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What can a former Ravens' player learn from this Hopkins prof?

What can a former Ravens' player learn from this Hopkins prof?
BALTIMORE, MD. --- JANUARY 7, 2001 --- RAVENS VS. VIKINGS ---Obafemi Ayanbadejo breaks for short yardage down to the three yard line where the ravens settled for a field goal on 4th and 1. (digital image #1462 ) BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO/ John Makely.. (John Makely /)

My pre-game ritual before teaching is not unlike getting ready for a big game. I review my game plan, look at the roster to see what students are in the lineup, and fill my water bottle. Then, time for the kickoff.

On one memorable game day this year, the classroom seemed like normal. Students filled the back row seats, backpacks strewn around, laptops plugged in, coffee cups and water bottles at the ready. It looked like a relaxed atmosphere, but there was electricity in the room. A former Ravens player was in the class. Femi Ayanbadejo, an 11-year NFL veteran and member of the 2001 Ravens Super Bowl team, was in the back row, suited up in "business casual" attire, wearing a look of intense focus, ready for class to start.

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For anyone from Baltimore, being up close to one of our hometown heroes is always exciting. The Ravens, much beloved and fully embraced by the city, have returned the love and adoration with Super Bowl wins. The Ravens organization exemplifies community engagement, and the players are generous out in public, approachable and humble. It is a rapturous love affair — Baltimore and its Ravens.

Although I felt well-prepared for the class, I was more than a little worried about being Femi's professor. As a big sports fan I frequently lapse into sports metaphors and gestures when I lecture, like telling a nervous student before a presentation to "just kick it between the uprights" or using the referee's timeout hand signal to get the class' attention. But how could I drop football examples in a class with an NFL player? Maybe I had them all wrong. After all, I have never played football. I continually watch ESPN and listen to sports talk radio, but admittedly I don't always know what they are talking about. Is the West Coast offense something you only do if you are playing in Seattle, San Francisco or San Diego? Who is John Madden and why does he have a video game named after him, and how could I get a job as a uniform inspector?

I try to learn about each student's academic and career goals in every course I teach. This is how I got to learn a lot more about Femi and his global path to and through the NFL, and his goals and aspirations for life after the NFL. Was he interested in entrepreneurship, or aspiring to a CEO position? What does one do next after being part of a Super Bowl winning team anyway? And what could he learn from me?

As it turned out, I learned a lot from Femi, probably more than I taught him. First, I learned about how to achieve success, and there are no shocking revelations here: With perseverance and hard work one can make the most of personal assets. Femi still trains twice a day, and, if you ask me, he looks ready to play football. His advice helped me think about teaching, and life, differently. One must prepare carefully, like an offensive coordinator putting together the game plan. The same simple rules apply: Plan for the defense you are playing against. Have a plan of attack for different situations (as a professor you never know what question might come up in discussion). Run a good two-minute offense. No slacking off before time is up. Practice offensive plays (I like to use Socratic questioning). Throw in a play that your players might not know to improve their game, such as determining the net present value of a business investment. And of course, know what your players can handle; don't make things unnecessarily complicated or too easy.

As I got to know Femi, our conversations moved from sports to more about his personal journey from the dangerous and violent projects of Chicago to living in Nigeria as a child, ultimately finding success in the NFL after his start as an undrafted rookie. When Femi was 10 years old, changes in family circumstances led to a move to Santa Cruz, leaving behind the daily stress and challenges of public housing to a more idyllic life where he didn't have to lock up his bike and could play safely outside. This move profoundly influenced Femi; nature had favored him, and in Santa Cruz his talents were nurtured. Place mattered.

When Femi was coming up in the football world in the late '90s NFL, sports was not yet such a big business; the NFL commissioner at the time (Paul Tagliabue) earned about 5 percent of what Roger Goodell makes now. Black athletes comprised 65 percent of the NFL, but social justice issues were not in the playbook. We now have a more socially conscious NBA and NFL, as seen in the forced sale of the NBA's L.A. Clippers for its owner's offensive and harmful racist comments, and the support by NFL coaches and team owners for the free speech rights of their players to show "hands up" and wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts on the playing fields after the deaths of two African-American men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. When Femi's brother Brendan Ayanbadejo advocated for gay marriage in 2012, the Ravens organization was in his corner, ignoring those who called for cutting him from the team.

When Femi walks across the stage at graduation this week, there will still be excitement in the air, but it won't be just because of his accomplishments on the playing field and in the classroom, but for the promise that he, like many other graduates, holds for the future. Social changes in sports mirror opportunities for more enlightened thoughts and actions in corporate America, and as a professional athlete, Femi has a bigger stage to speak from. If Femi's performance in the business world is anything like it was in the NFL and in business school, he will grind out a win no matter what it takes. With his physical presence, eyes-locked-on-you stare, and a look that makes you realize he will do whatever it takes to get the ball down the field, he will be a strong and compelling voice for change. And the good news Baltimore, is that he is on your team.

Toby Gordon (tgordon@jhu.edu) is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, with joint faculty appointments at JHU's Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

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