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Nico Siragusa may have been destined to be a Raven

Nico Siragusa, the Ravens' fourth-round pick, takes questions on Friday afternoon.
Nico Siragusa, the Ravens' fourth-round pick, takes questions on Friday afternoon.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

When Nico Siragusa entered the world on May 10, 1994, the delivery room nurse held him up and gasped, "Oh ... my ... Lord!"

Born three weeks early, the baby measured 23-1/2 inches and weighed 10 pounds.

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"He came out like he'd been in a Gold's Gym in the womb," Ramon Siragusa said of his son. "He was huge."

Still is. A guard and the Ravens' fourth-round pick in last month's NFL draft, Siragusa stands 6-feet-4 and weighs 318 pounds. He has hands that can palm a basketball, feet the size of hash marks and a smile as wide as a crossbar.

It's a smile born of strife and sorrow. Siragusa's older sister, Angel, who was born deaf, with hydrocephalus and a weakened immune system, died at age 13 — on her brother's first birthday. His father, a diabetic, spent nine years on dialysis while waiting for a kidney transplant. Their trials taught Siragusa the tenets of life.

"I didn't get to see Angel, with her struggles, but I did watch my dad, and it helped me cement my values," he said. "That's why I'm always smiling, because you never know when life could be taken away from you."

"And I wonder if she's like, 'What? You had a kid in San Diego that I don't know about?' So I feel bad for him."

That he'd be a Raven was a given. Growing up around San Diego, he and his family lived for awhile on Baltimore Drive. At San Diego State, teammates called him "Goose," after Tony Siragusa, the former Raven lineman who may or may not be distant kin. And the day he was drafted, his parents told him that Angel's favorite color had been purple.

"That's amazing," said Siragusa, who has an angel tattooed on his left forearm. "She's watched over me all my life. She's my guardian Angel."

A third-team AP All American, he was the 122nd player selected and the Ravens' first pick on offense. A plowhorse up front, Siragusa is expected to punch holes for runners, as he did at San Diego State for Donnel Pumphrey, who led the nation in rushing (2,133 yards) last year. His low center of gravity ("I have a really big butt") helps him move mountains up front.

With their first pick on the final day of the NFL draft, the Ravens finally took an offensive player. However, it was a guard, not a wide receiver.

The Aztecs didn't throw much, so his pass protection skills, NFL pundits say, are a work in progress.

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"See, I don't get that," Siragusa said. "I gave up only three [quarterback] pressures and one sack in college. I don't know where [the criticism] is coming from, but I've been showing people all my life what I can do, and I can't wait to do it again."

As a kid, he was singled out for his build. By kindergarten, he was wearing men's shoes (size 6). At age 8, he played one year of rec football, with older boys, then begged off. Bad fit.

"Nico was playing with Pokemon Cards while the 12-year-olds talked about girls," Ramon Siragusa said.

Though he hails from an athletic family — Nico's father and two uncles played football, and his grandfather played for Puerto Rico's 1960 Olympic basketball team — he took time to develop.

Jameel McClain, the Ravens' new assistant director of player development, will start this week assimilating the team's rookies into the NFL culture and lifestyle.

"He lacked confidence early on," his father said. "I told him, 'You're like a Saint Bernard puppy, a little clumsy, but once you grow into yourself, you'll be fine.' "

By high school, Siragusa had won fame in baseball and basketball. Play football? His mother, Dianne, said no.

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"It was tough, watching Nico walk the halls as a sophomore and not be able to help us on Friday nights," said John Joyner, football coach at Mater Dei Catholic High, a small parochial school in Chula Vista. "But we didn't push it too hard because we knew he wanted to play."

Finally, as a junior, Siragusa received his mom's blessing. But ever since, as soon as her son sets foot on the field, she rises from her seat and heads for the concession stands.

Mother's intuition? That first season in high school, while racing out of the locker room at halftime, Siragusa burst through a banner being held by the cheerleaders ... and pulled up lame. What he feared was a torn ACL proved only a sprain, but he took a lot of ribbing.

"I told him, 'You can block all of these 270-pound defensive linemen, but you can't run through a cheerleaders' banner?'" Joyner said. "From then on, every week, Nico would jog around that banner."

From day one, the coach said, Siragusa was "a difference-maker. Of course, we had to order special pants for him, and $20 cleats. But once he was out there, you knew he was special."

Two years later, Mater Dei improved from 1-9 to 9-3 and college coaches streamed in to meet the all-state guard. Siragusa greeted them with open arms. Literally.

"Most kids are intimidated to meet coaches from UCLA and up and down the Pac-12, but he'd give them all bear hugs, smile and ask all kinds of questions for, like, 30 minutes," Joyner said. "He's so upbeat and outgoing, and it's all genuine. Nico's not putting on a show."

He chose San Diego State, to stay close to home. There, he started 41 consecutive games for the Aztecs and never missed a practice — a constancy coveted by the pros.

Upon arriving at rookie minicamp, the Ravens' draft picks chose their uniform numbers for 2017.

"I was blessed," Siragusa said. "I played through some stuff — a high ankle sprain, separated shoulder and torn labrum — but you can push through that."

His coaches at San Diego State said he's a quick read and noted his football IQ.

"Nico picks up on stuff fast and transfers it from the class to the grass," offensive line coach Mike Schmidt said.

Head coach Rocky Long called Siragusa "a come-off-the-ball kind of guy. He doesn't get mad easily but, the rougher things get, the meaner he gets."

It's an edginess Siragusa concedes he's exploring.

"I really worked on it last year," he said. "There's always room to improve on playing nasty, and I'll continue to do that in Baltimore."

He showed up at the Ravens' rookie mini-camp Friday in good shape, having shed 22 pounds from the 340 he once carried.

"Chicken, salad and Brussels sprouts are all you need to eat," he said.

But ... Brussels sprouts?

"I've grown to love those things since January."

Siragusa will be a hit in the Ravens' locker room, his coaches said.

"He's a big, jolly lineman who's great for team chemistry," Long said.

Said Siragusa, "I'm an easygoing guy who doesn't step on anybody's toes — except when we're doing offensive line drills."

That happens when you're wearing size-15 shoes.

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