Ravens rookie fullback may be reminded frequently about his Harvard roots

May 05, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Let's get the last name out of the way first.

It's Juszczyk. Somehow, from that lonely vowel and thicket of consonants, comes a pronunciation of YOOZ-check. Don't feel bad if you don't say it right the first time. No one ever does.

No, check that. One guy did.

"We had a Polish card-swiper at our dining hall" at Harvard, said Kyle Juszczyk, the rookie fullback the Ravens selected in the fourth round (130th overall) of the NFL draft. "And he actually nailed it on the first try. But he's the only one."

Instead, Juszczyk picked up a nickname that made life simpler.

"My freshman year," Juszczyk recalled, "the senior tight end there, he looked at my name and he was like: 'No, I'm not even gonna try. I'm just gonna call you Juice.' And it stuck."

Now the kid from Medina, Ohio tries to make the big jump from the Ivy League to the NFL, where the Ravens plan to use him as this hybrid fullback/tight end/H-back.

At 6-foot-1 and a solid 248 pounds, Juszczyk comes at you in interviews like a friendly bridge pylon with legs. He spent the past three days at the Ravens' rookie minicamp in Owings Mills, where he'll soon learn that a Harvard pedigree can be a mixed blessing.

"Guys will be impressed by it," said Matt Birk, the former Ravens center and six-time Pro Bowler who retired after last season and was also a Harvard guy. "But the second you make a mental mistake on the field or in a meeting, you're gonna get your chops busted. That's what football players do."

Football coaches do it, too.

Birk remembered one time when he was playing for the Minnesota Vikings and he screwed up on a play in practice. Brian Billick, the offensive coordinator at the time, went thermonuclear.

"He threw up his hands," Birk recalled, "and said: 'You went to Harvard? I don't believe it. Let's see your diploma.'"

Birk heard the same stuff from Ravens coaches when he screwed up, too. Maybe that's why he fired off a facetious message to Juszczyk seconds after learning the kid was officially headed to Baltimore.

"He texted me right after the draft," Juszczyk recalled with a laugh, "and he said: 'Congratulations, you're gonna do great. But just to warn you, they don't think Harvard people are too smart in Baltimore. Sorry about that."

But the Ravens must have thought plenty of Juszczyk to make him just the 20th Harvard player to be drafted. And he was the highest Crimson player taken since linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski — say, there's another name that just rolls off the tongue — was selected 119th overall by the Seattle Seahawks in 2000.

Juszczyk as a two-time All-American at tight end and H-back who caught 125 passes for 1,576 yards and 22 touchdowns for the Crimson. He was tough and smart and versatile, and the Ravens pride themselves in finding gems like that through both free agency and the draft.

Harvard coach Tim Murphy sat Juszczyk down after his freshman year and told him if he worked his butt of, he had the potential to play at the next level. But it wasn't until after his junior year that Juszczyk truly began to believe it.

If you want to get a smile out of him, ask him about the tension-filled day he became a Raven. That was when he found out the team was looking at not one but two Ohio natives in the fourth round — John Simon, the Ohio State linebacker from Youngstown, and himself.

"We had a draft party in Medina," Juszczyk remembered. "There were about 30 friends and family there. Three minutes before the 129th pick comes up, I get a ring (on his cell phone.) I look at it and it's got a Maryland area code. Everyone gets real quiet. And I'm like: 'This is it.' I answer and Ozzie Newsome is on the phone.

"He says: 'I'm talking to a guy from Youngstown and a guy from Medina. What do you think of that?' I told him: 'Those are two great places to find football players.'"

The Ravens' general manager didn't waste a whole lot of time on chit-chat after that.

"He goes: 'September 5, we're at Denver, you're running down on the kickoff. Can I count on you for two special-teams tackles that game?' And I said: 'Yeah, you can count on me for three.' So I got a lot to live up to for that game."

He's got that Harvard rep to live up to, too.

That follows him wherever he goes in this league.



Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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