Preseason opener will have greater meaning for Ravens' Kelechi Osemele

Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele participates in practice during training camp in July.
Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele participates in practice during training camp in July. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

The tingling sensation Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele felt in his toes when he walked to his car every morning was alarming more than anything else. The time it took him to do seemingly routine tasks, such as going to the bathroom, was a source of frustration.

The pain was constant and excruciating, so intense he could barely sleep, let alone block a 320-pound defensive tackle. For Osemele, though, the hardest part of the back injury that required surgery and prematurely ended his 2013 season was probably just the general feeling of anguish.


"Honestly, I felt like I was in such a funk," said Osemele, a third-year offensive guard. "It carried over off the field. I just wasn't the same person, and I didn't look forward to work every day because I was in pain. I was always in a bad mood and it kind of affected my relationships with people, with family. It was like being a wounded animal. I was in a bad place and having questions of 'Is this what I want to do, am I happy?'"

Osemele has no problem answering those questions now. He is healthy and happy and when he jogs out of the M&T Bank Stadium tunnel Thursday night for the Ravens' preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers, his comeback from a potentially career-threatening back injury will be nearly complete.

"The feeling is just indescribable," Osemele said. "It's what I live for."

The game carries extra significance for Osemele, whose return has been one of the Ravens' feel-good stories of training camp. His return is also one of the keys to improved play by the offensive line, which failed last year to consistently protect quarterback Joe Flacco and open holes for the running game.

The line problems went beyond Osemele's uneven play in the first seven games and his absence for the final nine. But Osemele believes he deserves plenty of the blame after he aggravated the bulging disk — a back injury that arose when he was a senior at Iowa State — with a rigorous offseason workout regimen and then made matters worse by initially failing to disclose the extent of his pain to the Ravens coaching and training staff.

"You could see it on his face for the last four weeks," said A.Q. Shipley who ultimately replaced Osemele at left guard and started the final nine games. "You could see him stretching his back between every play and every series. It's hard enough to block these guys when you're healthy, let alone when you have a bad back."

Osemele successfully managed the pain during his rookie season in 2012, in which he started 16 games at right tackle and then moved to left guard for the playoffs. His performance factored prominently in the offensive line's resurgence during the Super Bowl run.

But when Osemele woke up Oct. 6 in more pain than he had ever felt before, he knew his season would be over soon. He pretty much told run game coordinator Juan Castillo as much when he got to the stadium for the Ravens' road game against the Miami Dolphins.

However, Osemele had taken all the practice reps at left guard that week and didn't think it was fair to Shipley to have to play a position he hadn't really practiced. So Osemele started against the Dolphins, lasting one series before he had to leave the game. Osemele started two more games before he determined he was doing more harm than good.

"Those back injuries are very serious," said Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. "He was fighting through it for a long time and he just got to the point where he couldn't do it anymore."

Osemele had a surgical procedure in November in which cartilage in his back was shaved and some of the jelly-like substance in the herniated disk was sucked out. The broken cartilage and the substance leaking into his spinal canal and pushing on a nerve had caused pain.

He tried to stay upbeat, but the first two days after surgery were miserable. The dosage of painkillers wasn't enough for a 6-foot-5, 330-pound man. During one stretch, he stayed up for 24 straight hours because the pain left him unable to sleep.

Osemele was supposed to be laid up for a couple of weeks but he recalled going into the Ravens' indoor fieldhouse about five days after surgery and walking around the field "10 or 12" times.

Working every day with head trainer Mark Smith and strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki, Osemele started jogging not long after that. He felt so good at times that he sneaked into the dark fieldhouse and jogged on his own without anybody knowing.


"After a month, I felt like I was good," Osemele said.

He said his back still bothers him on occasion and he can no longer do some of the exercises that used to be part of his routine, but overall, this is the best he's felt in years.

"I feel like I'm in college again," he said.

Osemele has been one of the most active and aggressive Ravens over the past couple of weeks. On one running play last week, Osemele shoved 340-pound Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to the ground. He's sprinted from drill to drill, often with a smile across his face.

"K.O. is having a great camp," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's becoming an anchor for us, just like Marshal is."

Osemele believes he can return to the form he showed his rookie season, if not better. He's excited to operate between left tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah, and more experienced with zone blocking schemes. He feels healthier and stronger, and takes the field with a different perspective.

"I definitely play every rep like it's my last now because I know how [fickle] this game is," Osemele said. "I won't take it for granted, playing and being a starter. It means more to me, knowing how it felt to sit out. It was just tough to watch. I would say definitely when I'm out there now, I have more enthusiasm and play with more passion."


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