In Delaware town, one masterpiece authored with pen, one with pigskin

The Baltimore Sun

NEWARK, DEL. - There's an old bar in town, popular with college students and just about everyone else, called Deer Park Tavern, located on Main Street. Legend suggests that Edgar Allan Poe might have composed parts of "The Raven" here.

While Poe enthusiasts can't confirm that, we do know this about Newark: It need not be the formal birthplace of "The Raven"; it has most certainly served as backdrop for the resurrection of the Ravens.

In fact, in the office of Delaware football coach K.C. Keeler is a letter. It arrived last month, originating from the desk of Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. At the bottom is a handwritten, playful P.S.:

"Thanks for saving our franchise. Joe is even better than I thought."

Joe Flacco, an unassuming wunderkind whose right arm might someday require a government license, sprouted from the University of Delaware campus, and in turn, not long after, the Ravens were resuscitated - now just one game away from the Super Bowl.

You knew that already. But what about this:

For all the talk about how a rookie quarterback had never before won two playoff games, maybe there's a simple explanation. How many quarterbacks actually enter the postseason of their rookie season and already have playoff experience under their belt? Because he played his college ball at Delaware, Flacco did. Suddenly, coming from a Division I-AA school - or Football Championship Subdivision school - doesn't seem like such a bad thing, does it? Unlike big schools who claw and clamor their way into meaningless bowl games, Flacco and his former Delaware teammates know all about the trials of playoff football.

"Putting yourself in a situation where it's winner takes all, where someone is going to be collecting their equipment the day after the game and you don't want that person to be you - Joe understands that mentality," Keeler says.

To hear Keeler describe it, Flacco seems to be built for the playoffs. His Delaware team entered the postseason a year ago with an attitude similar to the one the Ravens have had these past several weeks. It's an intense focus that refuses to extend past the very next opponent.

A year ago, there were no printed brackets posted around the Blue Hens' locker room. No one talked about the quarterfinals or semis. When they watched the selection show, they turned off the TV after their name was called.

"The mind-set of everyone here was that you can't think about anything but the next game. That's not tough for Joe," Keeler says, "because he doesn't really think beyond anything other than what's right in front him."

Delaware won a heated home game over Delaware State and then surprised many by winning two straight on the road.

In the quarterfinal round, it faced top-seeded and undefeated Northern Iowa. The game was played in a dome with nearly 16,000 screaming fans making sure Flacco couldn't even hear himself think. To call audibles, Flacco had to walk to each lineman and yell into the ear hole of his helmet.

"It was just ridiculous," said Kheon Hendricks, Flacco's center on that team, a Woodlawn graduate who just completed his senior season at Delaware. "We had to look to leaders like Joe. We wasn't rattled.

"Joe's poise gave us all confidence."

Flacco completed 25 of 45 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns that day. He ran for a score, and Delaware overcame a 10-point deficit to win, 39-27.

The Blue Hens then traveled to Southern Illinois, where another rowdy crowd awaited, plus an ESPN crew televising the game across the country. The pressure never shook the quarterback. Flacco was 21-for-38 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, and the Blue Hens again overcame a 10-point deficit to win, 20-17.

In the championship, despite Flacco's 336 yards on 23-for-48 passing, Delaware lost to Appalachian State, 49-21.

"He was amazing through the whole thing," Keeler said. "I mean, we slept in our own beds only six of 16 nights. We had finals to juggle."

Just as you're seeing now, Joe has lived through moments when there is a lot going on at once, when there is pressure and expectations. He just doesn't get distracted.

"Last year might have helped him prepare for this, but it's also his mentality - which I attribute in part to his family, but another part is just in his DNA," Keeler said. "Joe's not afraid to fail. It's not going to crush him if he fails. He knows he puts everything into it, and he gives it his all."

Flacco was asked last week about the difference between college playoffs and the NFL playoffs. His response was telling, though not surprising.

"I guess it's a little bit different in the amount of people that are going to be seeing the game," he said. "But for you as a player, last year at this time, there were pretty big stakes when I was playing the semifinals and when I played in the finals of the I-AA playoff. ...That game was important. This year, it's this game. I'm not going to approach it any differently. I understand the scale is a little bit bigger, but it's still a football game."

Legend has it that Poe stayed in Newark in December 1843 at the Deer Park Tavern. Climbing from a carriage, Poe fell into the mud, became enraged and put a curse on the place.

Neither Poe nor Flacco was born in Newark. Chances are, the tiny college town played little to no role in the creation of "The Raven." But 165 years later, Newark has undoubtedly proved to be essential to the rebirth of the Ravens.

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