- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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BALTIMORE -- K.C. Keeler, a man who wears sunglasses at night but has impeccable vision, likes to tell this story. It's about Joe Flacco. Before the University of Delaware unveiled a 30-foot poster of Flacco in its stadium, before he quietly captivated the NFL, Flacco walked into Keeler's office just before the start of spring football. He told the Delaware coach he was pondering playing baseball, because he was a senior now and every prudent man has a Plan B, and Keeler's mouth dropped wide open.
"Joe, do you realize that the scouts are coming in?" Keeler said.
Do you realize, Joe, that you will be an NFL draft pick next year?
Flacco paused, and gave his coach a puzzled look.
The kid keeps his cool
There is no way to explain it. How Joe Flacco went unnoticed for the first 22½ years of his life, then led the Baltimore Ravens to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie last season. How Flacco is head-and-shoulders better in 2009, Pro Bowl-caliber better, after playing on just one winning team before last season and riding the bench for much of his college career.
It leads Flacco and his dad Steve to wonder how many more castoffs are out there, working 9-to-5 jobs because they didn't fit a prototype or change a coach's mind. Flacco thinks about it every time he passes by a TV and a UFL game is on. He wonders how close he was to that same anonymity.
"We'll be driving back from Baltimore," Steve Flacco says, "and he'll look at me like, 'Oh my God if I was looking for an accounting job right now, you don't know how miserable I'd be.' First of all, he'd be unemployed. And it would be hard to watch football games."
The thing is, Flacco never doubted he had the talent to play in the NFL. He'd call his dad during the pride-swallowing days at the University of Pittsburgh, saying it made him "sick to his stomach" that he wasn't getting the chance to play. He'd stun everybody at the end of the Ravens' training camp last year, when the team's top two quarterbacks went down and Flacco just shrugged his shoulders when he was called in to start, after taking just a handful of snaps. "Cool, I get to play," was the attitude Steve sensed from his oldest boy before his first NFL start.
Flacco absorbed the playbook so quickly that he was helping veterans brush up on new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system.
"I don't know that I'm different than anybody else," Flacco says. "I realize that I'm in a situation that is a great one. I'm an NFL quarterback. There's only 32 guys in the world who get to do this, and I'm one of them. So you'd better not mess it up."
He has a 6-foot-6 frame and one of the strongest arms in the NFL. He's a 24-year-old with a 40-something's brain. That's what sets him apart, Baltimore quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson says: his head. Flacco has turned down dozens of endorsements because he figures he makes enough money playing football and doesn't want to waste his time on the extracurriculars. (Steve Flacco proudly says that nearly all of his son's $8.75 million in guaranteed money is socked away in savings).
Flacco went to a Super Bowl party in the offseason, and hung with the schmoozers and NFL elite. It should be noted that he wasn't there by choice; he was nudged to go and pick up an award. By the end of the night, he could be found standing off to the side with his girlfriend, eyeballing the exits.
"I met him at one of the Super Bowl events, and I was very impressed by his character and the way he handled himself," says Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, "which I think says a lot about a person as a leader and as a quarterback. You need to have a good head on your shoulders to be able to inspire the guys around you."
And inspired they were. The Ravens were coming off a 5-11 season when Flacco arrived, and he helped turn the franchise around by throwing for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2008. He found a perfect connection with Cameron, who mentored Philip Rivers to a 14-2 record in his first season as San Diego's starter.
Cameron tried to bring Flacco along at a comfortable pace in 2008. In Year 2, it's obvious he's allowing his young quarterback to let it fly. Through six games, Flacco has thrown for 1,674 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's completed 64.4 percent of his passes, and nearly willed the Ravens back from a 17-point deficit against the Vikings on Oct. 18, slinging for 196 yards in the fourth quarter.
In that game, Flacco was hit nine times, rolled his ankle and had his foot stepped on twice. As he trudged off the field after a 33-31 loss, coach John Harbaugh found him and said it was a performance more suited for a 15-year veteran.
It's what the Ravens have come to expect from Flacco, says Jackson, so they keep pumping him with more information and watch his rapid progression.
"With his ceiling, I think he has the opportunity to be one of the better players in this league by far," Jackson says. "This young man works as hard anybody I've been around, is as focused as anybody I've been around, and is as talented as anybody I've been around.
"I have not detected anything that is tough for him. I just haven't."
'Joe's not afraid to fail'
A woman e-mailing the Ravens' public relations department says she's angry. She's watched Joe Flacco dazzle on television, and then the TV cameras zoom to his family, which is seated in the third deck of M&T Bank Stadium. Can't the Ravens find a better place for the star quarterback's parents to sit?
She doesn't know that the Flaccos like to sit there, in the sea, so they can take in the entire view. They meet at an out-of-the-way diner after home games, 20-plus strong. There's his little brother, who likes to tease Joe about his awkward way of celebrating touchdowns. There are grandparents with old stories and new memories. There's Steve, who likes to break down the game with Joe when he arrives, after a shower and postgame interviews.
This, people closest to Flacco say, is how he stays grounded. He's the oldest of six kids, and spends many an offseason day at his parents' house in South Jersey, eating his mom Karen's lasagne, letting her do his laundry.
"I don't know if I'd call him shy. He just doesn't seek attention in any way," says his agent, Joe Linta. "He has a very dry sense of humor. He's very comfortable in his own skin."
