Small town, big-time arm

AUDUBON, N.J. — AUDUBON, N.J. -- The quarterback's buddy had an idea for meeting girls.

He made a shirt that read "I'm Joe Flacco" across the chest and wore it for a night out on the University of Delaware campus. The guise of a future NFL draft pick would have to improve his romantic fortunes, right?


Well, no.

Fellow student after fellow student saw the shirt and asked, "Who's Joe Flacco?"


The Ravens' No. 1 pick might have a rare arm, the kind that can heave a football 80 yards or zing it on a flat trajectory from pocket to sideline. He might be the most-talked-about person in Baltimore this week. But one thing the small-town New Jersey kid is not is a born celebrity.

"I could have told him," Flacco said of his friend, "that it wasn't going to work."

Flacco comes off as a dispassionate guy, one who almost has to drag words from his mouth. He's so nonchalant that his high school coach used to wonder whether he was paying attention at practice. He has never owned a car. A plate of his mother's lasagna and a game on television equal a perfect evening.

Flacco's younger brothers can't believe their friends regard him as a big deal.

"They still think he's just a big dork," said his mom, Karen.

"People aren't going to know who I am," Baltimore's newest quarterback hope said. "I'm not that kind of person."

Flacco, 23, and his family really aren't used to the attention afforded first-round quarterbacks.

"Do you know how big this is for us?" asked his father, Steve, fielding questions from Baltimore reporters last weekend as he watched his son's face pop up on television screens in the background.


Flacco was a good recruit out of Audubon High, but unlike the quarterbacks drafted directly behind him, Brian Brohm and Chad Henne, he never drew lavish attention from Southern California or Florida or Michigan.

He rarely made a headline at Pittsburgh until he asked to transfer and coach Dave Wannstedt declined to release him from his scholarship.

Even when his career bloomed at Division I-AA Delaware, ESPN wasn't exactly beating down the door.

Word of Flacco's promise spread the old-fashioned way. "You've got to see this kid at Delaware," one scout told the next.

What they glimpsed when they arrived at the 22,000-seat stadium in Newark was a 6-foot-6 giant who could whip off any throw the pro game might require.

There was the 44-yard toss on the run that revived a go-ahead drive in a playoff win at top-ranked Northern Iowa. Or the play against Richmond, when he was the only one who realized he didn't have time to spike the ball and sneaked into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown. Ravens scouts watched the unsung passer torch Division I-A Navy for 434 yards and four touchdown passes in a 59-52 upset.


"You can't find any warts," Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "In the business that the NFL is, those guys are looking for any flaw they can find. But that's hard with Joe. He's remarkable."

NFL executives came to agree. That's why Flacco's parents got to feel chills as their boy put on a Ravens hat last weekend.

"It's not often that you get to see your child's dream come true right in front of you," his mother said.

Blue-collar roots

Reminders of draft day abounded in the Flacco house last week. Karen had already slapped a Ravens decal on the storm door of the modest, two-story home. The refrigerator bore a newspaper cover showing Flacco with his purple No. 1 jersey. The jersey itself hung over the china cabinet. On the dining room table sat the Ravens' minicamp playbook beside two beer cartons full of items sent by autograph seekers.

Though Audubon isn't much farther than a Flacco throw from Philadelphia, it's pure small-town America.


"It's a blue-collar town," said Flacco's high school coach, Ralph Schiavo. "The houses are right up on top of each other. Everybody knows everybody's business. Nobody ever leaves, and if they do, their kids buy the house."

Flacco's parents met in high school, one town over from Audubon. Their fathers had played high school football together at Camden Catholic. Both come from big families, and most of their siblings still live nearby. To this day, the Flaccos gather with Steve's entire family for pizza every Friday night.

There were 167 kids in Flacco's graduating class, and the district is small enough that grades seven through 12 attend class in the same building.

Sports of all kinds were a huge part of life for him and his five younger siblings (four brothers and a sister). Their father, Steve, had played football and baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, and he erected a batting cage in the backyard. If the Flaccos wanted to shoot hoops or play touch football, they trotted down the block to the local grade school.

