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Brandon Ayanbadejo knows there's life beyond football

The former UCLA standout is a special-teams fiend for Baltimore, but he has other plans after his career, including becoming his alma mater's first African American athletic director.

September 05, 2009|Kevin Van Valkenburg

Playing special teams in the NFL might be the closest a man will get to a game of human pinball. It's a violent, dangerous job that regularly produces helmet-cracking, bone-bruising collisions, and those who excel at it usually flirt with the fine line between fearlessness and recklessness. It helps, the players often joke, if you're a little bit nuts.

For the most part, it's the lowest rung on the NFL food chain, where rookies bide their time until they earn the right to start and where undrafted free agents scratch and claw to prove they belong. The best special-teams players sacrifice their bodies on a regular basis, and it's not a surprise that every kickoff or punt ends in a tangled pile of limbs and shoulder pads.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo is a millionaire because he does it about as well as anyone in football. He has been named to the Pro Bowl three times as a special-teams player, including last year with the Ravens. He's so good at what he does, that in 2008 Baltimore signed him to a four-year contract worth $4.9 million, even though the team had no plans to use him in its regular defensive rotation.

Ayanbadejo's special-teams skills might even be the least interesting thing about him. A history major at UCLA, Ayanbadejo has passions covering a variety of areas, including theater, architecture, politics and economics. He occasionally writes opinion pieces for the Huffington Post, and he says his dream job, when he retires from the NFL, is to become UCLA's first African American athletic director. He's hoping to get an MBA in sports and business administration in the next few years.

"Football is my career, but my hobbies are my passion," Ayanbadejo said. "I have so many more interests. Right now I'm living my dream, but there is a dream after this dream. People who are overachievers don't just stop at one thing. They're always moving onto the next thing. I really want a world championship with the Ravens, but I also really want to wake up one day and be the athletic director at UCLA."

It's a unique experience to stand next to the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Ayanbadejo and carry on a conversation. Physically, he's an intimidating presence, with muscles so sharply defined, you can imagine him doing push-ups and crunches in his sleep. There isn't another player on the Ravens, from Ray Lewis on down, who takes fitness and nutrition as seriously as Ayanbadejo.

But he's also one of the most worldly Ravens, a definition that fits him figuratively and literally. Although Ayanbadejo was born in Chicago in 1976, he and his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, when he was a year old and lived there for three years before returning to the United States.

In 1999, after Ayanbadejo graduated from UCLA, the NFL wasn't interested in his skills, even though he was first-team All-Pacific 10 as a senior. And so, his football sojourn began. Ayanbadejo played in the Canadian Football League in 2000 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts. The Ravens signed him in 2001 but sent him off to NFL Europe, where he played for the Amsterdam Admirals. He returned to Canada in 2002 to play for the British Columbia Lions before finally catching on as a special-teams player with the Miami Dolphins in 2003.

"Europe was crazy, because you sleep in a twin-size bed and that's considered luxurious," Ayanbadejo said. "People live simply there, but they're also a little healthier. It was a great time to learn about different cultures and immerse myself in that lifestyle. In Canada, the people there were like halfway between Europeans and Americans. So that was pretty cool to see the different ways people live."

Still, it was Ayanbadejo's football talents that caught the eye of NFL coaches. He has what football coaches often describe as a "motor," meaning he never stops until the whistle blows. He made the Pro Bowl twice as a member of the Chicago Bears, and he was the first free agent the Ravens signed after John Harbaugh, the Philadelphia Eagles special-teams coach for nine years, replaced Brian Billick as the team's head coach in 2008

"It was him and a bunch of rookies basically out there," Harbaugh said of Ayanbadejo's first year on special teams with the Ravens.

"But he helped show those guys how to practice and how to train. He teaches technique along with our coaches. I think he's one of the premier special-teams players, really, ever to play the game. That's a pretty good building block."

As good as Ayanbadejo is on special teams, it still feels a little bit like a backhanded compliment. Yes, he's good at what he does, but if he were a truly great football player, he'd be on the field a lot more. The Ravens say they might use Ayanbadejo as part of their regular defensive rotation this year.

"The hardest part is that you're underacheiving as a football player," he said. "But at the same time, I have a bigger responsibility to the team. That's the role I've been given, that's what I'm best at, and that's what I'm here to do. I wish I could contribute more, and I think I'm capable of it, but at what expense to what I do best will that be?"

For now, he'll contribute however he can, trying to make a difference with his body and his mind, in matters big and small.


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