It's Sunday morning, not quite 8. Sunlight is peeking through the blinds in the Hyatt Regency Hotel room on Light Street where offensive lineman Marshal Yanda stays before every Ravens home game. His eyes are open. He may try to fall back to sleep, but the nervous energy pulsing through his body will make it tough.
It's game day. Kickoff is in five hours. The countdown inside his head has begun.
The emotions of game day are different for every NFL player. Some Ravens toss and turn in the hours before they wake, their bodies unable to relax. Others need to be dragged from bed, their muscles yearning for every last second of recovery time before they get punished once again. Some players will stuff themselves with a hearty breakfast before heading to the stadium, while others will fast. Many disappear inside their own heads, relaxing with a favorite musical playlist or a cherished Bible passage.
But every member of the Ravens can feel an internal clock ticking from the moment he opens his eyes. After a week of meetings, practices and film study, the moment they live for has finally arrived. The players experience a mixture of fear, excitement, anticipation and pride. They play for money, for fame, for ambition and camaraderie, like all professional athletes. But because of the violence and risk of serious injury, and the week-long buildup between clashes.
"You're just counting down the minutes," Yanda said.
Yanda was raised on dairy farm in Iowa, so he's used to rising with the sun. He and fellow lineman Chris Chester always room together, and they've stayed in the same hotel room for the past two years. Establishing a routine is important in an NFL player's life, so that road games and home games can feel remotely similar, and distractions can be avoided. The Ravens, like every NFL team, require that their players stay in a team hotel the night before a game, even though nearly all of them live within a 30-minute drive of M&T Bank Stadium.
So Saturday night, in anticipation of the Ravens' final regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the players went to meetings, had a team meal and then slept at the Hyatt Regency in the Inner Harbor, almost like a group of 53 teenagers bunking together at sleep-away camp. Some, like Yanda, appreciate the forced camaraderie. Others less so.
"I don't like staying in the hotel," Terrell Suggs said. "It's never going to feel like home. You're never going to be completely comfortable. There's nothing like your own bed. But you adapt and overcome."
In the hotel, there is a chapel set up in a conference room where the players hold a Bible study. It's somewhat informal, according to Ray Lewis, one of the team's most outspoken Christians. But because their jobs make it impossible to attend church on Sundays, it's extremely important. Lewis still gets nervous before every game, and there is a calming effect to chapel he has a hard time putting into words. For years, he has been reading the same Bible verse before every game, Psalm 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty; I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Rev. Rod Hairston, the Ravens' team chaplain, typically leads a discussion with a theme that ties into that day's game, and players can take turns offering their thoughts about specific passages. "Most of us are trying to put things in perspective," said Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. "It's a chance to get away from madness and recognize what's important."
Often, players will simply share stories from their own lives — their hopes, their fears, their questions about faith.
"Sometimes the guys will just get in there and we'll have discussions ourselves," Lewis said. "It really opens it up to a totally different thought process when you see how we actually interact with each other."
There are no meetings on the day of a game, and typically no inspirational speeches. Players are required to show their face at the team breakfast, a buffet-style meal served on the second floor of the hotel that is a subdued affair without a lot of conversation. But they aren't required to stay, or even to eat. Safety Haruki Nakamura always fasts the day of a game, a habit he started six years ago.
"I just feel so much better if I don't eat," Nakamura said. "Some guys say, 'You need the energy.' I just don't need it. Even if it's a night game, I don't eat."
Yanda, a 315-pound guard who has been the Ravens' best lineman this year, eats like a death row inmate granted his last meal. He'll start with pancakes, follow that with a huge helping of hash browns, then polish off a small steak. Strawberries and melon are next, and he washes the meal down with at least two glasses of orange juice. Kickoff is four hours away.
"It's basically just loading up for battle," Yanda said. "You just try to get as much as possible."
While Yanda is eating and Lewis is praying, Suggs is typically across town, at his home in Windsor Mill. He always wakes up early, usually around 6 a.m., because he can't sleep. He watches film or takes a walk, and then he leaves the hotel and drives 30 minutes to see his two kids, Dahni and Duke, and his fiancee. She makes him bacon and eggs, his favorite meal, while he plays with the kids and tries not to think about football.
"I'm always nervous," Suggs said. "I'm always nauseous, all the way up until kickoff. You want to play well for your city and your fans and your team. And that can get to you. So I always play with my kids and kiss them on the head before I go. Because at the end of the day, I have to walk through those doors and be a dad. It reminds me that, even though I love it so much, it's just a game. Regardless of how I play, I'm not going to be a football player when I come back. I'm back to being daddy and a fiance."
Every player gets one parking pass for home games, and he's responsible for getting himself to the stadium. A lot of players give the pass to their wives, their parents or their friends, and take a taxi. Jarret Johnson and Kelly Gregg catch one outside the hotel each week. It's become a cherished superstition.
"We're undefeated every time we take a cab," Johnson said.
Yanda, however, covets the serene, short drive to the stadium. Yanda, Chester, Tony Moll and Bryan Mattison pile into Yanda's SUV, and Chester typically puts his favorite band, Sublime, on the stereo.
"It sounds weird to me, just crazy California music, but it's fun," Yanda said. "We don't have a specific routine. If it's my music choice, I'll have country on. I like the calm before the storm. I like the old stuff, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, George Strait. Anything nice and easy."
Suggs drives from his house, alone, trying to clear his head.
"That's when I go from being Terrell Suggs into T-Sizzle," Suggs said, referencing his nickname. "It's kind of like Clark Kent going into the phone booth."
