Former CAA stars key contributors in Ravens’ run to Super Bowl championship

The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens are a team lots of football fans love to hate.

I am among those who would have preferred to see San Francisco take home the Lombardi Trophy, especially given the Ray Lewis dynamic.

Even so, as the Ravens players celebrate their first day as world champions, there are several reasons why fans of the University of Maine football team and the Colonial Athletic Association should appreciate Sunday night’s outcome.

The Ravens were victorious with former CAA stars in some key positions. They included Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco out of the University of Delaware, cornerback Corey Graham of New Hampshire and special teams standout James Ihedigbo of Massachusetts.

Also representing the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) level were starting center Matt Birk of Harvard, backup center Gino Gradkowski, a rookie out of Delaware, and reserve linebacker Adrian Hamilton of Prairie View.

Baltimore also has a couple of Division II products in slippery wide receiver and kick returner Jacoby Jones (Lane College) and starting cornerback Cary Williams from Washburn College.

UMaine has for several years maintained strong representation in the NFL with the likes of Mike DeVito, Montell Owens, Matt Mulligan of Enfield, Lofa Tatupu, the late Jovan Belcher, Stephen Cooper and Brandon McGowan.

Baltimore’s front office clearly has recognized the value of some lesser-heralded players from below the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Some, it drafted. Others, the Ravens picked up as free agents.

Flacco has started every game for five seasons with the Ravens, who made him only the second sub-FBS quarterback ever drafted in the first round, joining the late Steve McNair (Alcorn State).

Flacco played two years at Delaware after transferring from Pittsburgh and wound up earning first-team All-America status after setting 20 Delaware passing records. He did not face UMaine, as the teams did not play each other while he was there.

Birk has been a mainstay in the NFL during a 15-year career, including the last four with Baltimore. The six-time Pro Bowl pick was an All-Ivy League and All-New England star at Harvard, which went 9-1 during his senior season in 1997.

He earned a degree in economics.

Graham is an opponent well-known and well-respected by his UMaine peers. After patrolling the secondary for the Wildcats, he signed with the Chicago Bears.

The sixth-year pro joined the Ravens this season, earning a share of starting duties at cornerback for only the second time in his career. He ranks as UNH’s all-time kickoff returns leader and started 42 games for the ‘Cats.

Ihedigbo, a native of Amherst, Mass., also signed with Baltimore in his sixth NFL season. He spent 2011-12 with the New England Patriots and was a backup safety and special-teamer for the Ravens.

Ihedigbo was a walk-on at UMass, where he became a three-year starter. The All-CAA performer was a menace and also gave the Black Bears fits.

The Ravens’ other CAA product is Gradkowski, a first-team All-CAA and All-America offensive lineman.

If their contributions weren’t impressive enough as part of the Super Bowl season, consider Jones — who scored on an NFL-record, 109-yard kickoff return and another long pass play on Sunday.

Jones also was a first-year member of the Ravens and a sixth-year pro. The New Orleans native, who was first signed by the Texans, didn’t even start playing football until his junior year of high school.

Williams finished his college career at DII Washburn after two years at Fordham of the Patriot League. He is a fifth-year pro in his fourth season with the Ravens, for whom he is two-year starter at corner.

Think what you want about Baltimore, which is most-maligned because of the presence of Ray Lewis, whose off-field activities have been cause for great concern to many.

However, the Ravens should be applauded for their ability to identify talented players who spent their college years at smaller, lesser-known schools. Eight men who fit that description will spend the rest of their lives wearing coveted Super Bowl rings.

It serves as a reminder that there are many outstanding football players out there who don’t play at Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and USC. They can be seen at Alfond Stadium in Orono and at other FCS and Division II venues, where high-caliber football is played on fall Saturdays across the country.

This entry was posted in Colleges, Colonial Athletic Association, Football, Sports, UMaine by Pete Warner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Pete Warner

Pete is a Bangor native who graduated from Bangor High School, Class of 1980. He earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He has been a full-time member of the Bangor Daily News Sports staff since 1984. Pete lives in Bangor with his wife of 26 years, Annia. They have two sons, Will and Paul. Pete speaks fluent Spanish and enjoys visiting his in-laws and friends in Costa Rica. His hobbys including hunting, fishing and listening to music.