The line of football fans seeking autographs snaked out the door, down the spiral staircase and into the lobby at Martin's West. At the Ed Block Courage Awards banquet Tuesday night, hundreds of people waited as long as 45 minutes for NFL players to sign helmets, jerseys, balls and programs.
Among those signing was Nick Eason of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ravens fans gave him the business — and Eason gave it right back.
"I like your smile, but that quarterback of yours [Ben Roethlisberger], yuck," said Maria McArtor, of Fallston.
Eason paused, dropped his Sharpie and placed his hands at the edges of the table.
"The rest of this city may be purple," he said, "but this little square is black and gold."
McArtor thanked Eason for his autograph and moved on, but not without a trace of guilt.
"It was very hard," she said. "I feel like I've betrayed my country."
Eason, a defensive end, was his team's choice for the Block Award, an honor bestowed each year on a player from each of the NFL's 32 teams. Eason is one of five grand winners of the prize, which is named for a longtime trainer of the Baltimore Colts. Others singled out Tuesday night were Wes Welker (New England Patriots), Charles Woodson (Green Bay Packers), Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis Colts) and Donte' Stallworth (Ravens).
While fans agreed that it took chutzpah for a Pittsburgh player to show his face in Baltimore, minus helmet and pads, Eason's appearance at Martin's West had everything to do with the physical trials he overcame last year. Stricken with appendicitis in May, he also lost part of his small intestine when bacteria leaked from the ruptured organ into his bowels.
"The infection seeped into my system," said Eason, 30, a reserve who graduated from Clemson. "My temperature went up to 103 degrees. My blood pressure [200 systolic] went through the roof. I was on morphine. They had to pump blood and feces from my stomach up through a tube in my nose."
For two weeks, Eason lay in a Pittsburgh hospital, too weak even to walk. He shed 33 pounds from his 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame.
"I didn't eat for 12 days," he said. "They made three incisions in my stomach. At one point, I really thought I would die."
Finally, Eason recovered and was discharged in mid-June. Five weeks later, with the holes in his belly barely healed, the Georgia native reported to Steelers training camp. Somehow, he managed to pass the conditioning test. How?
"I still have no idea," Eason said. "It's amazing, man. I guess I just wanted it — and God watches over me."
There were more setbacks to come. Eason contracted the flu. His father suffered a nonfatal stroke during Pittsburgh's first game. Then an aunt and uncle died. Eason's mother continues to struggle with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
"I've been through the wringer, but a lot of people have it way worse," Eason said. "This week, we visited kids at the [St. Vincent's Center in Timonium] who have worse life stories — both parents dead, or their mother shot.
"How blessed am I? I can still play football, and I want to be an inspiration to others."'
Even Ravens fans at Martin's West bowed to Eason's pluck. Moving through the line, Brent Tracey, of Westminster, traded barbs with the Pittsburgh player but still left with his autograph.
"It would bother me, except that this is for a good cause," Tracey said. "Besides, it's fun talking smack with a guy who could probably eat me for lunch."
Several fans seemed to hesitate when asking Eason to sign stuff. He took that ball and ran with it.
"Don't look so disgusted," he told one woman. "I know this was tough for you to do."
Others wished Eason the best, sort of.
"Good luck in 14 games next year," said Bryan Stansbury, of Perry Hall.
Eason replied: "We'll send [the Ravens] home in the playoffs — again."
Next in line was Lindsay Staniszewski, of Annapolis, the reigning Miss Maryland, dressed the nines and wearing her tiara. She looked at Eason's autograph and frowned.
"I don't think my daddy will be too happy," Staniszewski said.
"Tell your daddy, 'Welcome to Steelers country,'" he said.
One person admitted to being a Pittsburgh fan. That was Darrian Brown, 9, of West Baltimore. Eason made a fuss over the youngster and gave him his only personalized autograph of the evening.
"He [Brown] is the only one who claimed me tonight," Eason said.
Not that it really mattered.
"The fans are what makes this game what it is," he said. "You've got to respect the ones, like those here in Baltimore, who love their city."