Last in a series
By his own admission, Jared Gaither wasn't much for academics while attending the University of Maryland. But he has become more of a student since leaving college.
These days, Gaither, the Ravens' raw-boned rookie offensive tackle, directs his energies toward learning the team's playbook - a binder as thick as a math textbook - and acclimating himself to life in the NFL.
By most accounts, he has met the Ravens' expectations for a 21-year-old from Prince George's County who skipped two years of college to turn pro in the league's supplemental draft in June.
"Jared has the ability but not the experience," said Chris Foerster, the Ravens' offensive line coach. "Now it's a matter of connecting the dots."
Gaither has played in five games, started two and earned a nod from Jonathan Ogden, the All-Pro tackle he's being groomed to replace.
"He has a shot," Ogden said of his 6-foot-9, 330-pound shadow. "He has more natural talent than most. With what God has given him alone, he's got a shot."
In the NFL, rookies are seldom seen and rarely heard. Like Gaither, they toil on special teams, grasp at the nuances of the game and, if thrust into the spotlight, try not to mess up. That's their rite of passage.
"You can't prepare for [the first season] because you don't know what you're preparing for," said the Ravens' Adam Terry, a third-year tackle. "It's like walking into a blizzard. Everything is fine until you hit that white blink of snow."
For a while, it seemed Gaither was going to ride out that storm by hibernating. With training camp over, he rented an apartment in Owings Mills and routinely overslept.
"Early on, he had his ups and downs getting [to practice] on time," Foerster said. "His body clock didn't work that way. He admitted he just wasn't a morning person."
When Gaither missed a weightlifting session, teammates set the big lug straight.
"The pros aren't as structured as college is," veteran center Mike Flynn said. "You have to set your own schedules here."
Gaither listened. Now, he takes a one-hour nap after practice and goes to bed by 10 p.m. He also set each of his clocks ahead 10 minutes. Just in case.
"I don't like to rush," he said.
Though quiet and reserved, he has fit in, teammates said.
"Being a rookie is like being the new kid in school," linebacker Gary Stills said. "You don't want to be picked on, or to stand out."
When you're 6-9, that's hard to avoid. But teammates took to "Big Gaith" in training camp, where he survived a rookie hazing. While signing autographs, he was bushwhacked by several Ravens who doused him in Gatorade and wrapped him in duct tape.
The incident was comical, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said. "When [270-pound] Jarret Johnson jumped on Jared's back, he looked like he was riding a camel."
Though hogtied, Gaither managed to break the double layer of tape on his wrists and ankles. Hercules unchained.
"I watched and thought, whoa, man, are you serious?" guard Jason Brown said. "The guy has tremendous man-strength."
Rookies don't last on brawn alone. Some succumb to the stress of the job. In the pros, the game is more mental than physical, said Marshal Yanda, the Ravens' rookie tackle.
"Every week, you're playing guys who were better than anyone you faced in college," Yanda said. "You don't get a break. Every night, I go home to recover."
Gaither's relief? A chef's hat and a puppy named Dot.
"Cooking relaxes me," he said. "And I always wanted a dog."
The other night, he had just taken a chocolate cake from the oven when Le'Ron McClain stopped by.
"I'm glad I was there to help him eat it," the rookie fullback said.
Gaither's pals include McClain and Troy Smith, the rookie quarterback. They hang out together, play video games, watch The Boondocks on TV and talk.
"Personal stuff," Gaither said. "I opened up to them right away."
Gaither and Smith might seem the odd couple - a college dropout and a Heisman Trophy winner - but they have become fast friends.
"Real recognizes real," Smith said. "To meet someone like Jared and form a bond on such short notice is incredible. If I need something dear, I can call on him.
"Being from the area, he took me under his wing. Baltimore being a rough environment, he told me the places to go and where not to go, and the people to talk to and not talk to.
"He has been more help than any of those rookie [lifestyle] seminars," Smith said.
Said Gaither: "I'm kind of protective of my little [backfield] guys. I'm there for them 24/7."
His expectations for this season were nil, Gaither said.
"I came in with an open mind so I wouldn't be either disappointed or overzealous," he said. "That way, whatever is happening, I can say, 'Cool, let's roll with it.'
"I've learned to sit back and observe. The first time I met [Ogden], I had to keep from being star-struck and saying, 'Tell me everything you know.'
"Instead, I watch how [veterans] operate and take bits and pieces from them that I can use myself."
Nothing beats staying on an even keel, Gaither said.
"You hit highs and lows every day. Guys worry all the time about getting cut. The key is to focus, to play football.
"You can't let the business side of the NFL take away the passion and love that you have for the game."
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Football inspires passion in this country, the kind of passion that is difficult to find outside politics or religion. The Sun's series dedicated to America's game concludes today.
For previous articles in the series, go to baltimoresun .com/football