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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There was little doubt that veteran linebacker Gary Stills’ reputation as a hard-hitting special-teams ace would follow him from Kansas City.
Especially with his prowess in the kicking game reinforced continually during training camp meetings by Baltimore Ravens special teams coordinator Frank Gansz.
Whenever Gansz wanted to cite an example on how to cover kicks or block for a return, the fiery, first-year Baltimore assistant would click on a highlight film of his former Chiefs protégé.
“It got to the point where it was almost ridiculous because he would show Gary out there blocking, tackling, knocking guys out, doing everything you can think of,” fullback Ovie Mughelli said. “He’s the perfect special-teams guy, and we definitely joke with him because he’s been following Frank around wherever he goes.
“They have a great relationship, and it comes in handy. Whenever coach Gansz has a question and you don’t know the answer, you whisper to Gary and he tells you.”
The blue-collar star pupil has built a career out of displaying reckless abandon in one of the most dangerous aspects of the NFL, excelling on special teams by running downfield at full-speed with his helmet on a swivel. Named to the Pro Bowl in 2003 when he registered a career-high 34 special-teams tackles, Stills is the all-time leader in Kansas City franchise history with 148 special-teams tackles.
“Special teams is the third phase of football, it’s very important and it should be taken very seriously,” Stills said. “That’s why I do it the way I do it. It’s do-or-die.”
At a sculpted 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, the Trenton, N.J. native appears ideally suited for special-teams duty. Athletic enough to play both outside linebacker and defensive end, Still is a classic “tweener” who blends strength and speed.
“He brings pride in it, understanding that it’s a role and that you’ve have that, a tempo, a passion,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “He makes people keep up with him in that regard. You can see why he’s one of the elite special-teams players in the league.”
The Ravens demonstrated how much they value Stills in March when they signed him to a three-year, $2.6 million contract.
Adding Stills along with defensive back Corey Ivy (three years, $2.2 million) during the offseason represented a concerted effort to make up for the loss of four strong special-teams contributors who departed as free agents: punter Dave Zastudil, safety Will Demps, tight end Darnell Dinkins and running back Chester Taylor. Stills was signed on Gansz’s hearty recommendation.
Gansz, who coached Pro Bowl return specialist Dante Hall in addition to Stills during a five-year stint in Kansas City, is known for his loud voice and trademark intensity. The son of former Chiefs head coach Frank Gansz Sr., Gansz Jr. replaced Gary Zauner following last season.
“Frank Gansz is a scary man, but he’s been my coach for 80 percent of my career and I wouldn’t trade him for the world,” Stills said. “He believed in me back then, and he still believes in me.”
The Ravens allowed a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second half against the New York Giants. However, it was mostly younger players that were in the game at the time.
“It was young guys, but that’s still no excuse,” Stills said. “If it’s all veterans or all rookies, you can’t have that happen. Yeah, it was young guys, but they can learn from it.”
Still is also slated to operate as a reserve situational pass rusher. He has registered 7 ½ career sacks, four forced fumbles and 80 tackles. He bristles at the notion that he’s strictly here for special teams.
“I like to rush the passer and play defense, too,” Stills said. “I’m not just a special-teams player.”
With the Ravens, though, Stills will primarily act in a wedge-busting role on kickoffs, also covering punts and clearing pathways for return specialist B.J. Sams. Busting the wedge requires a combination of courage, intelligence and self-control. It’s about being willing to sacrifice your body.
“I’ve always been one of the wedge-busters, and I have to be a lot more aggressive to hold my own in the middle,” Stills said. “You have to be patient. You can’t just be running down the field acting crazy, not paying attention to where the football is. It takes concentration, too."
At age 32, Stills is intent on preserving himself as best he can while using his body as a human battering ram. Every year, he acknowledged, requires a significant personal price.
“It takes a lot more out of me now than it used to,” Stills said. “I’m getting a little older and I have to have my mind and my body right to maintain my strength. Special-teams is hard work, but it’s rewarding to me because you truly get out of it whatever you put into it.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.