No doubt: the unlikely NFL career of Kelly Gregg

When Kelly Gregg and I stroll into the Owings Mills Red Robin on a recent muggy summer afternoon, I contemplate telling our waitress that she might want to alert the cooks, just in case they need backup.

I've been dreaming of this moment for months, maybe even years, since hearing tales of Baltimore Colts writers describing the eating habits and antics of Art Donovan, the beefy, everyman hero of his time. Donovan could eat 25 hot dogs in one sitting. He once ordered three pizzas, polished off two of them, then saved the third for breakfast the next morning.I want Kelly Gregg to be the modern-day Art Donovan - telling stories about fishing and wrestling in central Oklahoma as he orders a third plate of ribs and then dips them in gravy. Gregg is so polite and genuine, he threatens to give professional athletes a good name. When I thank him for being willing to have lunch with me, he answers with a phrase he'll say close to 50 times in the next hour.

"You bet, buddy," he says. "No doubt!"

Sitting across from me, the 32-year-old Gregg looks like he should have been an extra on The Sopranos. His neck is about as thick as an oil drum. He's the guy you would want if you're ever pinned beneath a refrigerator. He'd simply lift the appliance over his shoulder and chuck it away like a loaf of bread while asking if you're all right.

When the waitress comes to take our order, I tell her we won't need separate checks. This is on me. The Ravens' 6-foot, 315-pound blue-collar nose tackle can order whatever he wants. In fact, he can order two.

"I think I'll have the grilled turkey burger and a water," Gregg says with a grin, in his high-pitched Oklahoma twang.

"Would you like fries with that?" she asks.

"Nah," Gregg says. "I'm good."

A turkey burger? A water? What in the name of Refrigerator Perry is the world of lovable chunky athletes coming to?

But, of course, it makes sense. Gregg is coming back from microfracture surgery after missing all last season with a knee injury, and he doesn't want to be carrying extra weight. Unlike the men who preceded him in the Ravens' defense - Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa - he isn't a plodder who leans on guards and refuses to budge, freeing up others.

He's a torpedo. He runs down ball-carriers as well as any defensive lineman in football. In 2007, he was third on the team in tackles with 111 and had 13 solo tackles in a single game. Although there is a growing sentiment around the league that Haloti Ngata is becoming one of the best defensive tackles in football, if Gregg is at full strength this year, Ngata might have to fight just to be considered the best defensive tackle on his own team. Together, they could be one of the most difficult tandems to block in football.

"It's good to see Kelly out there, running around like a little kid again," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis says. "He doesn't know how to tackle yet, but we'll get him going."

Gregg's affable personality, more than his appetite, is the real reason I wanted to take him to lunch. It's probably fair to say he's one of the most popular players in the Ravens' locker room, which makes his return to the team this season even more important. Gregg is so devoid of ego and is such a tireless worker, he might be the one person every clique on the team embraces.

"The guy is just hilarious," says Ravens defensive lineman Jarret Johnson, one of Gregg's friends. "He's just got this attitude where you never hear him complain about practice or the schedule or anything. He just shows up, always in a good mood, making people laugh and having fun. And he might be the best nose tackle in football. Players know that, coaches know that, but the fans, I don't think, really know that."

When you get him to sit down and talk about his unlikely journey, it's a little hard even for Gregg to believe. Growing up in Edmond, Okla., as the son of a police officer, Gregg always figured he would follow his father, Terry's, footsteps. He spent his teenage years with a buzz cut, listening to Hank Williams Jr. and Guns N' Roses, and developing a bit of an edge thanks to his name.

"Kids teased me all the time, saying Kelly was a girl's name," Gregg says. "But I didn't take much ... for very long. I guess it was a little bit of a 'Boy Named Sue' kind of thing."

He figured he would graduate from college, get through the police academy, and spend his days and nights cruising around Edmond wearing a badge, protecting the community. He would have been perfectly content if, in fact, life had turned out that way, as long as he got to go fishing every weekend.

"I just assumed I'd live in Oklahoma the rest of my life," Gregg says. "It's just a great place with a bunch of hardworking people. We were always outside. On weekends, we'd wake up, go outside, and we wouldn't come home 'til it was dark. We were just playing in the woods, all kinds of good stuff. You might live in a neighborhood, but you didn't think nothing about going and jumping in a pond. No doubt."

