Given Gaither's growth, big shoes could fit

The Baltimore Sun

It's a bit dangerous to peddle in hyperbole, so let's allow Jason Brown to offer up the grand pronouncement.

"He could be that guy," the Ravens center said the other day. "He could be that guy who makes people forget about Jonathan Ogden."

Before you declare sacrilege against one of your own, catch your breath and let's slowly digest this a bit. Brown is referring to fellow offensive lineman Jared Gaither, the second-year giant who has forced defenders all across the NFL to memorize his name in pretty short time. And Ogden, in case you've forgotten, is one of the best in NFL history to line up at left tackle. He played in so many Pro Bowls, he's on a first-name basis with half the islanders in Hawaii.

When Ogden retired last spring, the Ravens weren't quite sure what would become of the left side of their line. But in stepped Gaither. Without fanfare or attention, he quickly and quietly became one of the Ravens' most welcome surprises.

"It might be tough to believe, but he has that much talent and that much potential," Brown said. "It's still going to take a few more years of development, but could he be a perennial Pro Bowler? Hell, yes."

At 6 feet 9, Ogden and Gaither were tied last season as the tallest players in the NFL. While Gaither was able to physically step into Ogden's spot on the line, the future Hall of Famer's shoes seemed impossible to fill. At 22, Gaither is the second-youngest Raven on the roster, and the left tackle assignment is among the team's most important. Protecting the blind side of a rookie quarterback would be essential to any offensive success the Ravens hoped to have.

"Obviously, I knew it'd be a difficult challenge," Gaither said last week. "But it was a challenge I welcomed."

It's safe to say when the Ravens rolled the dice on Gaither in last year's supplemental draft, even the most optimistic purple-soaked devotee couldn't have guessed Gaither would blossom so quickly.

Gaither couldn't keep his grades up at Maryland and left school after his sophomore season. The Ravens nabbed him with a fifth-round pick in July 2007, and he had a full season to adjust to the pace and physical nature of the NFL before Ogden's retirement thrust him into the starting lineup.

Looking back on his abbreviated college career, he says losing his eligibility was a blessing. It opened his eyes. "Everything didn't all happen the way you dream it up, the way everyone might like," he said, "but this is my path and you've got to make the most of it."

While his college coaches were never convinced Gaither was giving his all, Ravens coaches have had no such problems, especially this season.

"He's just incredibly committed to becoming the best player possible," said offensive line coach John Matsko, who has been working with linemen for 35 years. "What he has, it's rare. There are very few guys like this. He's got Ogden's stature - same height, weight, speed. His arms might not be as long. He's got feet like Orlando Pace, power like Willie Roaf. Once he really knows the game, we're talking about an exceptional player."

While Gaither is still improving technically, if any fans were questioning his heart and his resilience, the Nov. 16 game against the New York Giants shut them up. In the first half, Gaither fell on his right arm, stunning his shoulder. He refused to leave the game. The next play was a run to the left side. A double team finished off his right arm, and he couldn't move it the rest of the day.

He kept playing, though, blocking with just his left arm for most of the second half.

"The whole football team learned a lot about that young man that day," Matsko said.

Later, a magnetic resonance imaging revealed a second-degree sprain in his acromioclavicular joint. For most of the next three weeks, Gaither spent his weekdays wearing a sling, but on game days, he insisted on playing.

"I'd never seen something like that before in my life," said fellow lineman Willie Anderson, a 13-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl player.

Gaither says he could barely raise his hand past his bellybutton and was blocking with one arm for nearly a month. Each Monday morning brought what he called the worst pain imaginable. But he kept playing.

"Guys said, 'You got to do what's best for you,' " Gaither said. "Well, the best for me was helping the team. If there's a point where I didn't think I was helping the team, I'd take myself out. But I thought I could still help."

The way Gaither began his pro career wasn't ideal. He says now that he's making a concerted effort to mature not just as a player but also as a man. He seems to be making great strides in both departments.

"Whatever anyone said about him in the past, it's gone," Anderson said.

In fact, it's Gaither's future that everyone's talking about now.

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