"When other kids were out screwing around, those kids were working," Schiavo said.

Steve, a mortgage broker, never coached his son. "But we were close," Flacco said. "We were always honest with each other. He told me when I played well and when I was terrible."


As her husband and kids obsessed over sports, Karen, a former basketball and softball standout, fed them and made sure all trains ran on time.

"We're all pretty helpless," her eldest son said. "She takes care of everyone."

Love for all sports

Flacco loved football, baseball and basketball equally. He once told his father he wanted to become bald and black, just like Michael Jordan. When he played pickup football with his friends, he pretended to be Joe Montana, Barry Sanders or Jerry Rice, depending on which position he occupied.

He and his father watched games on television with a critical eye. "We analyzed every throw," Steve said. "How was the quarterback's technique? Why did he throw it there? Everything was done to prepare Joe to play at the highest level."

Karen was the mediator. Steve might tell Joe to stop playing Wiffle ball because he would mess up his baseball swing. "All right, that's enough," she would say if she found him too critical. "You've beaten that horse enough."


Flacco sometimes rolls his eyes or casts a doubtful smile when his father gets talking. "We were always working on Joe's mechanics," Steve said at one point.

Said Joe, cutting in: "I never actually thought about my delivery. I was always just throwing the ball."

Audubon is not a traditional football power. Of the 25 or so freshmen who come out for the team every fall, perhaps six or seven have experience. The school had never seen anything like Flacco.

His true promise became evident his sophomore year, when his 6-foot-4 frame filled out and he made throws that no previous Audubon quarterback had even contemplated.

"Very few people are able to control a football like Joe," his father said. "At that point, I thought he might actually be special."

By the way, it's not clear how 5-foot-11 Steve and 5-foot-6 Karen produced such a towering kid.


"My dad says it was the milkman," Flacco joked when asked during his introductory news conference about his stature.

Schiavo brought in new assistants and installed a pro-style passing attack for Flacco's senior year.

"You know, you're going to be watching that kid on Sundays," one of the new coaches told Schiavo.

"You know, you're probably right," he replied.

High school heroics

Not that Flacco made much of a fuss on the field. He could be so nonchalant that Schiavo sometimes wondered whether he was paying attention.


"Yeah, Coach, let's get out and do it," the quarterback murmured when addressed directly.

But he burned to win. He showed that during Audubon's Thanksgiving showdown with neighboring rival Haddon Township (Steve's alma mater). Flacco played safety on defense and the opposing quarterback faked him out on a play late in the game. As a Haddon Township receiver raced toward the end zone, Flacco ran all the way across the field to snare the kid at the 10-yard line. Audubon then staged a goal-line stand to hold on for the victory.

"That said a lot about Joe," Schiavo said. "He just never, ever quit on anything."

Off the field, Flacco led a simple existence.

Schiavo occasionally asked his players what they had done over the weekend and whether Joe had been with them. "No," Flacco usually said. "I was watching a game with my dad and my brothers."

He never owned a car, walking to school every day until he was a junior and catching rides with friends after that. Quarterbacking for the Ravens will be his first job.


"I never had any interest in getting a car, getting freedom, getting away from here," he said.

Near the end of his senior year, he began dating classmate Dana Grady. Five years later, she's still his girlfriend, and she stood beside him while he took his first steps into the Ravens' training complex.

The college years

Perseverance would serve Flacco well during his college odyssey. He expected to redshirt as a freshman at Pittsburgh, so his first season on the scout team didn't disturb him. He grew less patient in 2004, when he backed up sophomore Tyler Palko but hardly ever got into games.

Teammates saw his ability. Third-string quarterback Robbie Agnone, who would also transfer to Delaware, called his high school coach after watching Flacco throw for the first time.

"I think I'm moving to tight end," he said, "because the guy ahead of me is a freak."


"You mean Palko?" the coach asked.

"No, Joe Flacco," Agnone said.

Pittsburgh replaced coach Walt Harris with Wannstedt after that season, so Flacco hoped the ex-NFL coach would see his arm strength and let him compete for the job in the spring.

It didn't happen.