Flacco never had a problem finding a game as a kid growing up in Audubon, N.J. He had a batting cage and tires to run through in his yard. By his sophomore year in high school, he was 6-4 and a gangly 155 pounds. But he could stand past the 50-yard line and throw a football through the uprights.
The college scouts rarely saw this because, well, Flacco wasn't necessarily surrounded by a ton of talent. He had zero winning seasons in high school, and took weekly beatings from opposing defenders. He is so good at what he does now, Steve says, because he spent his entire life preparing for it, navigating through the toughest roads.
"But, now, listen to me when I tell you this," Steve says. "When he was in high school, and even in college, people would tell you, 'Oh, he doesn't have enough fire in him because he doesn't get upset and he doesn't scream and yell.' And why doesn't he scream and yell? Because that's not how you get things done at the quarterback position.
"You've got to be a stone-cold killer. Our thing is, dude, nobody sees you sweat. You're the quarterback. You do not sweat. Nothing bothers you."
But warming the bench as an underclassman at Pitt did bother Flacco, because he believed he was better than his competition. He wasn't bragging when he said it; Flacco considered it fact. He'd call his dad and say he was wasting his time watching behind Tyler Palko.
Flacco eventually left Pitt and had to sit his first year at Delaware. When he finally got his chance to play as a junior in 2006, his team finished 5-6, and Flacco wondered if he'd ever get noticed.
Then came an 8-3 senior season, when Flacco threw for 3,300 yards and became one of the most accurate passers in college football that season. He threw for 434 yards and four touchdowns against Navy. Draftniks had him going as high as the second round. Baltimore, enamored with his cool demeanor and a nearly flawless workout, traded up to get him as the 18th overall pick of the first round.
Despite all the optimism, Flacco didn't want to have a party on draft day. He knew what could happen when his fate was in somebody else's hands. He eventually agreed to do a news conference at the elementary school two houses down from his parents' home. Just a few hours before his name was called, the school caught on fire.
The Flaccos eventually had a chuckle over that. Could it be another sign that more bad luck was coming?
"After they drafted him, I can remember [Baltimore's coaches] asking me, 'Can we play this guy early?'" Keeler says. "I said, 'Yeah, you know what? You won't damage him. He's not a delicate flower. He's a man. If he doesn't perform well as a rookie, he'll live with it and move on.'
"To this day, I often use Joe's philosophy, that you can't be afraid to fail. When I talk to youth football groups, I tell them about Joe. Joe's not afraid to fail. That's a great philosophy to have. That's something I'll take with me forever."
How could he fail? He had Cameron, an offensive whiz, behind him. He had a defense that was feared by the rest of the NFL, and none other than Ray Lewis behind him. And that surprised just about everybody.
The defensive guys in Baltimore, some say, can be tough on their quarterbacks. They've seen so many come to town and fail: the Scott Mitchells and Elvis Grbacs and Chris Redmans. But when a handful of players were clamoring for Troy Smith, Lewis stood up and said Flacco was their guy.
They are seemingly complete opposites, from their pregame entrances to their NFL résumés. But Lewis saw what the Ravens would eventually know: Flacco was the man to finally bring stability to the quarterback position. Flacco says their mutual respect isn't all that strange. They want the same things, he says.
"I think when Ray kind of showed the rest of the team that he respected me, they accepted me," Flacco says. "It made it easier on the rest of the guys to do the same and follow behind him.
"They're a bunch of tough guys, and football is a tough game. And in order to play it, you need to make sure you have a tough guy leading your team at quarterback. Anytime you can gain the respect of a bunch of tough guys, a bunch of guys who love to play the game, it means a lot."
With Flacco's arm, plus a stout running game and the NFL's most feared defense, many observers wondered if anyone could stop the Ravens. But three teams in the NFL have, snatching down-to-the-wire games that have dropped Baltimore to 3-3. As usual, Flacco's demeanor hasn't changed. He gathered the offense in the locker room after a heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati earlier this month and simply said, "Let's go to work."
"That's Joe," says Ravens veteran center Matt Birk. "That's just how he is all the time. It's genuine. What you see is what you get with him, and you can respect that. No matter what's going on, he's always calm and seems to be always in control."
The popular jersey choice
It is a warm fall day in Baltimore, and the tailgaters are preparing for another Flacco show. The hip thing to do these days is to buy a No. 5 jersey from Delaware, and wear your Blue Hens pride, because then it looks as if you've known all along that Flacco was destined to be the Ravens' franchise quarterback.
"He reminds me so much of Joe Montana," Ravens fan Jonathan Thomas says as he knocks back a Bud Lite in the M&T Bank Stadium parking lot. "I mean, we've been starving for a quarterback. I think this town just wanted a quarterback so bad. Flacco's definitely the man."
His jersey is the best seller in Baltimore, fifth-hottest in all of the NFL. Flacco thinks it's strange, seeing people walking around town in his jersey. "But it's a good thing," he says. "It's nothing I'm against."
In some ways, it reminds him of where he was and where he could've been.
"I obviously believe in my ability to play football," Flacco says. "I've always believed I can do it if you give me a chance."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Baltimore's Joe Flacco got the Ravens off to a 3-0 start. Despite three straight losses, the second-year quarterback remains calm in his approach and optimistic for his team.