oklahoma. I grew up watching them on TV. It was a dream of mine as a little kid to play in front of all those fans at Oklahoma. It just worked out that way, and I haven't looked back since."

Rookie offensive tackle Jared Gaither, who played football at the University of Maryland, was once almost as celebrated for his skills on the hardwood. Gaither, who began playing basketball years before he took up football, was recruited as a basketball player by Clemson, Massachusetts and Temple before he committed orally to South Carolina in his senior year at Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt.

But Gaither began to have second thoughts about his dedication to basketball and sought counsel from his family, friends and God. After several days of praying, Gaither changed his mind and decided to concentrate on football.

"I've never looked back toward it like I want to change. I like how it all unfolded," he said. "But sometimes I do sit down and think about what would it be like to be with my NBA teammates the way I'm here now. It's kind of freaky that I had the opportunity to do both. Sometimes I do sit down and wonder how it would have turned out."

Though Gaither, Gregg and Figurs made the decision to switch sports while in high school, rookie wide receiver Matt Willis stuck with his original choice, accepting a track scholarship at UCLA.

Willis was a member of the U.S. Junior Olympic team and a finalist in the 400 hurdles at the Pan American Games, but he began to get the itch for football - which he had stopped playing after his sophomore year in high school - at the end of his sophomore year with the Bruins.

"I got into college, ran a couple years of track, and just started missing football," said Willis, who surrendered his scholarship for a chance to walk on with the football team. "I knew that if I looked back on it later in life, it would be one of those things where if I didn't take a chance on an opportunity to try out, I would regret it."

Willis said he still watches track and field meets on television. "I still love the sport, but I don't think about going back and running," he said. "Those workouts are a different story. Going out to practice and knowing that you're going to throw up is crazy."

Like Willis, Ogden said there are times when he misses competing in the shot put, as well as the down time at track meets where he used to enjoy the weather and atmosphere.

But like Willis, Ogden said he has no regrets about his decision.

"I maybe could have been [Olympic-caliber] if I had quit football, but I knew that football gave me a chance to pay the bills," he said. "At the end of the day, I can say, 'This was the right choice.'"

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