Ravens' Olsavsky tackles odds, too Often counted out, undersized linebacker survives on big heart

November 07, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

When Jerry Olsavsky blew out his knee while making a goal-line stand against the Cleveland Browns five years ago, the consensus was his playing days were over.

But, to a guy who many thought would never see the NFL in the first place, the injury gave Olsavsky a chance to prove himself all over again.

He came back, all right. Back to help the Pittsburgh Steelers reach the playoffs for three more years, mostly as a reserve linebacker and special teams performer. He helped the Steelers reach the Super Bowl following the 1995 season. He started 13 games in 1996.

Olsavsky, 31, is back once again, this time with the Ravens, who sought his seasoned presence after losing second-year backup linebacker Tyrus McCloud for the season to a knee injury. Olsavsky has another scar on his resume. After signing with Cincinnati in March, he dislocated his wrist in training camp. The Bengals released him on Aug. 13, the day after he had surgery.

"Through his whole football career, people have tried to replace him, and he has continually overcome the odds," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said of Olsavsky, whom he knew as the linebackers coach in Pittsburgh from 1992-1995. "Not only does he play good football, but he can uplift other guys with his knowledge of the game."

Olsavsky has blue-collar overachiever written all over him, right down to his rugged, unshaven look. "I might shave if I have a date, or if my mom is coming in to see me," he said.

You want the prototypical NFL body? Don't stop at Olsavsky's locker. At 6 feet 2, 230 pounds, his physique doesn't cry out for attention. He looked even more ordinary as a 10th-round draft pick in 1989 out of Pittsburgh.

"[Olsavsky] always got harassed," recalled Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who was a teammate of Olsavsky's for four seasons at Pitt. "We used to have to give him help covering the tight end, since he only ran the 40 in 5.2 [seconds]."

Olsavsky still takes the jokes about his size and speed in stride. And he doesn't mind being known as a smart player -- which is code for a marginal player.

"I could say that people who didn't draft or play me were dumb, but that gets me nowhere," Olsavsky said. "Just like the way people would always tell me I'm too small. You just kind of let it wash by.

" You can't measure someone's intelligence and heart. You might be able to run a 4.3, but that's only good on a track."

Olsavsky said he has played inside linebacker weighing as little as 210 pounds. In all, he has been in 109 NFL games, with 37 starts and 222 tackles and 55 special teams tackles to his credit. Lewis remembers watching him stuff former Kansas City fullback Christian Okoye, a massive player, in a key 1992 victory that propelled the Steelers to their first playoff appearance under coach Bill Cowher.

"Jerry has the lower body of a man who weighs 240 or 250. His game is power, leverage and knowledge," Lewis said. "He's different, but he's very quiet."

Olsavsky used to bring his dog to work regularly in Pittsburgh. He also was one of those players who could be found alone in the dark watching tape of an upcoming opponent, long after most of his teammates had gone home.

By the 1993 season, Olsavsky had progressed from a treasured backup to a starter. He had been part of two playoff teams, with a third on the way. Then came that day against the Browns, when his knee was shredded in the seventh game. Suddenly, Olsavsky was staring at a yearlong rehabilitation.

He said he was advised to try steroids to help speed up his recovery. No way. Even today, Olsavsky, who made it back on the field by the end of the 1994 season -- said the thought of taking a protein enhancer like creatinine turns his stomach. Literally.

"That stuff really does bother my stomach," he said. "I'm not going to change myself to accommodate somebody's opinion of me. The chances of me playing [after the knee surgery] were less than 20 percent, and I should take steroids and screw up the rest of my body? If that's your edge, fine. I believe my edge is in my head."

NOTES: Left defensive end Rob Burnett (strained back) practiced for the first time this week and pronounced himself fit to start tomorrow. The Ravens did not draw a fine from the NFL for restricting media access two weeks ago, since they opened the locker room three times during the week, thus meeting league requirements. Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden sat out part of practice with a sore left wrist, but is set to go tomorrow. Besides tight end Eric Green, the Ravens de-activated defensive end Mike Frederick (back), linebacker Tyrell Peters (hamstring) and running back Jay Graham (knee) for the Oakland game. The Ravens Wives Association will conduct its annual Family Food Drive at the stadium tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The wives will collect canned goods, other perishable foods or cash donations at all gates.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Oakland Raiders

Site: Ravens stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1: 01 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: Sold out

Line: Raiders by 2 1/2

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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