The world of Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller was shaped inside a fire station, where co-workers weren't just considered family. They were family.
Three generations -- from his great-grandfather to grandfather to father and three uncles -- have battled blazes and rescued lives.
He heard the stories of staring down danger. He watched his father put his life in his partners' hands.
Teamwork wasn't taught on the playground growing up. It was a way of life.
"You have to count on your boys to be right next to you," said Boller, 22, whose father is helping fight the wildfires in Southern California, which included extinguishing flames in his own backyard. "That's real similar to football."
As the Ravens' season reaches the halfway point Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Boller's teammates are learning they can count on him while he learns some harsh lessons of his own. By directing a run-dominated offense that limits his opportunities for personal glory, Boller has reaped more punishment than rewards.
Pass rushers have hit him from behind, from the front, from high and from low. They have buried him in the dirt and driven him into the turf, spraining his left shoulder earlier this month.
Critics have pounded him for his unspectacular passing numbers. They have singled him out as the weak link in the Ravens' playoff hopes.
While these blows have left him with countless bruises along with a bruised ego, nothing has been able to dent his will.
He waved off trainers despite grimacing in pain with a shoulder injury three weeks ago and took a shot to kill the pain at halftime Sunday to remain in the game. The next day, he jokingly asked teammates in the locker room whether the quarterback of the Super Bowl champion automatically goes to the Pro Bowl.
"He has a swagger that says, `I might be a Cal kid with blond hair and blue eyes, but I'm a pit bull inside,' " said Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker generally regarded as one of the toughest players in the NFL.
A large part of Boller's maturation can be traced back to the fire station, which sat 20 minutes from his house.
He experienced the bond among firefighters, frequently eating with them and sometimes sleeping there. He felt the rush of riding 24-hour shifts with his father, flying through intersections with the siren blaring to reach those hurt in accidents.
"To be honest with you, if Kyle wouldn't have made it in the NFL, he might have taken a shot at being a fireman," said Bob Boller, Kyle's father.
His fate instead took him to the Ravens.
After failing to land quarterback Byron Leftwich (now the starter for Jacksonville) in this year's draft, the Ravens traded up to nab Boller with the 19th overall pick.
Considered a long shot to start the season, Boller missed the first week of training camp and still strong-armed his way past Chris Redman. From minicamps to midseason, there have been mistakes in his decision-making but there has been no mistaking his character.
Boller is now in position to be the first rookie quarterback since the Cleveland Browns' Bernie Kosar in 1985 to lead his team to the playoffs.
"All quarterbacks have confidence," coach Brian Billick said. "But there's an energy about this kid that I couldn't see him cracking under the pressure. He has a presence about him that lends you to believe he's special in that regard."
Scapegoat at Cal
His NFL rookie season is a dream compared to the nightmare two years ago.
Once hailed as "Jesus in cleats" by the University of California student newspaper, the most heralded quarterback recruit in school history went from savior to scapegoat.
During a 1-10 season as a junior, Boller was harassed everywhere.
He heard "I hate Boller" chants from his home crowd. He buried his face under a hooded sweatshirt around campus to avoid sarcastic comments like, "Hey, you going to win a game, buddy?"
"They were brutal," Boller's father said. "They pretty much blamed him. It was rough to go through. But what it did for his character and who he is kind of makes a parent proud."
The turmoil pushed him to the brink.
"I'm not really one to question my abilities or whether I can do this or not," Boller said, "but going through that season, there were definitely some times when I thought long and hard: Is this what I want to do?"
A coaching change became Boller's salvation.
Jeff Tedford, who has tutored David Carr, Trent Dilfer and Akili Smith in college, was hired at Cal, where he transformed Boller from "a clumsy giraffe" -- as one NFL scout described him -- to a top quarterback prospect.
He compacted Boller's throwing motion, taping his left wrist to his bicep to keep his forearm from swinging out. He prevented Boller from overstriding by making him wear tennis shoes on grass. And he increased Boller's knowledge by simulating different defenses on a checkerboard.
Boller went on to set career highs with 2,815 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, and he tied a career low with 10 interceptions as Cal went 7-5.