Fully involved: Firemen help Ravens practice

The Baltimore Sun

The coach held the clipboard above his head. "Bud, you're there. Ed, you're here," he said. "Everybody got it?"

The huddle broke, and each assumed his position on the practice field. On the other side of the football stood some of the biggest giants in Maryland - Ravens offensive linemen ranging from 305 to 340 pounds. Quite an imposing sight for ragtag bunch outfitted in jeans and sneakers, a "defense" that features a rookie who's 41 years old.

Don't laugh - the nose tackle is 62.

All season, this group of area firefighters has assumed the role of the opposing team's defense at early-morning practices. They mimic the players and plays the Ravens expect to face each weekend, helping the offensive linemen prepare for any formation and any situation.

For 40-plus hours a week, Frank Thomas is a pump operator for the Baltimore City Fire Department. But for three mornings this week, he has been Jevon Kearse, the Tennessee Titans' three-time Pro Bowl defensive end.

"You pound yourself in the chest on Sunday afternoons, watching these guys in the trenches," Thomas says. "You know you were partly responsible for getting those guys ready. It's just like the fire department: We're all a team here, just like the firehouse. Just pulling together."

On a recent morning, the firefighters were Titans, the Ravens' playoff foe Saturday. "Sign of two," barked John Matsko, the offensive line coach. "Got it?"

"Set. Yellow-four. Yellow-four. Hut!"

Luckily, when the ball was snapped, the Ravens only walked through the play, rather than through the defenders. The firefighters aren't exactly pro football players, but the Ravens, as improved on the offensive line as at just about any position, consider them an invaluable part of their weekly preparation.

"These guys come in here every day just fired up," says Matsko, who in 35 years of coaching has never had a scout team quite like this one. "What they do is they really allow us to learn by doing."

"They play the defenders that we're going to play. They do all the stunting, dogging, blitzing, all of the alignments," he explains. "It allows our guys to learn the game plan at a walking pace. Players learn by doing, so we're able to teach the game plan in a slower, relaxed atmosphere."

There are 13 firefighters and one retired teacher working part time at the Ravens' facility. They don't have formal titles; everyone just calls them the firemen. Although the firefighters have been around the Ravens' facility working in odd jobs since the team moved here, this is the first time they've been used as a scout team.

Typically, they help with equipment, do laundry, work the mailrooms, run errands all across the city. At practice, they move the first-down markers, and on game days, they do whatever's asked of them.

"I like to tell people I'm a certified hydration specialist," says Steve Janowich, a retired captain from Baltimore County.

Every task, though, is treated with the utmost importance.

"The team's emergencies to us, we kind of find humor in," says Bud Reinecke, a fire captain for Baltimore County. "Our emergencies are life and death. ... At the fire department, we're essential employees. We have to be there. That's the same hat we're wearing here. We're essential employees. We have to be here. We can't call up and tell John Harbaugh that we can't make it today because it's raining."

Like most teams, the Ravens have always done a walk-through of practice. But the second-string players are usually the ones who assume the defensive roles. In the early stages of this season, though, Matsko spotted the eager extra bodies around.

"When they brought us out here for the first time, everyone was so excited. 'I can't believe this.' Now it's routine, and we're all still pumped," Reinecke says. "Guys can't wait to come in here just to do this. How many guys - how many nonfootball guys - get to line up opposite of National Football League players?"

The second-string linemen stand behind the starters, mimicking their motions and plays. "This way, we can develop and prepare a larger amount of guys," Matsko says.

They're all held to a high standard, and Matsko doesn't hesitate to get on their case if a firefighter is slow or not paying attention. Repetition is key, and the coach doesn't mind running the same play over and over.

At the recent practice, the ball was hiked and everyone walked through the play. "I don't know why we can't get this," Matsko said. "Start from the top. Let's make sure we get this right. Yellow-four! Yellow-four! Hut!"

Just a few minutes later, he used his scout defense to inspire his linemen, pointing to Ed Carroll, the team's 62-year-old equipment manager. He helps organize the firefighters and participates in the walk-through practices. Carroll has been with the franchise since it was in Cleveland. In all that time, his job has never been quite like this. On this morning, he's Albert Haynesworth, the Titans' talented 320-pound defensive tackle. Carroll doesn't quite look the part.

"Eddie just had his knee drained yesterday," Matsko tells his linemen. "But look at him. He didn't miss no practice time. You see how he is?"

This week, as the Ravens and firefighters prepare for Saturday's playoff game, the firefighters have been called into the team's offensive line meetings, where each has been given a trophy, honoring them as "First-team, Walk Through."

"We wanted to reward those guys for what they do," Matsko says. "We can't thank them enough for how they've helped us this season."

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