NEWARK, DEL. — Five years before he led the Ravens on a memorable Super Bowl run, quarterback Joe Flacco helped guide Delaware to the brink of a 2007 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title.
Flacco led the Blue Hens to a home playoff victory over Delaware State, and then road wins against Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois before Delaware was beaten in the championship game by Appalachian State.
"The playoff series that we went through was the best time of my life," Flacco said Friday night.
Flacco had ample opportunity to reminisce about his two years as a Blue Hen as he was one of 10 former athletes and coaches inducted into the University of Delaware Athletics Hall of Fame at a ceremony that took place at the Bob Carpenter Center.
"The university means so much just because of what I'm doing today and how much of an opportunity this place game me to go out there and take advantage of what I feel like I do best," Flacco said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun after the ceremony. "It's nice to come back here and see some friendly faces and be part of this."
The rest of Delaware's Hall of Fame class included All-American baseball player Brian August; professional lacrosse player Curtis Dickson; former cross country and track and field coach Jim Fischer; three-sport standout and former football and men's lacrosse coach Mickey Heinecken; All-American field hockey player Erica LaBar Stroud; longtime football defensive coordinator Ed Maley; track and field standout Tyechia Smith; women's basketball and volleyball player Diane Stetina; and volleyball player Colleen Walsh Caskey.
Flacco, who has the weekend off with the Ravens on a bye, was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Dana, also a Delaware graduate, and his parents, Karen and Steve. During a forum with other Hall of Fame members, Flacco praised his family members for the sacrifices they made for his career. He also thanked former teammates and coaches, and said the friends he made at Delaware are the ones that have persevered into the present.
The most well-known among the 10 Hall of Fame inductees, Flacco poked fun at himself after he showed up late and missed his initial introduction.
"I had to be a diva and show up 15 minutes late," said Flacco, who signed autographs and posed for pictures with the other inductees.
In just two years at Delaware, Flacco set 20 school records, including most completions (331) and passing yards (4,263) in a season and career completion percentage (63.4). He's second all-time in school history with 7,046 career passing yards and he's the only Delaware player to ever be taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
When he arrived on the Delaware campus in 2005, the Audubon, N.J., native was hardly thinking about the NFL. He just wanted an opportunity to play and he'd have to wait one more year as he was ineligible to play his first season after transferring from Pittsburgh.
He redshirted his first year at Pittsburgh and then served as a backup to Tyler Palko in 2004, playing only in mop-up duty. With Palko still ahead of him on the depth chart for the following season, Flacco opted to transfer. Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers coach at the time, refused to release Flacco from his scholarship, so the quarterback not only couldn't play in 2005, he also had to pay his way to Delaware.
Flacco's decision was rewarded. He started all 26 games over two seasons at Delaware and emerged as a legitimate NFL prospect. The Ravens sent a contingent of scouts and coaches to Delaware to work Flacco out before the 2008 draft. They were sold and wound up picking him 18th overall. He's now in his ninth season as the team's starter.
Winning Super Bowl XLVII over the San Francisco 49ers and earning the game's Most Valuable Player award is Flacco's crowning achievement. However, he said his final season at Delaware and the Blue Hens' playoff run in 2007 is "right up there" with his Super Bowl experience.
"It was a great time as a young kid with a lot of guys you were very close with and that you spent hours upon hours with," Flacco said. "When you went home, you went home to them. You didn't go home to your family. It was definitely a different experience than being in the NFL. In so many ways, when you're in college, you're even closer with the locker room than you are with a professional team. It was definitely a unique experience and one that I'll never forget."
It hasn't been an easy 11 months for Flacco. He tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in November, ending his streak of 137 consecutive starts to begin his career. He returned in time for training camp, but the first half of the 2016 season has been a struggle for both the Ravens, who are 3-4 and have lost four consecutive games for the first time under John Harbaugh, and for the veteran quarterback.
Flacco took accountability for the offense's struggles earlier this week. On Friday, though, there was no talk about the Ravens and how they are going to fix their myriad offensive problems. For the 31-year-old quarterback, it was a nice break.
"It's always nice to be able to forget about the struggles of the NFL for a couple of days at least," Flacco said. "It will become my reality again pretty soon, but it's nice to be able to unwind a little bit, see some friendly faces and get to have a little bit of fun."