It would be easy enough to mistake Chris Board for a grim, “Terminator” type.
If the Ravens held a bodybuilding contest, the second-year linebacker might win it, with a physique that appears shaped from steel. He's never said much in the locker room, where he prefers to cover his ears with headphones as he dresses for practice.
But you might also glimpse Board patiently signing autographs for young fans after another hot training camp slog. You might note the smile and the hand he extends when meeting a new person or his unfailing politeness in conversation.
He’s just reserved. Always has been. Even when you get him talking, his sentences contain few extraneous words.
“I’m vocal when I need to be,” he said. “But I’m always just ready to work, focused.”
He cannot afford frivolous moments if he’s to prove the football world goofed — again and again — by overlooking his talents.
Board isn’t going to be the one to say it, but there’s no better story on the Ravens defense. This time last year, he was nobody from nowhere as far as most fans were concerned. He defied the odds by making the 53-man roster but played just 14 defensive snaps in 2018.
Now, in the wake of C.J. Mosley's departure and Patrick Onwuasor's shift to middle linebacker, he's the favorite to start at weak-side linebacker, though he was knocked out of the Ravens’ second preseason game with a concussion.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale raves about the former safety’s speed, and Board has taken almost every first-team rep this summer, ahead of 2018 fourth-round draft pick Kenny Young.
We’ve seen this narrative before, of course, with Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Albert McClellan, Zachary Orr and most recently, Onwuasor. No team takes greater pride in finding undrafted gems, shaping them through special-teams apprenticeships and then rolling them out as starting NFL linebackers.
Even so, it's difficult to convey just how far from the top-prospect lists Board resided.
“Chris Board, gosh, here’s a guy that, in all honesty, on the board, was about as low as you could get in college as a free agent,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Board, 24, felt underappreciated going all the way back to high school in Orlando, Florida, where he grew up a Florida State fan but could not earn a recruiting sniff from any of the Division I powers in his vicinity.
“That’s kind of how it’s been my whole life,” he said. “The guy counted out.”
He had to move north, way north, for an opportunity at Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse North Dakota State. The shift in climates came as an initial shock; in December, the average high temperature for Orlando is 75 degrees; for Fargo, it's 23 degrees.
Board did not start full-time until his fifth year. He had to force his way onto the field by excelling at special teams, much as he has in Baltimore.
“Probably similar to the NFL, that’s how you get your stripes,” said former Bisons head coach Chris Klieman, who was hired in December to run the Kansas State football program.
Did Board complain?
“You’re never going to hear about him off the field,” Klieman said. “Mild mannered, very mature kid, very personable as you get to know him. … He’s just going to handle his stuff. That’s what I appreciated about Chris. You knew every Saturday, he was going to show up and play his tail off, but you never had to worry that he was going to get big-headed or egotistical.”
Board played with future No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz, among others, and called his move to North Dakota “one of the best decisions of my life.” It certainly proved serendipitous in his journey to Baltimore.
Was Jerry Rosburg meant to find Board? The recently retired Ravens special teams coordinator also played linebacker at North Dakota State once upon a time. He loved nothing more than an unsung talent who was hungry to chase down tackles in kickoff or punt coverage.
Rosburg was in Fargo for the Bisons’ pro day showcase in March 2018. Though most scouts and reporters seemed focused on linebacker Nick DeLuca (now with the Miami Dolphins), Board ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
“He fits the profile for what we’re looking for, for those undrafted free agent-type players,” Rosburg said months later. “A guy that’s athletic and fast and physical and all those traits that we look for.”
Better still, Board loved special teams unabashedly. He would never turn up his nose at the least glamorous sector of the pro game.
Board signed with the Ravens precisely because of their history with undrafted free agents, and he was delighted to put himself in the hands of Rosburg and McClellan, the veteran linebacker and special teams leader who was still with the team for part of last year.
“Jerry’s my guy,” Board said. “I know without him, I wouldn’t be the player I am today. He’s taught me so much.”
Board played a team-high 356 snaps on special teams last season. He did not say many more words than that in interviews.
Board smiled when asked how he came by his stoicism. It wasn’t genetic. His parents, both track athletes at Southeast Missouri State, happily celebrate his achievements. His younger brothers, Elijah and Joshua, can get downright boisterous.
“They’re totally different than me,” he said. “It’s just my personality.”
Board has even urged his mother, Torvia Young, who travels from Memphis, Tennessee, for Ravens games, to relax her praise because he still has much to accomplish.
He would not trade all those years of feeling like no one saw in him what he saw in himself. He knew that when he toiled as a reserve at an FCS school, most observers would have laughed off his NFL aspirations (if they even guessed he had them). He used the skepticism as fuel.
“It made me the man I am today,” Board said. “I’ve never been that guy who’s the No. 1 pick or the No. 1 recruit. I’ve always known I had to outwork the next guy.”
He knew coming into training camp that unlike last year, he had a real chance to earn a starting role on defense. Understated as he is, Board acknowledged that if he and Onwuasor — both undrafted former safeties — end up starting side by side, the story could be an inspiration to younger players who feel overlooked.
But he said that greater carrot dangling before him did nothing to change his preparations. He already ran and lifted at least once, often twice, each day of the offseason.