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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Hardened by life through a deprived childhood that often left him homeless, hungry and in harm’s way, Shawne Merriman considers himself a modern-day gladiator. The hard-hitting San Diego Chargers All-Pro linebacker even has a gladiatorial scene set in a coliseum tattooed across his colossal back.
His right forearm features a tattoo of a light switch in the off position with his nickname, “Lights Out,” etched in ink. His biceps has the words “Extreme Pain” etched in English and Japanese. A Superman logo surrounded by flames is on his right shoulder.
His left arm is devoted toward religious symbols, including two crosses, one with spikes puncturing Jesus’ heart and an inscription that reads: “Forgive me Father.”
To Merriman, the tattoos are simply reminders of who he is and what he has overcome.
“On or off the field, I’m like a gladiator,” Merriman said. “On the field, leaving it all out there, do or die. Off the field, just being a gladiator in life. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I’ve been through it and survived it.”
The former University of Maryland star is returning home this weekend to compete with the Baltimore Ravens, and the Upper Marlboro native hasn’t lost his serious edge. Determined to live up to the concussion-inspired sobriquet he earned at Frederick Douglass, where local legend says he knocked out four players in the first half of a single game against Fort Meade, Merriman is building an equally nasty reputation in the NFL.
The 6-foot-4, 272-pound pass rusher was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, collecting 10 sacks and gaining national recognition for his penchant for unleashing crushing blows.
Merriman is a protégé of Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, becoming acquainted through Lewis’ younger brother, Terrapins running back Keon Lattimore. The two defensive stars talk or text message each other several times each week.
“I took him under my wing, and from there the relationship just blossomed,” Lewis said. "He has the same kind of heart and the same kind of passion I do. I’ve told him that he’s a young lion.
“Anything that I can do to make him a better player, I’m there for him. The sky is the limit for him.”
Although Merriman lurks at outside linebacker and Lewis operates inside, several comparisons have been drawn between the two brooding defenders this week.
“The No. 1 similarity I see is the great energy and playmaking that they bring to what they do,” Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “They both have excellent instincts for football.”
Named as a starter for the AFC Pro Bowl squad as a rookie with 54 tackles and two forced fumbles, Merriman has come a long way since his days earning $5 an hour landscaping or at a lumberyard where he hauled splintered two-by-fours on his bare shoulders.
There were many winter nights where Merriman shivered or went without dinner. His apartment was once burned down by a Molotov cocktail. His family was left homeless again years later after an accidental fire started by candles intended for warmth.
Growing up in a single-parent family where he was raised by his mother and his high school coaches, Merriman was often an eyewitness to violence.
"It was rough, that’s the only way I can put it," Merriman said. "But I’m still here."
Merriman has collected over 10,000 coats and jackets for the Community for Creative Non-Violence Shelter in Washington. In March, he contributed $7,500 to keep a San Diego homeless shelter operational.
“It gives you a sense of pride and character,” Merriman said. “I appreciate everything that has come to me because I think I have earned it."
Drafted 12th overall by San Diego last year after making the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team as a junior and registering 189 tackles and 22 sacks over three seasons, Merriman knocked Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes out of a game last season.
“He is fast becoming one of those players that you have to account for on every single play,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “He will impact the game if you let him.”
Because of his fast-twitch athleticism and trademark intensity, Merriman’s brawny presence alerts quarterbacks into speeding up their internal clock to get the football out of their hands.
“Some of the things that he does are unbelievable,” Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said. “At the same time, we have to know where he is at all times and have somebody account for him.”
The Ravens’ offensive game plan for counteracting Merriman’s speed probably consists of relying on the experience of nine-time All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden with a dose of chip-blocking assistance if he begins testing tackle Tony Pashos on the right side.
“In certain situations, you have to speed up a little bit,” McNair said. “We’ll put a couple guys on him to make sure he slows down, so I don’t have to rush during the course of the whole game. You have to put a hat on him.”
Merriman definitely hasn’t rested on his laurels this season. He notched three sacks in a nationally televised rout of the Oakland Raiders to begin the season.
He remains the same essentially grounded young man who isn’t above enjoying the trappings of his success, including a personalized Mercedes-Benz SUV with plasma televisions and a luxurious home in posh La Jolla.
However, the good life hasn’t stunted his work ethic. Known as a workout fanatic, Merriman has incorporated boxing into his training regimen.
“I play this game with emotion, I play this game with passion,” Merriman said. “That’s the only way I know how to play. I have the same kind of relentlessness as Ray and movements on the field.
“I won’t be stopped and no one can basically stop me from doing what I want to do. That’s the kind of mentality I bring to the game.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.