Most players try to sign autographs as they walk from the VIP parking lot to the stadium entrance, and throngs of fans will stand for hours in anticipation, hoping to get even a glimpse of a player like Lewis or quarterback Joe Flacco. In three hours, M&T Bank Stadium will be filled with a deafening roar, but when the first players reach the locker room, it will be eerily quiet. Cundiff will sit down in front of his locker, and lose himself in a book. This week, he's reading "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis, a book about the financial crisis.
"I have a good book, I can't put it down," Cundiff said. "I'll be reading and I'll start thinking 'Man, I've got to allow myself enough time to stretch.' But it's a good way to get my mind off of football. Because once the game begins, it's four hours of constant focus. So any chance I can get to take some time away and be somewhere else is good."
Yanda finds a copy of the game program, and before he gets dressed, taped or stretched, he looks at the faces of the players he's going against. It's hard for him to put into words why this is important, but it is.
In the training room, Donte' Stallworth will be listening to gospel music or Frank Sinatra while he gets his hamstrings and quads rubbed down. Early in his college career at Tennessee, he used to listen to pulse-pounding rap music hours before the game, but coach Phillip Fulmer convinced him he needed to calm his nerves, not fry them before kickoff. He's followed that advice ever since. Only 45 of the 53 players on an NFL roster can be active on game day, so Stallworth may not know two and half hours before kickoff if he'll be playing. But he has to prepare like he is either way.
"I like the quiet," Stallworth said. "I don't like to be rushed."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh says he doesn't believe in gauging the mood of his team prior to kickoff. With so many players experiencing so many different emotions, it's impossible to anticipate how the team will play on Sunday.
"I think you learn as a coach over the years to not try to make that judgment, because you just never know," Harbaugh said. "I've never seen our guys not ready to play, but in terms of the emotional stuff, you can just never tell. Sometimes they're laughing and they're really loose, and other times they're really intense and you don't see as much emotion. We joke even as a staff that it's one thing you can never try to judge."
Two hours before kickoff, Johnson will take his Bible into the shower area, eager to be alone. At some point during the morning, he'll call his wife, tell her he loves her, and they'll say a prayer together, asking God to bring him home safe. On the floor of the shower, he likes read the same Bible passage he's read before every football game he's played in since he was a freshman in high school — Psalm 18:30: As for the God, his way is perfect; The Lord's word is flawless. He shields all who take refuge in him.
"That's my time alone," Johnson said. "It's my chance to get my mind right, and always be thankful that I'm living the dream."
There is a clock on the wall in the locker room with big red numbers that tells the players how much time remains before kickoff. Yanda is constantly glancing at it. He estimates that he looks at it every five minutes, at least. After he's taped and gets an adjustment from the team chiropractor, he'll go over the plays in his playbook that Cam Cameron is likely to call, and re-read his game plan. Harbaugh, the coordinators and the position coaches write inspirational messages to every player before each game, a gesture Yanda always appreciates.
Each time he turns the page, he'll glance up at the clock again. An hour and 30 minutes until kickoff.
The team takes the field for warmups approximately an hour before the game starts, but in those final moments before the players walk out of the tunnel, the majority of them are wearing headphones and finding one final moment of solitude in their favorite music. Yanda cranks up songs by his two favorite bands, Korn and Five Finger Death Punch, until every last molecule in his body is humming. Suggs listens to 50 Cent's "If I Can't," or the theme from the movie "300" to block out his nerves. Nakamura prefers techno beats, or songs without words like the Star Wars theme. Gregg's pre-game ritual is Guns 'n Roses, specifically "Appetite for Destruction", at eardrum-rattling volumes.
Thirty minutes before kickoff, and it's time for one final uniform check. An act as simple as forgetting to pull up your sock all the way to the knee can result in a $5,000 fine, so diligence is important. Fingers and wrists receive one last application of tape, and the slow walk toward the tunnel begins.
"I always get them butterflies," Gregg said. "You've done it enough that it should be the same thing. But it's still brand new. You never know what's about to unfold."
When the players charge from the tunnel, they can't see the crowd. The wall of smoke makes it impossible, and for a few seconds, it can feel like running blind through the cloud.
"You can't see anything," Yanda said. "I'm looking down at my feet, trying to make sure I don't trip."
The crowd is so loud, and a players' focus is so narrow, that the first minute they run onto the field, it's almost quiet.
"I don't look at the crowd," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I don't glace around. Honestly, sometimes it just feels like I'm the only person out there. It's weird, but you don't hear nothing."
During the national anthem, Yanda can never sit still. He shifts his weight side to side, shakes hands with teammates, and visualizes driving the man across from him into the turf on the first play. He's so eager for the first hit of the game, he's shaking. He's been studying the defender across from him on film for the last five days. Even if he's never met him, he feels like he knows him.
"The day you're not nervous is the day you're on your way out [of the NFL]," Yanda said.
On offense, the players know what the first play call is going to be for several days. When they gather together in the huddle, they listen to Flacco's voice to make sure there hasn't been a change, but in their heads they're going over assignments. The wave of emotion that has been building for a week is about to crest. Center Matt Birk puts his right hand on the football, spins it in his fingers until his thumb rests on the laces and his index finger is holding the point.
Flacco barks out his cadence, and Yanda focuses on the snap count. The instant his helmet and shoulder pads collide with the man across from him, he's no longer nervous. The waiting is over. The most important part of game day has finally arrived.