Joe Flacco stands under the railing at one end of M&T Bank Stadium, his red No. 5 jersey soaked with sweat, a black Sharpie in one hand. Over the sound system, Lee Greenwood is crooning about why he's proud to be an American and what Americans really want. But what they seem to want right now in this frenzied corner are autographs.
"JOE! JOE!" the crowd screams, pressing above the Ravens quarterback and thrusting one item after another in his face.
This is Saturday night after the Ravens' first open practice of training camp. As dozens snap his picture on cellphones, he signs programs and Ravens jerseys and souvenir helmets. He signs Military Appreciation Day T-shirts and camo hats.
He signs a cast on a boy's arm. He signs a baby's pink football. He signs a tiny white Ravens purse that looks like something Barbie would wear when she steps out of her snazzy doll condo.
But that isn't the weirdest thing Flacco has ever signed. Not even close.
Not even in the top 10.
"I think I signed a 'Filet-O-Fish' box from McDonald's," he says later. "That was pretty weird."
Since he took over as coach in 2008, John Harbaugh has encouraged the Ravens to be as accommodating as possible when it comes to signing for fans. And Flacco is probably more generous with autographs than almost anyone on the team.
"It's awesome," he says of the announced 20,324 fans at M&T Bank Stadium on this sweltering night. "It's really cool to show up for a practice and have so many people showing up. They're there, they want to see you, so it's good to go over there and show your face and interact."
Nevertheless, he's learned a few of the survival tricks they teach in Celebrity 101.
No. 1 on the list is: keep moving when you sign, especially when you're out in public. Especially when, say, you're ducking into the mall for a few things.
"You gotta make sure you get in and get out," he says. "You can't really stay in one place too long. It's not that bad for me. When I'm going there with my wife or a couple buddies, it can get a little bad."
On the occasions when he signs for huge crowds after a Ravens practice, he uses another trick — this one for his own sanity.
"I try to avoid eye contact and just sign as many things as I see in front of my face," he explains. "Because if I make eye contact and there's someone ... and I can't get to them, I feel bad."
In his four years with the Ravens, Flacco has also learned this hard truth: no matter how much you sign, you can't make everyone happy.
Three summers ago, when the Ravens still trained at McDaniel College in Westminster, he signed for 25 minutes in the broiling sun after one practice until a Ravens staffer pulled him away because of another commitment.
As Flacco walked off with a reporter in tow — that would be me — an angry voice cried out: "Flacco! You're going to turn your back on these disabled kids?!"
We turned and saw a middle-aged man gesturing at Flacco from a viewing area reserved for a group of kids in wheelchairs.
Flacco had actually begun his signing session in front of the kids and then moved on to sign for as many fans as possible.
But the furious man didn't want to hear it. He kept barking at Flacco in a voice you could hear in Vermont until the quarterback was out of sight.
Maybe Flacco had missed his son while signing for those kids. Or maybe the man and his son had arrived late when Flacco was over there and now he felt slighted.
Whatever the reason, he gave it to Flacco good that day. I just remember Joe shaking his head with a pained expression and murmuring: "Unbelievable."
But there are no such incidents on this steamy night at the Bank, where the quarterback who led the Ravens to within a dropped pass and a hooked field goal of the AFC Championship in January is playing to an adoring crowd.
As he finally makes his way to the tunnel after 25 minutes of signing, he suddenly whirls and — unbidden — autographs the program of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
Now she looks up at Flacco and beams.
"Why thank you, young man!" she says. Then: "Do you know if Ray Rice is coming over here?"
Flacco looks back at the field and shakes his head and says: "I'm not sure. I don't see him anywhere."
Then he's gone into the cool darkness of the tunnel, walking with that languid gait toward the Ravens locker room.
The elderly woman keeps craning her neck, looking for Ray Rice.
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