For Fein, Football Isn't Life-or-death Matter

August 10, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd

If you're a sucker for feel-good NFL training camp stories, you'll want to hear about Tony Fein.

Fein, 27, is an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Mississippi who's trying to catch on with the Ravens this summer.

Depending on whom you talk to, he either has no shot to make the team or the kind of shot you have of hitting the trifecta at the track tomorrow.

If he's lucky, he could stick as a practice-squad player.

This would be bitterly disappointing to Fein. But it won't kill him. And that's fine with him, since the man has already seen death up close as an Army combat veteran in Iraq, where he served for a year as a 19 Delta recon scout.

Compared with that line of work, this one's a day at the beach.

"Football gets tough, with the heat and physical demands," he said after practice Sunday at sweltering McDaniel College. "But at least I know I'm going to be alive today. And tomorrow."

There were times, Fein said, when he wasn't sure he would make it out of Baghdad.

He won't give you war stories, saying simply, "I really don't like to rehash things like that."

But as a recon scout, you're the first to see the enemy, a particularly harrowing assignment in the swirling chaos of an urban battlefield like Baghdad.

"You're the eyes and ears of the commander," he said of recon work. "You're out there assessing what the enemy has, the capabilities, the numbers and stuff like that."

You also get shot at and try to tiptoe around roadside bombs, which he said he did while also living through a lot of "urban warfare stuff, close-quarter-combat stuff."

"I was lucky to come out unscathed," he said, "so I'm grateful for that every day."

And he's grateful to the Ravens for giving him another chance to be an NFL football player, something he has dreamed about since he was a little kid.

Fein has the kind of football back story you could turn into a Hollywood movie. After starring as a quarterback and linebacker at South Kitsap High in Port Orchard, Wash., he worked as a roofer for a year before joining the Army to make money for college.

He served for 3 1/2 years. When he got out, he played football at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College and won junior college All-America honors, ranking No. 2 nationally at his position.

From there it was on to Ole Miss, where he finished second on the team in tackles his junior year.

He went on to win the Pat Tillman Patriot Award, which is given to a football player who also saw battlefield action.

But during the spring of his senior year at Ole Miss, he butted heads with the Rebels' new coach, Houston Nutt, supposedly over a run-in Fein had with the academic staff.

Whatever the dust-up was, it earned him a trip to the bottom of the depth chart. But he had a strong second-half of the season, finishing with 52 tackles (24 solo) to rank third on the team and making a key tackle in the Rebels' upset win over top-ranked Florida.

Still, Fein wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine and wasn't drafted, either.

Then at the Ole Miss pro day, he dazzled scouts when he bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times, ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and turned in a 37 1/2 -inch vertical leap.

That got him a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks, who released him 1 1/2 months later. That's when he tried out with the Ravens, who signed him in June to keep his boyhood dream alive.

All those sweaty night recon patrols, sneaking up to abandoned warehouses teeming with insurgents, never knowing what's around the next corner - all that's behind Fein now.

Sure, NFL training camp can be a grind. And the Ravens work as hard as any team in the league.

But when you've been through what Fein has been through, you know there are other kinds of grinds far worse.

"It's just been a great experience, with Ray Lewis here and being around [Terrell] Suggs and guys of that caliber," Fein said. "It's just a dream come true, really. To be out here to compete and ... learn with some of the best football players of the world ... wow."

So far, he said, aside from rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher and rookie fullback Jason Cook, his teammates at Ole Miss, few of the Ravens know about his combat experience.

"I just come out here and try to be one of the guys," he said.

As for the long odds of his making the team, Fein says he doesn't think about that, either.

He stopped thinking about odds early in his year in Iraq, soon after the bad guys started shooting at him.

"You're three or four months in - that's a long time in combat - and you realize you have eight months left," he said. "But you just take it day by day. That's kind of what I try to do here. Take it day by day and do the best I can."

Listen to Kevin Cowherd on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM.

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