From FCS and Division II to the Super Bowl

Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, left, intercepts a pass from Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, setting up the game-winning field goal.

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — I'll make no bones about it: this Sunday, I'm going to be a huge Ravens fan.

 

As an FCS football fan, it seems like I'm genetically predisposed to root for the little guys, the underdogs.  And for fans of the Davids over the Goliaths, there's an awful lot to love about the Space Cowboys that are the Baltimore Ravens.

 

The always-controversial Ray Lewis tends to dominate the headlines for the guys in Purple and Black, but unlike the 49ers, the Ravens have a load of players from the FCS level and below that aren't simply spending time on the bench – they're the reason why they're in New Orleans playing for the NFL's world championship.

 

Guys like Delaware's Joe Flacco, Harvard's Matt Birk, New Hampshire's Corey Graham, and Washburn's Cary Williams didn't go to big-name places like Alabama, Michigan or Notre Dame. 

 

But without them the Ravens aren't playing on football's biggest stage this Sunday evening.

 

 

The film "Space Cowboys" features actor/director Clint Eastwood grabbing four of his old NASA teammates – seen as old and over-the-hill – in order to repair a failing sattelite in space. 

 

You could certainly see a parallel with the movie "Space Cowboys" with this Ravens team and some of the veteran players that are on the roster. 

 

A lot has been made of Ray Lewis' final season in the NFL and his final push to get an elusive second world title. But there are plenty of other old dogs on this team that could very well be competing in their last rodeo.

 

Guys like safety Ed Reed, in his 11th season.  Linebacker Terrell Suggs, in his 10th season.  Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, in his 10th season.  Starting tackle Bryant McKinnie, in his 10th season.

 

Harvard C Matt Birk

One of those old dogs is Harvard's own Matt Birk, who, like Lewis, has been around the block a few times. 

 

Birk is playing in his 15th season, and his third for the Ravens.

 

At Harvard, Birk was a first team all-ECAC lineman and one of the giant reasons why the Harvard Crimson were 9-1 and won their first Ivy League championship in a decade. 

 

He was a big reason that dual theat quarterback Chris Linden passed for 2,099 yards and ran for 200 more during the season that put Harvard back in the Ivy League's elite. 

 

I was in Murray Goodman Stadium in 1997, too, when Harvard's offensive line dominated Lehigh's defensive front in a 35-30 victory.  The Crimson cruised to a 35-6 3rd quarter lead and ultimately held on to win after a furious Mountain Hawk comeback.

 

"I thought the Harvard kids played real hard," said then-Lehigh head coach Kevin Higgins, who is now the head man at The Citadel. "Especially the offensive and defensive lines."

 

Drafted in the 6th round by the Minnesota Vikings as a "developmental player", he quickly established himself as a starter after a short while.  To this day has been a valued starter on every NFL team that's signed him.  Currently the six-time Pro Bowler has started 112 games over the last seven years, which is the NFL's longest active streak among centers.

 

Three years ago, this unrestricted "space cowboy" free agent at the age of 33 moved to the Ravens with the idea that he'd finally be able to compete in the Super Bowl after a series of near-misses.

 

"That was as tough a way to end the season as you could probably have," Birk told the USA Today in the run-up to Sunday, "so I was kind of thinking in the back of my mind I sure would love to give it one more run with this group."

 

After the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in 2011, he told Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his agent Joe Linta that he needed to take some time to see whether he and his wife and six children could handle their father playing pro football for one more year.

 

"Linta, who also represents Joe Flacco, received a call from Birk in March," the USA Today article explained.  "'When you guys take like a five-minute break from the Flacco negotiations, maybe you can work my name in and try to get me a job,' Birk quipped."

 

"Matt Birk has been a huge part of this program for the last four years," Harbaugh told the Baltimore Sun.  "He's smart, he's tough. To my eye, he is playing the best football that he’s played since he’s been here right now at this point.  He’s just done a great job for us, and we would not be where we’re at without Matt Birk.”

 

His college coach, Tim Murphy, is still the head man at Harvard.  And recently, along with the football team and calling him "Birkie", he taped a video tribute for the long-time all-pro.

 

*****

 

Sometimes, one play can vault a player from obscurity to NFL lore. 

