Purple compassion

After overcoming obstacles, Raven Bart Scott says he's in Baltimore not just to play, but also to inspire children with spinal cord problems

January 12, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Bart Scott is playing checkers against 13-year-old Ashlee Black. The Ravens' star is bouncing his red pieces across the board, like pebbles skipping over a pond, and the pile of Ashlee's black discs next to Scott keeps growing.

"No mercy!" he says with a laugh.

That part probably isn't surprising. It doesn't matter whether Scott's on the playing field chasing some unfortunate soul carrying a football, or if he's in his living room playing on his 21-month-old son's miniature basketball set, swatting Bartholomew's shots all over the house, this is how he competes. So why should Ashlee get a break?

Not because she's in Kennedy Krieger Institute, one of the world's best pediatric facilities. Not because she's half his age and half his height. And apparently not because simple tasks like balance, standing and walking are torturous for her.

"I only know one way," Scott says, raising his arms above his head once his checkers win is secured.

The entire scene probably raises more questions than answers. Why is Scott at Kennedy Krieger? Why did he specifically ask to see children with spinal cord problems? And why is winning so darn important?

We'll get there, but know that the journey has some twists and turns along the way. There is the silent prayer. The three premonitions. The gunshots at the Detroit nightclub. An apple, of course, forever a forbidden fruit in Scott's life story. And the one NFL team that saw something the others didn't.

"There are so many places and so many times where things shouldn't have worked out," says Scott, 26, "but you know, they always have. Things have always worked out. For the longest time, I didn't know why. But I do now."

Ian Flanagan is a 12-year-old patient at Kennedy Krieger. He suffers from Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that makes many motor movements difficult. He has red hair and glasses, and his right hand quivers as he holds a small ball, attempting a pass to Scott. His eyes grow big when he gently flings the ball toward to Scott.

"That's what's up," Scott says. "That was a good one."

"I cheated a little," Ian says in a near-whisper.

The first word Bart Scott ever spoke was "ball."

"Not `mama,' but `ball,' " says Dorita Scott, his mother. "Can you believe that?"

He grew up in Detroit, on Hurlbut Street with the rest of his family. Relatives filled six homes on Hurlbut, anchored by his grandmother's house right in the middle.

"You say cousins, but they're really all brothers and sisters," says Gwendolyn Pippen-Osborne, who has lived on the street for nearly 45 years. "Everybody looks out for everybody else."

There were only 24 players on his high school football team. When something didn't go just right, there was a paddle waiting. It's Detroit football, Scott figures, and it instilled a brand of toughness that most players can't understand.

"For whatever reason, it seems like Bart's always been the underdog," says Drake Wilkins, Scott's coach at Southeastern High. "He's always against the odds. ... He isn't from the best neighborhood, the best school. He could've been gang-banging, could've been one of these kids on the corner. But his mother, his father, his faith, it all made him much different."

Despite a successful high school career, only Southern Illinois - a Division I-AA school - offered Scott a full scholarship. So that's where he went, and it's nearly where his football dream ended.

In the middle of his sophomore year, defensive coordinator Michael Vite caught Scott chewing an apple during halftime. The coach thought Scott wasn't focused enough on the game, and the two exchanged words. The disagreement escalated until Scott not only didn't play in the second half, but also was eventually suspended for the remaining six games.

"It's like anything else, you learn from your mistakes," Vite says. "Hopefully he learned from what happened there, which I know he did, otherwise he wouldn't be where he is now."

The coaches say there's a bit more to the story than the apple but refuse to explain further. Scott still contends they tried to "ruin" his career.

"I'm not sure he realized at the time what it would take to succeed athletically," says Jan Quarless, the Salukis' former head coach. "I think Ray Lewis probably did a better job than we did in showing him what it takes to be the best."

Quarless was fired after the 2000 season, and the new coaching staff allowed Scott to stay and clear his name.

The NFL was in his future, Scott figured, even though after his college career was finished, only one NFL team - the Ravens - showed up at his pre-draft workout at Southern Illinois. He wasn't invited to the NFL combine, either. To this day, Scott blames the Southern Illinois suspension for scaring away NFL scouts.

Scott's name wasn't called on draft day. But still, he knew something the NFL didn't - three premonitions already told him he'd be a pro football player.

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