He loved the hand-to-hand clashes in football, though, and no matter how often people looked at him and wrote him off as too short, or too slow, he just kept coming at them harder.

The biggest misconception about Gregg, one he has had to battle his entire career, is that he's not athletic, and that he needs to overcome that lack of athleticism with hard work. On many levels, it's an oversimplification that completely discounts Gregg's gifts. He was a three-time Oklahoma state champion wrestler in high school and turned down a scholarship to wrestle at Oklahoma State, a national power, because he wanted to play football. He has such good balance, and is so good at using leverage to shove aside bigger offensive linemen, it's almost impossible to block him completely out of the play.

"He has tremendous desire, and his technique and his balance are remarkable," Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks says. "He might not be a sprinter, but he's a very good athlete."

That was easy to overlook in college, in part because Gregg played at the University of Oklahoma at a time when the Sooners program was rudderless. Of the 20-plus players in Gregg's recruiting class, only four were still with the team after four years.

"When I went there from high school, I thought, well I'm going to a bowl game every single year," Gregg says. "We never went once. It was the dark years, man."

Even though Gregg made first-team All-Big 12 twice, scouts at the NFL combine looked at his lack of height and his short arms and mostly rolled their eyes. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him, but he never made it off the practice squad. He spent two years with the Philadelphia Eagles but played in just three games.

"My first couple years in the league were rough," Gregg says. "I always tell guys, if I made it, anyone can make it. I always thought I was going to get that call saying, 'We don't need you no more.' I think it scared me to keep working."

When the Ravens signed him as a free agent in 2000, no one really knew the diamond the team had just unearthed. He spent the entire year on the practice squad. In 2001, when he tackled Jamal Lewis in a drill during training camp and Lewis tore his anterior cruciate ligament, Gregg thought he would be cut the next morning.

"Guys were telling me, 'Don't read the Internet, [the fans] hate you!' " Gregg says.

But Gregg stuck with the team, and conversations with Siragusa, Michael McCrary, Rob Burnett - players who bounced around the league before finding real success - convinced him he wasn't that far away.

"I just needed a franchise to believe in me and say, 'We don't care what you look like,' " Gregg says. "To say, 'As long as you can play, we've got a spot for you.' But a lot of guys get caught up in that eye test. I never could pass that eye test, either in football or with the ladies."

The last part isn't entirely true. In college, Gregg went on a date with a woman named Krissy, the sister of one of his friends in Edmond. By the end of the evening, he told her he was going to marry her. Eventually, he did.

"I think she thought I was crazy, like some kind of stalker," Gregg says. "But I won her over. It was the best thing I ever did. We're pretty good for one another, actually. No doubt."

The Greggs have three boys (Wyatt, 6; Ryder, 4; Maddox, 1) and a place they love in Oklahoma where they live in the offseason, thanks to the four-year, $20.3 million extension he signed with the Ravens in 2007. There's a pond in the front yard that Gregg keeps stocked with fish.

"I love to fish," Gregg says. "It's so relaxing. I don't know if I'm very good, but I can do it all the time. My dad always took us fishing growing up, and I love to fish with my boys. No doubt."

Gregg's father, a smoker, died from cancer five years ago, which he says was "pretty rough." It hurts that his dad never got a chance to know his grandsons. But the pain is lessened just a bit by a memory Gregg cherishes.

"My dad always wanted to watch me play, and my first two years I wasn't playing," Gregg says. "But he did get to see me play. I remember we were playing Cleveland, the day Jamal broke the record (for rushing yards in a single game). I look up in the stands, and I saw my dad ordering two beers. I thought to myself, 'That's pretty cool. See your son playing football and drink some beers.' That's perfect."

I don't see Gregg for several weeks after we leave the restaurant, but on the first official day of Ravens training camp, I'm walking back to my car in Westminster in the muggy heat. I have about a half-mile walk ahead of me until a white SUV pulls up beside me. A shirtless Gregg rolls down the passenger window, an impish grin on his face.

"Hey buddy!" he hollers. "You need a ride?"

After I climb into the cab, he asks me a question I didn't see coming.

"You gonna run this story about me in the police blotter, aren't you?" he teases.

You bet, buddy. No doubt, no doubt.