 

In the Ravens' epic run through the AFC playoffs this season, there were not one but two players from schools not named Miami or Ohio State that had such moments.

 

New Hampshire DB Corey Graham vs. Delaware, 2006

 

One was a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Corey Graham, whose interception of current Bronco and future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning in overtime set up the Raven's game-winning field goal in one of the all-time great playoff games.

 

Another was a graduate of tiny Division II Washburn College – you might be forgiven if you didn't know that they are based in Topeka, Kansas and called the Ichabods – called Cary Williams, who interecepted another future NFL hall-of-famer, Tom Brady, to put the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

 

When you're in the NFL and you don't come from a typical high-profile football program like Alabama or USC, you have to fight a stigma that you weren't good enough then, and you're not good enough now. 

 

Specifically, Williams was targeted by Brady earlier in the 2012 season – "probably my worst game as a Raven," he told the Baltimore Sun – while he was still recovering from off-season hip surgery – Brady completed 9 of 13 passes his way despite the Patriots' 31-30 regular season defeat.

 

Williams, who started his career at FCS Fordham University but was frustrated at his lack of playing time (a "dispute with his position coach during practice" was how it was characterized on Williams' NFL Draft bio), transferred to Washburn – sight unseen – after two seasons, thanks to a Fordham assistant coach that had spent a year on Washburn's coaching staff.

 

In Topeka, Williams and had an amazing career for the Ichabods.  

 

During his senior year in 2007, he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and also notched 7 interceptions, which was good enough to be in the Top Ten in Division II in return yardage and interceptions in the same season. 

 

Washburn CB Cary Williams

Despite some "wow" combine numbers of a 4.43 40 yard dash, he fell to the 6th round and the Tennessee Titans, where he bounced off and on their practice squad for a couple of seasons. 

 

Intrigued by his speed and raw ability, though, the Ravens signed him off the Titans' practice squad and had him play on special teams.

 

From there started his incredible rise from practice-squad player to special teamer to starting NFL cornerback. 

 

Alongside another FCS veteran, Nicholls' safety Ladarius Webb, in Williams' fourth season in the NFL in 2011 he enjoyed his first NFL start at corner while limiting the Steelers' star wide receiver, Mike Williams, to a sub-par day.

 

Yet his 2011 campaign was seen as more of an up-and-down affair.  On his Wikipedia page, it even admits he "struggled with the deep ball" in 2011 and he was seen as a weak link in the Ravens' defense.

 

Whether due to injury or simply due to the stigma of being a small-school player coming out of nowhere, Williams was still seen as a borderline starter, despite the fact that he was starting in the Ravens' secondary for the second straight year.

 

By the end of the year, however, Williams had proven all the naysayers wrong.

 

His emergence as a aggressive corner, with four regular-season interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown against the Browns that was the difference in that game, was a critical part of the Ravens' success this season.

 

The one-time practice squad player made a huge gamble in the offseason, too, saying no to a 3 year, $15 million extension this offseason, in the final year of his contract. 

 

Now, though, with two postseason INTs to go with his four regular-season picks, it seems like that move that has paid off handsomely.

 

This week, he talked a lot about the close-knit nature of this Ravens team.

 

“You don’t get this type of locker room anywhere else,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I’ve been on another team besides this, and the locker room wasn’t as close-knit, wasn’t a family atmosphere. We had a couple guys that were cool and things like that, but it’s nothing like this. It’s unparalleled, and for us to have great leadership in this locker room and a great coaching staff and a great front office, you don’t want to leave a place like this because it’s rare that you would find a place like this. And I’ve talked to several guys in the locker room – Anquan [Boldin] and some of the other guys who just came over, Vonta [Leach] and Jacoby Jones – those guys think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a Raven, and it’s great for everybody.”

 

New Hampshire's Corey Graham's path to the starting lineup of the Ravens was similar to Williams'.

 

Graham was a dominant corner at the FCS level until an ankle injury late in his  junior campaign limited his playing time. 

 

As a junior he had an eye-popping 73 solo tackles, leading his Wildcats to a 10-1 record and a run in the FCS playoffs that ended in a thriller in Northern Iowa, just losing 24-21 in a heartbreaker to the Panthers.

