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Each Ravens player prepares for the first whistle his own way

From the moment the Ravens wake up today, they are preparing for battle

January 01, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

"That's my time alone," Johnson said. "It's my chance to get my mind right, and always be thankful that I'm living the dream."

There is a clock on the wall in the locker room with big red numbers that tells the players how much time remains before kickoff. Yanda is constantly glancing at it. He estimates that he looks at it every five minutes, at least. After he's taped and gets an adjustment from the team chiropractor, he'll go over the plays in his playbook that Cam Cameron is likely to call, and re-read his game plan. Harbaugh, the coordinators and the position coaches write inspirational messages to every player before each game, a gesture Yanda always appreciates.

Each time he turns the page, he'll glance up at the clock again. An hour and 30 minutes until kickoff.

The team takes the field for warmups approximately an hour before the game starts, but in those final moments before the players walk out of the tunnel, the majority of them are wearing headphones and finding one final moment of solitude in their favorite music. Yanda cranks up songs by his two favorite bands, Korn and Five Finger Death Punch, until every last molecule in his body is humming. Suggs listens to 50 Cent's "If I Can't," or the theme from the movie "300" to block out his nerves. Nakamura prefers techno beats, or songs without words like the Star Wars theme. Gregg's pre-game ritual is Guns 'n Roses, specifically "Appetite for Destruction", at eardrum-rattling volumes.

Thirty minutes before kickoff, and it's time for one final uniform check. An act as simple as forgetting to pull up your sock all the way to the knee can result in a $5,000 fine, so diligence is important. Fingers and wrists receive one last application of tape, and the slow walk toward the tunnel begins.

"I always get them butterflies," Gregg said. "You've done it enough that it should be the same thing. But it's still brand new. You never know what's about to unfold."

When the players charge from the tunnel, they can't see the crowd. The wall of smoke makes it impossible, and for a few seconds, it can feel like running blind through the cloud.

"You can't see anything," Yanda said. "I'm looking down at my feet, trying to make sure I don't trip."

The crowd is so loud, and a players' focus is so narrow, that the first minute they run onto the field, it's almost quiet.

"I don't look at the crowd," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I don't glace around. Honestly, sometimes it just feels like I'm the only person out there. It's weird, but you don't hear nothing."

During the national anthem, Yanda can never sit still. He shifts his weight side to side, shakes hands with teammates, and visualizes driving the man across from him into the turf on the first play. He's so eager for the first hit of the game, he's shaking. He's been studying the defender across from him on film for the last five days. Even if he's never met him, he feels like he knows him.

"The day you're not nervous is the day you're on your way out [of the NFL]," Yanda said.

On offense, the players know what the first play call is going to be for several days. When they gather together in the huddle, they listen to Flacco's voice to make sure there hasn't been a change, but in their heads they're going over assignments. The wave of emotion that has been building for a week is about to crest. Center Matt Birk puts his right hand on the football, spins it in his fingers until his thumb rests on the laces and his index finger is holding the point.

Flacco barks out his cadence, and Yanda focuses on the snap count. The instant his helmet and shoulder pads collide with the man across from him, he's no longer nervous. The waiting is over. The most important part of game day has finally arrived.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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