Stefan Mitchell always had dreamed of the day he'd throw his first pass in front of 70,000 fans at an NFL stadium. He just never realized it would be at halftime.
The North Carroll senior, whose majestic spirals helped the Panthers advance to the Class 4A playoffs this season, was competing against North County junior Travis Delizio in the Ravens high school Quarterback Challenge, a halftime contest matching the arm strength and accuracy of some of the state's top high school quarterbacks.
"I'm hoping for 60 [yards]," said Mitchell, standing on the sideline at M&T Bank Stadium two hours before the Ravens' game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 11. "I'll be ready come halftime just to chuck it."
The contest has been a staple of Ravens home games since the team began the event in 2000 as a way to connect with area high schools.
"It's really tough to reach the high school demographic in a meaningful way, particularly football players," said Damone Jones, the Ravens' youth marketing and promotions coordinator. "This gives them something that they'll not only remember for the rest of their lives, but their moms and dads will remember, as well."
At first, the event focused solely on distance. Feeling it was "getting a little stale," the Ravens added receivers last year. Now, the winner is determined by who completes the longest pass in two attempts.
Each of the two competing schools receives 40 tickets to the game on behalf of sponsor Toyota, and the winning team also receives a $300 gift certificate to Dick's Sporting Goods. In addition, each quarterback is given a football autographed by Ravens quarterback Steve McNair.
Jones, a former Penn State lineman, said the selection of participants begins each June when he meets with Joe Russo, president of the Maryland High School Football Coaches Association.
"He sends out nomination forms to all of his coaches," Jones said. "Then we try to pick based on the best combination of athletic skills and academics."
Twenty spots are filled, two for each of the Ravens' 10 home games (including preseason).
On game day, participants meet a team official three hours before kickoff at the Johnny Unitas statue outside the stadium and are led through a maze of corridors and into a small storage room. In the moments before halftime, it becomes their locker room.
Then they pass through a tunnel and onto the field. As they walk, players are given enough instructions to fill a playbook.
"We will bring you onto the field at the two-minute warning," Matt Froman, a marketing assistant with the team, tells the North Carroll and North County players. "As you walk out, make sure you hug the wall. You'll see all the players standing right in front of you, and you might be tempted to run up to them or yell something. Don't do it."
Players wind up beyond the end zone at the opposite end of the field.
"Once the first half is over, we'll immediately start the competition," Froman says. "Pick which of your receivers you want to start off."
The players listen but are transfixed by Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who is taking warm-up passes in street clothes. Mitchell snaps a photo on his cell phone.
"The whole thing will be over before you know it," Froman says.
Players are told to meet near a service ramp at the end of the first quarter. They are escorted to their makeshift locker room, then to a concrete parking lot deep within the stadium, where they are given footballs and encouraged to get loose.
Mitchell takes a knee in front of a Scenic America tour bus and begins tossing passes to his receivers. Delizio stands a few feet from a row of police motorcycles, firing progressively harder passes to receivers Josh Pfisterer and Reggie McIntyre.
With about five minutes left in the first half, players are led into the tunnel area, some slapping hands with a Ravens mascot waiting in the wings.
"This is it, baby," a player yells as they step onto the illuminated field, careful not to trip over myriad cables. Meanwhile, the game proceeds a few feet away.
As a pass by McNair is intercepted in the end zone, the half ends to a chorus of boos.
Each of the high school quarterbacks takes a ball and steps to the goal line. The Ravens switched to a regulation high school ball for the contest this season after complaints that the slightly larger NFL ball was more difficult to grip.
North Carroll receiver Zach Westfall starts the competition by taking flight down the field, sprinting alongside a 40-yard-long Toyota banner. Mitchell, with a video camera capturing his moves, launches a perfect spiral.
It sails about 55 yards in the air but starts tailing to Westfall's right. The receiver turns and dives but can't make the catch.
"The ball hit me, I had it, I hit the ground, and it popped out," Westfall said.
Delizio takes a little off his first pass and completes it to Pfisterer. When Mitchell's second pass goes awry, Delizio knows the victory is his.
"I knew all I had to do was complete the pass the first try," said Delizio, whose winning completion traveled 52 yards.
Total elapsed time of the contest: 42 seconds. A quick snapshot, then it's back around the edge of the field to the tunnel, clearing way for the Punt, Pass & Kick finals.
Delizio, in his first season as the starter for North County's pass-oriented spread offense, said no amount of high school game experience can prepare a player for the adrenaline rush of stepping onto an NFL field.
"It was real scary underneath 70,000 people when all the lights are on you," he said.