 

Graham's ankle injury was serious business.  With his 40 yard dash time down to 4.7, there was a real threat that his NFL aspirations would be toast.

 

Enter his high school coach at Turner-Carroll, in Buffalo, New York, Willie Burnett.

“He’s like ‘Coach, this is never gonna work,’ ” Burnett told the Buffalo News. “We worked out, we trained hard, and we got him back down to under 4.4. He’s just the epitome of what it takes to be successful. Corey never gave up. He still never gives up. If you watch him out on the field, he plays hard. He plays like it’s his last play.”

 

One of the highlights of his senior campaign – and one of the games which put any doubts about Graham's ankle to rest – came against none other than Delaware, led by a certain Joe Flacco.

 

In that game he had 13 tackles and notched more than 200 yards in kickoff returns, including a 99 yard kickoff return that would give the Wildcats a 28-27 lead in a crazy, see-saw game.

 

Despite the fact his injury limited him to seven appearances his senior campaign at New Hampshire, his work with head coach Sean McDonough and his high school coach paid off handsomely after a 4.42 40 yard dash in the NFL combine which quelled any remaining fears about the lingering effects of his injury. 

 

That allowed the Bears to take a chance on him, and draft him in the fifth round.

 

Bears head coach Lovie Simth, perhaps just seeing Graham as a small-school guy, wanted Graham to spend all his time on special teams, despite the promise of more regular play in the secondary and the fact that he had done extremely well in a reserve role, notching 3 interceptions as a nickel back.

 

"That's just what he wanted from me," an article from CBS Sports said.  "Even in meetings, that's all he talked about: 'Corey is our guy on special teams.' No matter if I go out there and get six picks in practice, he would say something about special teams. That's just how it is. It's not like I don't want to do special teams. I've done it my whole life. I enjoy it, but some situations are better than others."

 

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, a guy who knows something about FCS-level talent after guiding Western Kentucky to the I-AA National Championship in 2002, reached out to Graham and promised an opportunity to play defense on a regular basis.

 

"I knew from the beginning that this was the best decision I ever made in my life,"  Graham told the Baltimore Sun after his iconic interception. "Well, one of the best. Probably marrying my wife was the best. Coach Harbaugh gives guys a chance to come out and play.

"He told me before I signed here that if I deserved to play that I would, and he's a man of his word. He gave me the opportunity to play and that's all I've asked for."

 

Graham's opportunity would come sooner rather than later. 

 

With Ladarius Webb's season-ending ACL tear in Week 6, and a slow recovery from sports hernia surgery for the next Raven on the two-deep, first-round pick Jimmy Smith, Graham suddenly found himself as the starter.

 

"The Ravens do an excellent job of finding guys that fit their system," former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst, told the Baltimore Sun. "It's not always about how much money you pay for a guy. You look for values, and you look for guys who can do a lot of different things. [General manager] Ozzie Newsome and his staff do an incredible job of finding players.

 

This season at corner, he's the shutdown man on the other side of Williams, notching 54 tackles and 2 interceptions – and, like Williams, one of the giant reasons why the Ravens are competing in the Super Bowl this weekend.

 

Williams and Graham – two guys who almost didn't get a chance in the NFL at all.

 

*****

 

The University of Delaware is one of those iconic programs at the FCS level. 

 

Blue Hen fans talk a lot about their former hall-of-fame coach, Tubby Raymond, their two national championships, Division II and I-AA, or the exploits of Rich Gannon, the other Blue Hen quarterback who has suited up in the Super Bowl for the Oakland Raiders.

 

Lately, though, it's been all about Joe.

 

It's a rarity these days, in this world of instant media and the many opportunities to pump up your ego that a starting quarterback in the NFL is, as his own father described him, "a bit dull".

 

Delaware QB Joe Flacco, vs. Richmond, 2007

By all accounts, though, Joe is the same guy who married his high school sweetheart.  The same guy who helped his Mom plan his draft party.  The same guy who is playing his home games in the NFL about an hour away from where he was a football star in college.

 

It's hard to imagine fans of Colin Kapernick feeling the same connection to their hometown hero as so many Delaware fans feel towards Joe.

