Small town, big-time arm

An unassuming Jersey boy, Flacco assumes high-profile Ravens role

May 04, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

AUDUBON, N.J. -- The quarterback's buddy had an idea for meeting girls.

He made a shirt that read "I'm Joe Flacco" across the chest and wore it for a night out on the University of Delaware campus. The guise of a future NFL draft pick would have to improve his romantic fortunes, right?

Well, no.

Fellow student after fellow student saw the shirt and asked, "Who's Joe Flacco?"

The Ravens' No. 1 pick might have a rare arm, the kind that can heave a football 80 yards or zing it on a flat trajectory from pocket to sideline. He might be the most-talked-about person in Baltimore this week. But one thing the small-town New Jersey kid is not is a born celebrity.

"I could have told him," Flacco said of his friend, "that it wasn't going to work."

Flacco comes off as a dispassionate guy, one who almost has to drag words from his mouth. He's so nonchalant that his high school coach used to wonder whether he was paying attention at practice. He has never owned a car. A plate of his mother's lasagna and a game on television equal a perfect evening.

Flacco's younger brothers can't believe their friends regard him as a big deal.

"They still think he's just a big dork," said his mom, Karen.

"People aren't going to know who I am," Baltimore's newest quarterback hope said. "I'm not that kind of person."

Flacco, 23, and his family really aren't used to the attention afforded first-round quarterbacks.

"Do you know how big this is for us?" asked his father, Steve, fielding questions from Baltimore reporters last weekend as he watched his son's face pop up on television screens in the background.

Flacco was a good recruit out of Audubon High, but unlike the quarterbacks drafted directly behind him, Brian Brohm and Chad Henne, he never drew lavish attention from Southern California or Florida or Michigan.

He rarely made a headline at Pittsburgh until he asked to transfer and coach Dave Wannstedt declined to release him from his scholarship.

Even when his career bloomed at Division I-AA Delaware, ESPN wasn't exactly beating down the door.

Word of Flacco's promise spread the old-fashioned way. "You've got to see this kid at Delaware," one scout told the next.

What they glimpsed when they arrived at the 22,000-seat stadium in Newark was a 6-foot-6 giant who could whip off any throw the pro game might require.

There was the 44-yard toss on the run that revived a go-ahead drive in a playoff win at top-ranked Northern Iowa. Or the play against Richmond, when he was the only one who realized he didn't have time to spike the ball and sneaked into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown. Ravens scouts watched the unsung passer torch Division I-A Navy for 434 yards and four touchdown passes in a 59-52 upset.

"You can't find any warts," Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "In the business that the NFL is, those guys are looking for any flaw they can find. But that's hard with Joe. He's remarkable."

NFL executives came to agree. That's why Flacco's parents got to feel chills as their boy put on a Ravens hat last weekend.

"It's not often that you get to see your child's dream come true right in front of you," his mother said.

Blue-collar roots

Reminders of draft day abounded in the Flacco house last week. Karen had already slapped a Ravens decal on the storm door of the modest, two-story home. The refrigerator bore a newspaper cover showing Flacco with his purple No. 1 jersey. The jersey itself hung over the china cabinet. On the dining room table sat the Ravens' minicamp playbook beside two beer cartons full of items sent by autograph seekers.

Though Audubon isn't much farther than a Flacco throw from Philadelphia, it's pure small-town America.

"It's a blue-collar town," said Flacco's high school coach, Ralph Schiavo. "The houses are right up on top of each other. Everybody knows everybody's business. Nobody ever leaves, and if they do, their kids buy the house."

Flacco's parents met in high school, one town over from Audubon. Their fathers had played high school football together at Camden Catholic. Both come from big families, and most of their siblings still live nearby. To this day, the Flaccos gather with Steve's entire family for pizza every Friday night.

There were 167 kids in Flacco's graduating class, and the district is small enough that grades seven through 12 attend class in the same building.

Sports of all kinds were a huge part of life for him and his five younger siblings (four brothers and a sister). Their father, Steve, had played football and baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, and he erected a batting cage in the backyard. If the Flaccos wanted to shoot hoops or play touch football, they trotted down the block to the local grade school.

"When other kids were out screwing around, those kids were working," Schiavo said.

Steve, a mortgage broker, never coached his son. "But we were close," Flacco said. "We were always honest with each other. He told me when I played well and when I was terrible."

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