Scott Otto feared he was about to lose one of his most promising players to another sport, so the Nathan Hale High football coach approached sophomore Rick Wagner and offered a compromise.
"I said, 'Ricky, I know you're into basketball, but I'd love for you to play football,'" Otto recalled. "Obviously, he was worried about injury, so I said, 'You know what, I'll put you at wide receiver. All you've got to do is catch passes.' At the time, he was probably 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. I said, 'This will actually help you with basketball. It will be just like you're rebounding.'"
Wagner possessed characteristics that Otto felt would translate into him being an offensive tackle at the collegiate level but his road to that point — and to eventually becoming the starting right tackle for the Ravens — was unconventional.
He walked onto the football team at Wisconsin, his home state university, as a tight end, but outgrew the position and moved to offensive tackle. In a program known for producing NFL offensive linemen, Wagner protected future Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's blind side and created holes for future Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball.
But in the 2013 draft, 167 players, including 11 offensive tackles, were selected before the Ravens used the final pick of the fifth round on Wagner. Sixteen months later, coach John Harbaugh named Wagner the Ravens' starting right tackle heading into the 2014 regular season.
"Obviously, he wasn't happy with what round he was drafted in, but he'll always be a guy who has earned what he's gotten," Otto said. "He doesn't want anything given to him. In a weird way, if he would have been a first- or second-round pick, I just don't know what would have happened. But this almost worked out perfectly for him, for his personality, for what he does. He's just a tireless worker."
Wagner is filling the spot vacated by Michael Oher's departure as a free agent to the Tennessee Titans on a four-year, $20 million contract. Oher was a first-round pick, started every game in five seasons for the Ravens and was well known before he made his NFL debut after his story was depicted in the hit movie "The Blind Side."
Wagner enjoys working in relative anonymity, which has been tough to come by this summer with all the attention on the Ravens' efforts to improve their offensive line after a subpar 2013. Wagner was probably the biggest question mark, but his play through training camp and in the first two preseason games made the announcement that he would start — "he's earned it," Harbaugh said — little more than a formality.
"It makes me feel good, but it's something you work for every week," Wagner said. "It's not a guarantee that I'll be starting every game. You have to work for it every week in practice."
Wagner's NFL baptism came in last year's season opener against the Broncos. Oher went down with an ankle injury, and Wagner was thrust into the lineup at right tackle. He was beaten for 21/2 sacks by veteran outside linebacker Shaun Phillips in the Broncos' 49-27 victory.
"It was an eye opener," Wagner said. "After that, I definitely knew that I had to get better to play in this league. It was good to get that out of the way very early in my career."
Wagner, 24, played in all 16 games for the Ravens last season and was used as an extra offensive lineman in the team's "jumbo" package. However, when Oher left, it seemed likely that the Ravens would bring in a veteran offensive tackle to provide Wagner with some competition for the job. They never did, and they've watched Wagner improve steadily throughout the offseason minicamps.
He hasn't been flawless during the preseason, though Harbaugh has praised him for not making the same mistake twice and for holding up physically on the edge.
"They have tried to bull rush him and go after him that way, and he has not really been moved too much at all," Harbaugh said.
Wagner said the game has slowed down for him and he's more comfortable in the offense, something that has been obvious to left guard Kelechi Osemele.
"I feel like during minicamp and [organized team activities], he was still trying to get a grasp of it and we all were — it being a new offense," Osemele said. "And that's a struggle for a young player, learning the playbook one year, and the next year it's a new offense. But now that he has gotten some time with the playbook and gotten multiple reps, all I've seen is improvement."
Wagner has always been a quick study. He was a good enough basketball prospect to earn a couple of Division I scholarship offers. However, Wagner didn't see a future in the sport, and he was getting bigger and stronger by the day.
Playing in a run-oriented high school offense, Wagner had 39 career catches for 900 yards and six touchdowns. By the time he was a senior, the West Allis, Wisc., native was considered one of the top tight ends in the state, but the scholarship offers from high-profile Division I programs never came.
Michigan showed interest and sent its offensive line coach at the time, Andy Moeller, who went on to coach with the Ravens, to Nathan Hale High. However, Wagner had already left for the day.
"I called Ricky and said the coach from Michigan was here and he'd like to talk to you, but he didn't answer the phone so I left a message," Otto said. "A minute after Coach Moeller left, Ricky comes flying into the school — I think he was on his bike to tell you the truth — and he was wearing his Desmond Howard Michigan jersey. It was classic."
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Wagner, like many boys who grow up in "America's Dairyland," wanted to play at Wisconsin anyway, so much so that he rejected a couple of football scholarship offers to walk on at Wisconsin. After redshirting his first season and changing positions, he played in 12 games at tackle in 2009 and became a full-time starter the next season.
Wagner was named a first-team All-Big 10 selection following his senior season but he was again largely overshadowed by higher-profile teammates and NFL draft prospects. All five of the Badgers' 2011 starting offensive linemen were drafted into the NFL.
Gabe Carimi and Kevin Zeitler went in the first round, Peter Konz was a second-round pick and John Moffitt was taken in the third round. Then came Wagner who waited until the final pick of the fifth round to get the phone call that he had long anticipated.
"I kind of like that scenario," Wagner said. "You have to work your way up. I think it gives me a better attitude, like I have to earn everything.
"After a while, it doesn't really matter when you are picked; it matters where you are picked. I'm definitely very happy to be here. I think it worked out well."