 

"On Jan. 20," the USA Today reported, "bars across the state — and especially in Newark — featured plenty of UD students and alumni wearing blue and gold as they rooted for Flacco as he beat another future Hall of Fame quarterback, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady."

 

Part of his appeal shone through this week as NFL talking heads have been picking apart Joe's record to see if he belongs in the same breath as first-ballot hall of famers like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.

 

Delaware fans are used to this argument.  To those that saw him play in some epic games in 2006 and 2007 for the Blue Hens, they know that he's one of the best to ever come through the First State.  Don't try to tell them that he's not one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, they know, becuase they're a part of the secret club that know exactly how good he was.

 

Delaware is well known in football circles for being a great opportunity for transfers from FBS schools that are stuck behind an entrenched person on the depth chart. 

 

Stuck behind the anointed starter Tyler Palko, a 6'6 quarterback from New Jersey looked to transfer from Pittsburgh closer to home, and Delaware was the ideal destination for the family-oriented signalcaller.

 

Yet Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt, in a highly unusual move, wouldn't remove Joe from his commitment to Pittsburgh, meaning that he had to sit out a year at Delaware and instead ran the scout team.

 

It meant that the Blue Hens would have to wait to see what their brand-new quarterback could do, but when No. 5 would indeed suit up for the Hens, he wouldn't disappoint.

 

The first sign that Joe could be something special was a game against the then-No. 1 team in the country, New Hampshire.

 

I was at that game, a back-and-forth affair that featured more than 1,000 yards of offense with both teams.  As seems typical of Flacco's entire career, the focus was not on him, but the New Hampshire tandem of quarterback Ricky Santos and David Ball, who had tied Jerry Rice's record for most touchdown receptions.

 

Going up against another future NFL player, Corey Graham, Flacco passed for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns, and kept Delaware in the game until the very end, completing his third touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Love with just under a minute to play to cut New Hampshire's lead to three. 

 

In fact, had they been able to recover an onsides kick in the final minute, they would have had a real shot at tying the game or forcing overtime.

 

Even though the 2006 Blue Hens would limp to a 5-6 record, there was plenty of promise that the 2007 Delaware squad would compete for the title, thanks to Flacco and the incredible running of Omar Cuff.

 

And Joe would deliver in a dream season where he would simply get better and better each week.

 

Yet it's also important to note that Joe was never a "stat guy", even in college.  He probably could have thrown the ball for 400 yards and notched three touchdowns against William & Mary, but he didn't need to to win the game, so he didn't.  They'd win 49-42, but his stat line – a brutally efficient 19 for 23, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions – show a player that puts himself aside to win the game.

 

But when the situation required it – for example, in a shock 59-52 win against Navy in later October – Joe showed the ability to carry the team on his back as well.  In another shootout, he again showed a brutal efficiency passing the ball, 30 for 41, but he also amassed 434 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a 3rd quarter strike to Love, one of his favorite targets as a Blue Hen, to put the Hens up 10.

 

"We just beat a team that went to four straight bowl games and is probably going to a fifth straight bowl," said Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said at the time. "We had two weeks to prepare for them, we needed it."

 

Even though Flacco would lose to Villanova, Delaware's big rivals, on the last day of the season – one of the more interesting sidebars to Flacco's storied Blue Hen career was that he never was able to beat the Wildcats, New Hampshire or Villanova – Delaware made it into the FCS playoffs with an 8-3 record.

 

Those who call Joe a "playoff quarterback" today would do well to re-analyze Flacco's incredible run through the FCS playoffs, ending in the FCS championship game in 2008.

 

In four games, he'd toss 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.  He'd pass for 888 yards, and orchestrate two wins on the road in hostile places to play, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa. 

 

Even in defeat, in what ended up being a dominating 49-21 win by Appalachian State, he'd show flashes of his incredible ability, at one point scrambling away from the Mountaineer pass rush and throwing the ball 60 yards across his body.

 

You know the rest of the story – his meteroric rise from third-round pick to first round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.  His five playoff appearances, while the golden boy picked ahead of him in the draft, Matt Ryan, still awaits his first shot at a Super Bowl.

 

For fans of FCS, though – and especially Blue Hen fans – you can't help but root for the Ravens quarterback who has done everything but win the biggest game of all at his level of competition.

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