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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If laughter is truly cathartic, then Jonathan Ogden is in just the right place to deal with his grief. The Baltimore Ravens’ nine-time All-Pro offensive tackle was greeted on the football field by a practical joke from his teammates as he practiced Saturday for the first time following his father’s death in late July.
They intentionally told Ogden the wrong snap count on his first play back since being activated from the physically unable to perform list. He fired out of his stance early for a false-start, drawing good-natured teasing in the offensive huddle.
The 6-foot-9, 340-pound lineman was clearly amused, shaking his head and smiling.
“That means they like me,” said Ogden, who missed the entire training camp in the aftermath of his personal ordeal. “It’s all good.”
For Ogden, it just felt refreshing to play football, and laugh again. His father, Shirrel Ogden, died on July 26 about a week after his 57th birthday following complications from open-heart surgery. Shirrel Ogden, a former Howard University standout football player who was a fixture at practices and games since the Ravens acquired his son in 1996 out of UCLA with their first draft pick in franchise history, had a history of kidney problems.
"I’m just trying to remember my dad the best way we can, remember the good times, try not to let it affect you because life goes on," Ogden said. "I’m trying to focus on football and do the best I can."
Entering his 11th season, Ogden acknowledged that he did briefly ponder retirement after Shirrel Ogden passed away two days before camp began. He’s repeatedly made it clear that he might not play much longer.
"I thought about it for a second, but I think my dad would want me to come out and play as best I can this year, so that’s what I’m going to do," Ogden said. "Who knows after this year or next year? I know this year I’m going to try to do what I’m used to doing. Hopefully, it will be the same as usual.”
Besides his teammates, Ogden has been leaning heavily on his brother, Marques, a former Ravens lineman who trained alongside his older brother on the sidelines at McDaniel College. And returning to the routine of blocking, lifting weights, running and studying film represents a comfort zone for the grieving lineman.
"It does help me," Ogden said.
Ogden is trying to lose about 15 to 20 pounds to get back into optimum condition. He’s on an accelerated time table to regain the shape he was in earlier this year when he dieted and worked out regularly with a personal trainer in an effort to reclaim his unofficial title as the best left tackle in the NFL. The excess weight was gained during a month-long period where Ogden was focused strictly on being there for his family.
"All I can do is bust my butt and get myself prepared," Ogden said. "What’s in the past is in the past. I’m behind obviously, but I’ll catch back up."
Ravens coach Brian Billick stressed that Ogden could play as soon as this Friday against the Minnesota Vikings. Ogden moved with his usual agility and power Saturday, although his stamina remains the chief issue.
“Jonathan is back and ready to go,” Billick said. “You have to be very careful that you don’t put him in a position to get injured. We have to be very smart. We have to push him through this next couple of weeks. By the same token, he has to get a number of snaps to get ready for the opener.”
Besides wanting to do justice to his father’s memory, Ogden has a few scores to settle, beginning with longtime nemesis Simeon Rice, the Buccaneers’ speedy pass rushing defensive end. Plus, Ogden bristled at the characterization that the offensive line was the weak link of the football team and a major reason why the Ravens skidded to a 6-10 campaign last year and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.
“I really feel that last year we just didn’t have an effective season running the football,” said Ogden, who’s responsible for protecting new quarterback Steve McNair’s blindside. “There were a lot of reasons for it and the line was definitely a part of it.
“We’re going to try to make it a priority this year to move some people out of there, open some holes and protect Steve. That way people won’t be writing that the offensive line is the weak point. They can write something else.”
Roughly 25 to 30 Ravens attended Shirrel Ogden’s funeral on Aug. 4, including the majority of the offensive line, McNair, wide receiver Derrick Mason, Billick, general manager Ozzie Newsome and team president Dick Cass. Billick spoke on behalf of the team at the funeral.
"A lot of the guys came to the funeral, which is nice,” Ogden said. “They are extended family to me, a lot of them, so it’s really helpful being back around here."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.