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OWINGS MILLS. — Kelly Gregg arrived at the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex seven years ago unheralded, casting such an unimpressive figure that Ravens coach Brian Billick couldn’t help getting in a good-natured dig at the stocky nose guard.
During Gregg’s first workout, Billick turned toward defensive line coach Rex Ryan, who had recommended Gregg based on their successful collaboration at the University of Oklahoma, and quipped: "Rex, is this guy one of your bastard sons that you’re trying to get a job? C’mon, you can tell me."
Flash forward to today and it’s an entirely different story. Gregg is the anchor of the NFL’s second-ranked defense as one of the most underrated nose guards in the league.
The gritty native of Edmond, Okla., has emerged as the most productive interior lineman in football, collapsing pockets with a determined charge and techniques learned as a national champion heavyweight wrestler.
"It’s amazing," Ryan said. of Gregg, who has 46 tackles and two sacks this season. "When you first looked at him, really nobody wanted him."
Nonetheless, no interior defensive lineman has registered more tackles since 2002 than Gregg, who’s more active in pursuit than many NFL linebackers. From 2002 through the end of the 2006 campaign, he posted 486 tackles.
Despite a lack of ideal size at 6-foot, 310 pounds, Gregg overwhelms blockers like a junkyard dog. Combining intensity, surprising quickness and the brute strength to hoist 550 pounds in a bench press, Gregg humbly goes about his work despite being regularly snubbed for Pro Bowl recognition.
"I’ve always thought being underrated is better than being overrated," Gregg said. "I like that. A lot of guys put a lot of stock into what people think of them, and I really don’t care.
"As long as my teammates and coaches think that I can play, that’s all that matters. Being appreciated by them makes all the bumps and bruises go away."
One triumph Gregg won’t soon forget occurred happened last year as he corralled since-convicted dogfighter Michael Vick for a sack.
It was yet another landmark moment for the blue-collar lineman dubbed "Buddy Lee" by former Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa after the tow-headed figurine from a national jeans commercial. It’s a nickname that’s a tribute to the no-necked lineman who wears his uniform pants pulled up nearly to his chest.
"Kelly is strong as an ox and his hand movement is so great, but they sleep on him because most people in the NFL are stuck on numbers — the height, weight and speed — instead of concentrating on how someone gets the job done,â€ Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œRemember, Mike Singletary wasnâ€™t a big guy. You donâ€™t have to look like an athlete to be one.
â€œHeâ€™s low to the ground, kind of a quirky guy, a strong little country boy. I couldnâ€™t imagine this defense without him. He runs that whole show.â€
Gregg has utilized his stay-low approach into a steady cottage industry of steamrolling offensive linemen into the backfield. Hardly anyone plays with a lower pad level than Gregg, who combines his burly frame with a nasty streak.
He thrives on contact, relishing the scars that goes with a meat grinder profession.
So, he’ll gladly take being called Buddy Lee, laughing in the Ravens’ locker room during an interview while offensive guard Jason Brown chimes in: "Best nose guard in the league! Finally getting the recognition he deserves!"
Being short? Gregg takes that as a blessing in disguise.
"I think a lot of coaches want guys who are 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, but I think my height plays to my advantage," Gregg said. "From little league football to the NFL, I think the little man is going to win as long as he plays with heart. I think that’s a big asset."
Added Scott: "We live in a world and play in a league that’s obsessed with size, and Kelly’s not the biggest guy. But he’s the toughest. He makes my job so much easier. I don’t know where we would be as a defense without him."
It’s hard to argue with the results.
The Ravens are allowing only 71.9 rushing yards per contest, ranking second in the NFL.
Last season, Gregg recorded 101 tackles with 102 in 2005 and notched another 89 in 2004. For his career, he has 551 career tackles to rank only behind middle linebacker Ray Lewis in franchise history.
And it’s not a coincidence that the Ravens’ linebackers thrive behind Gregg, who occupies blockers so they can get the glory. Last season, every starting linebacker — Lewis, Scott, Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs — received Pro Bowl recognition.
"Kelly Gregg, trust me, on our defensive line, he’s our cornerstone," said Lewis, an eight-time All-Pro middle linebacker and a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "When Kelly’s in there, everything is under control. He’s our leader. When he’s upfront and he’s generating everything, we flow very smoothly."
Gregg developed his strong work ethic from his parents’ example. His father, Terry, was a policeman. His mother, Patrice, was a postal worker.
Despite being rewarded with a four-year, $20.3 million contract extension that included $3.5 million in guaranteed money during the offseason, Gregg is reluctant to spend much money. He finally passed down his 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix to his mother a few months ago and bought a used Ford diesel pickup truck.
He remains a grounded individual, deflecting praise and staying focused on family. He tends to turn down offers for radio shows and other personal appearances, preferring to stay home at night with his wife and kids.
"That’s the way I was brought up," Gregg said. "Growing up in Oklahoma , I just tried to have a good time. You’re only here for a short time, so you might as well enjoy it. Don’t take anything too seriously and enjoy life. Family always comes first."
A former prep heavyweight champion wrestler who won three state titles at Edmond High School , Gregg uses those workouts to bolster his football prowess. To this day, he returns to Oklahoma and hits the mats in his quest for conditioning and a competitive edge when he grapples with massive offensive linemen.
"Leverage and hand placement are so important," Gregg said. "When you play in the trenches, it’s just like a wrestling match. Wrestling is a different workout in football. It will truly get you in shape."
Few teams try to run inside against Baltimore, which had the NFL’s second-ranked run defense last season . Especially not with the presence of Gregg and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound former first-round draft pick.
"I’ve learned so much already from Kelly," Ngata said. "He’s one of those great players not enough people talk about. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about football, and he’s the hardest worker on this team. I have so much respect for him."
He’s typically paid the compliment of being game-planned for by opposing offensive coordinators.
The Ravens are just glad that general manager Ozzie Newsome identified Gregg’s potential and kept him around when other NFL teams were skeptical. The Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals cut Gregg early in his career before he found a home in Baltimore.
"We’re fortunate that Ozzie brought him in here and that he’s really developed," Ryan said. "All the credit goes to Kelly and Ozzie."
Last season, Gregg established career-high marks for sacks with 3 1/2 and three forced fumbles. Last season against the Oakland Raiders, he returned a fumble 59 yards for a franchise record.
"I think Kelly is what you want to be at the end of the day," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all want to be called an overachiever as opposed to the other, and I think Kelly has always been an overachiever in everything he’s done in his life.
"He’s more talented than people give him credit for because he’s a good athlete. Yet, he continues to achieve greatness all the time. He plays hard, he’s sound, he’s got great leverage and he uses his hands well. So, that’s why he’s been a very productive football player."
Although he turned 30 last November, Gregg shows no signs of slowing down. He seems to love football enough that he would play this game for free.
"I just keep working," Gregg said. "If I wasn’t playing in the NFL, I’d be trying to get in a game back home on the sidewalk."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.