File photo of Ravens Marshal Yanda taken during their game against… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
It's Sunday morning, not quite 8. Sunlight is peeking through the blinds in the Hyatt Regency Hotel room on Light Street where offensive lineman Marshal Yanda stays before every Ravens home game. His eyes are open. He may try to fall back to sleep, but the nervous energy pulsing through his body will make it tough.
It's game day. Kickoff is in five hours. The countdown inside his head has begun.
The emotions of game day are different for every NFL player. Some Ravens toss and turn in the hours before they wake, their bodies unable to relax. Others need to be dragged from bed, their muscles yearning for every last second of recovery time before they get punished once again. Some players will stuff themselves with a hearty breakfast before heading to the stadium, while others will fast. Many disappear inside their own heads, relaxing with a favorite musical playlist or a cherished Bible passage.
But every member of the Ravens can feel an internal clock ticking from the moment he opens his eyes. After a week of meetings, practices and film study, the moment they live for has finally arrived. The players experience a mixture of fear, excitement, anticipation and pride. They play for money, for fame, for ambition and camaraderie, like all professional athletes. But because of the violence and risk of serious injury, and the week-long buildup between clashes.
"You're just counting down the minutes," Yanda said.
Yanda was raised on dairy farm in Iowa, so he's used to rising with the sun. He and fellow lineman Chris Chester always room together, and they've stayed in the same hotel room for the past two years. Establishing a routine is important in an NFL player's life, so that road games and home games can feel remotely similar, and distractions can be avoided. The Ravens, like every NFL team, require that their players stay in a team hotel the night before a game, even though nearly all of them live within a 30-minute drive of M&T Bank Stadium.
So Saturday night, in anticipation of the Ravens' final regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the players went to meetings, had a team meal and then slept at the Hyatt Regency in the Inner Harbor, almost like a group of 53 teenagers bunking together at sleep-away camp. Some, like Yanda, appreciate the forced camaraderie. Others less so.
"I don't like staying in the hotel," Terrell Suggs said. "It's never going to feel like home. You're never going to be completely comfortable. There's nothing like your own bed. But you adapt and overcome."
In the hotel, there is a chapel set up in a conference room where the players hold a Bible study. It's somewhat informal, according to Ray Lewis, one of the team's most outspoken Christians. But because their jobs make it impossible to attend church on Sundays, it's extremely important. Lewis still gets nervous before every game, and there is a calming effect to chapel he has a hard time putting into words. For years, he has been reading the same Bible verse before every game, Psalm 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty; I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Rev. Rod Hairston, the Ravens' team chaplain, typically leads a discussion with a theme that ties into that day's game, and players can take turns offering their thoughts about specific passages. "Most of us are trying to put things in perspective," said Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. "It's a chance to get away from madness and recognize what's important."
Often, players will simply share stories from their own lives — their hopes, their fears, their questions about faith.
"Sometimes the guys will just get in there and we'll have discussions ourselves," Lewis said. "It really opens it up to a totally different thought process when you see how we actually interact with each other."
There are no meetings on the day of a game, and typically no inspirational speeches. Players are required to show their face at the team breakfast, a buffet-style meal served on the second floor of the hotel that is a subdued affair without a lot of conversation. But they aren't required to stay, or even to eat. Safety Haruki Nakamura always fasts the day of a game, a habit he started six years ago.
"I just feel so much better if I don't eat," Nakamura said. "Some guys say, 'You need the energy.' I just don't need it. Even if it's a night game, I don't eat."
Yanda, a 315-pound guard who has been the Ravens' best lineman this year, eats like a death row inmate granted his last meal. He'll start with pancakes, follow that with a huge helping of hash browns, then polish off a small steak. Strawberries and melon are next, and he washes the meal down with at least two glasses of orange juice. Kickoff is four hours away.
"It's basically just loading up for battle," Yanda said. "You just try to get as much as possible."