Flacco had a world-class arm, but no one would let him use it. Anger boiled within him at the injustice of his predicament. How could it not? His peers were getting better while he could only play quarterback in his mind.

Convinced that his talent would shrivel on the vine at Pittsburgh, Flacco sought other options. He settled on Delaware because, frankly, there weren't many suitors.


"You figure any chance of being a first-round pick or maybe a pick at all is out the window," Steve said of the drop to Division I-AA.

Flacco's frustration only deepened when Wannstedt wouldn't release him, saying that Flacco had an obligation to Pittsburgh as much as Pittsburgh had an obligation to the quarterback.

Because of Wannstedt's stance, Flacco couldn't be on scholarship and couldn't play for Delaware in 2005.

"It was tough," he said. "Because you know you're not getting any better. You're probably getting worse."

Angry as he was, he couldn't show it. "Then, I would've been losing the battle," he said.

Worth the wait


Optimism began to set in at Delaware as Flacco bided his time on the practice squad and realized he would soon get on the field in an offense that suited his skills. Really, he just wanted to play.

Keeler and his coaches had to pinch themselves to believe their fortune. Delaware had produced NFL quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Scott Brunner, but no Blue Hen had ever thrown the ball quite like Flacco.

One of his practice bullets caught defensive coordinator Dave Cohen in the side of the head and left him throwing up all night with a concussion.

"This kid's gonna be just ridiculous when we get him on the field," Cohen remarked to Keeler.

When Flacco finally debuted for Delaware in 2006, he hadn't started a football game since Thanksgiving 2002. But he was every bit as good as Keeler had dreamed.

"Let's enjoy this now," the coach thought. "Because you don't get many guys on our level who have the talent to be No. 1 overall picks."


Flacco's parents still worried, wondering not whether the Blue Hens would win or lose but how their son would be perceived by pro scouts. He had no time for such anxiety.

"If I was thinking like they were thinking, my God, I'd be crazy," he said.

Flacco knew he could throw like few others and suspected someone would notice. He was right, and his draft stock soared through the fall and spring.

After last weekend, he's Audubon's most famous citizen.

On draft day, hundreds of relatives and neighbors crammed into the house and yard. Others beeped their horns as they drove past.

Flacco's selection was all the buzz at Audubon High on Monday. "How much is he gonna make, Coach?" students asked Schiavo.


Several of Karen's friends asked whether the family will move after Flacco signs his rookie contract. She seemed amused at the notion, given that three of her kids remain in local schools and she's surrounded by extended family. "Where am I going to go?" she said.

All she wants from Joe is a new lawnmower with mulching capacity. Steve is just happy his son's Reebok deal will mean free gear for all the other athletes in the family.

Flacco's little brothers have been angling for a PlayStation 3, but that's not in the cards.

"The neighbor across the street has one," the likely millionaire scoffed. "Why do they need another one?"

Of his impending riches, Flacco, an accounting major, said: "I'm looking forward to depositing it in the bank and looking at the statement every month."

He will finally give in and buy himself a car, but nothing fancy (he has heard that Ravens veterans target any signs of rookie flash).


"I think I might show up on a bike," he said. "I'm just glad the Ravens have a cafeteria so I won't have to cook."

"She'll be doing his wash," Steve said, nodding to Karen. "I guarantee you."

Flacco smiled. After years in the wilderness of an uncertain future, everything seemed just about right.

Meet Joe Flacco

Age: 23


Hometown: Audubon, N.J.

College: University of Delaware, where he threw for 7,046 yards and 41 touchdowns in two seasons

Top five songs on his iPod: "I don't own an iPod."

Perfect evening: "Eat my mom's cooking and watch Monday Night Football."

What bores him the most? "Um, accounting classes."

Favorite movie: Gladiator


Favorite TV show: Entourage

Most embarrassing moment: "Why would I want to tell you that?"

Proudest moment: Getting drafted.

Favorite quarterbacks to watch: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer

Whose poster was on his wall? Barry Sanders

Fact that might surprise fans: "Probably that I've never owned a car or had a job."


What will he do with his signing bonus? "I'm looking forward to putting it in the bank and looking at the statements."