HIDDEN beneath the largest fan turnout for training camp on opening day in the Ravens' brief history and among a media throng that included Big Brother cameras from HBO documenting the team's every move was a special moment for a very special player.
No. 58 was back on the field for opening day for the first time since 1998.
Instead of riding a stationary bike or watching from the sideline with his arm in a sling while nursing a recurring dislocated right shoulder, two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware was participating in drills with the rest of the team, occasionally slamming fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo to the ground while collecting another imaginary sack.
Ah, this was good stuff. Boulware, finally able to use both arms again, getting in sync and finding a rhythm with the rest of the defense. One day he is tackling a stuffed dummy, the next month he could be tackling a real one, like the Giants' Kerry Collins. Training camp is the most hated and boring time of a football player's career, but Boulware is feeling rejuvenated. He has no pain, no discomfort.
That's good news for the Ravens, not so good for the rest of the NFL. The league's best defense from the 2000 season is getting better.
"This is a new experience," said Boulware, entering his fifth season. "I haven't been through a full training camp since my second year. Actually, I feel pretty good. I'm not going to have to play catch-up ball this year. I'm not going to have to get it all done in the week before the season starts."
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said: "I think, for both parties, the sky is the limit as a football team and Peter as a player. It's exciting to see that gleam in his eye again."
There is a lot at stake for Boulware this season. As a former No. 1 draft pick with the reputation as college football's top pass rusher in 1997, he commanded a big contract, but he hasn't produced big numbers during the past two seasons. There have been only 17 sacks.
That's just not good enough.
There is strong speculation that if he doesn't have a more productive season, there won't be a 2002 season. That's when his contract will expire and Boulware will make at least $3.4 million in base salary, which could reach $5.3 million with reached incentives.
"Hey, no one wants to have a big season more than me," said Boulware. "I come in thinking that way every year."
What's a big season for Boulware?
"Fifteen sacks," said Boulware. "I want to lead all AFC linebackers in sacks."
Barring injury, Boulware should be in the neighborhood. As a matter of fact, another Pro Bowl might be his final destination. In reality, what he has accomplished in the past two seasons playing with one arm is astonishing. Despite a harness that limited mobility in his right arm, Boulware had only three fewer sacks then he did in his first two years, when he was completely healthy.
Now, imagine this: Almost every week for the past two seasons, Boulware played in excruciating pain, having his shoulder popped out and shoved back in by trainers. He occasionally became a part-time player last season, being replaced by Cornell Brown on running downs.
"The worst part was having it come out in a game, have them push it back and then knowing it was going to come out the following week," said Boulware. "This will be the first year I can finally play. In the previous years, I was just trying to survive. I played to survive. That mode is gone; now, I can just play football."
Boulware arrived in training camp weighing 251 pounds, 11 more than a year ago. The upper body is thicker, the arms more defined. For the first time in three years, Boulware didn't have major surgery on his right shoulder. He had surgery on his left one in February, a preventive measure to keep it from reaching the same condition as the right one.
The condition was the result of Boulware's exclusively using his left side.
"I think he developed a way, oddly enough, to play football with one arm," said Lewis, "and he played well during most of that period. But he also created a lot of bad habits that need to get broken, like playing with one side of his body instead of squaring his body. He would reach across with one hand and leave the other one behind. But now he is beginning to play with more power, square up. Once we get him through the tackling, I think he will play with more confidence."
And that will be fun to watch.
Boulware on one side, defensive end Michael McCrary on the other with defensive tackle Sam Adams providing pressure up the middle. Pick your poison. Somebody has to get double-teamed. And remember the old Boulware coming off the perimeter? He played with such intensity and recklessness, arms and legs flailing as he came flashing off the corner. He'd crawl to get a sack.
The old, healthy Boulware was just beginning to come into his own. After his Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, he was just starting to add some power moves to complement his speed arsenal. But the shoulder injury retarded his progress.
But not for much longer.
The old, healthy Boulware might be returning. Just watching him practice on opening day yesterday was a pretty good sign.