OWINGS MILLS -- Ben Grubbs' journey to the NFL wasn't always a green-light experience.
As the Baltimore Ravens' newly-minted first-round draft pick arrives at the team's training complex today for the start of a two-day rookie minicamp, it marks the launch of his jump to the big city and the high profile world of professional football.
Grubbs grew up in a small, idyllic Alabama hamlet that was just busy enough to require one red light.
Eclectic, Ala., has a population of 1,037, according to the latest census figures. It wasn't quite big enough to support a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart.
During the bulky offensive guard's burgeoning high school years as an oversized fullback, linebacker and power forward, the future Auburn star spent his free time hanging out at a gas station near Elmore County High.
"I'm a country boy," Grubbs said after Baltimore drafted him with the 29th overall pick of last weekend's draft. "When I moved to Auburn -- which is not a huge city, just a nice city -- I thought that was the life. Now that I am here, it feels like home. I don't think it's going to be any problem."
Grubbs was raised in a single-parent household by his mother, Deborah Grubbs, after his father died of a blood clot when he was five years old. She worked long hours in a post office while raising Grubbs and his older brother, Cedric, on her own.
"My mom instilled great morals and values in me," Grubbs said. "As far as my character, I try to treat people right: like how I want to be treated."
One piece of advice Grubbs' mother imparted to him was to never quit whenever an obstacle got in his path.
Today, Grubbs is an imposing 6-foot-3, 315-pounder who was rated the top pure guard in the draft.
In various other incarnations, Grubbs has been a 248-pound high school fullback and linebacker who even played receiver and tight end.
That flexibility and athleticism helped prepare him for a stint as a defensive end on the Auburn scout team before finally hitting the field as a 280-pound blocking tight end as a sophomore in 2003.
"My freshman year was the first time of me putting my hand in the dirt," Grubbs said. "I went through some trials and tribulations."
During Grubbs' first college game against Mississippi State, his key block sprang future Tampa Bay Buccaneers runner Carnell "Cadillac" Williams for a long touchdown.
One year later, Grubbs forged a permanent home on the offensive line and began to thrive there as Auburn went undefeated.
"I think it was just my time," said Grubbs, who loved baseball as a kid and was nicknamed "Big Hurt" after baseball slugger and former Auburn football and baseball star Frank Thomas. "I was hungry. I was the guy sitting in the stands my freshman year watching my roommate and teammates play.
"I just remember that feeling, and that's not a feeling that I like. I want to be in the action. Each year, I just kept getting better and my dream was getting close and closer. Now, I'm here."
By his senior year, Grubbs was an All-Southeastern Conference selection who only allowed three career sacks and seven quarterback pressures while being flagged for four penalties.
Grubbs was limited at the NFL scouting combine in February due to a viral infection, but it wasn't his 40-yard dash time of 5.18 seconds or bench pressing 225 pounds 29 times that sold the Ravens on him during an interview. It was his game film, personality and blue-collar background.
The Ravens were convinced enough that they didn't invite him to Baltimore for a predraft visit. By his March 12 campus workout, Grubbs was over his illness and improved his speed to 5.1 seconds with 35 repetitions in the bench press.
"It was a slam dunk," Ravens director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said. "When we interview a guy at the combine that we love without any questions at all, there's no sense for us to bring a guy back. We love him. No-brainer."
Grubbs was regarded as a consensus safe pick after starting 38 consecutive games and never being injured or in any sort of trouble off the field. He graduated a year ago with a major in public administration and a minor in business.
"I'm a quiet guy," Grubbs said. "You're not going to see me hyping up the crowd. I'm always just sitting back listening and watching and laughing. My teammates called me the silent leader because I really led by example.
"When I open my mouth, they really listen because they're like, ‘Wow, Ben Grubbs is talking.' So, it means something."
Although Grubbs played left guard for Auburn, he's expected to shift to right guard in the NFL and compete with incumbent Keydrick Vincent for a starting job. While guard isn't a glamour position, various analysts have lauded Grubbs as a sure-fire starter and future Pro Bowl selection.
"He's very bright-eyed and looks like he's ready to line up and play at this moment, which is what we expect of him," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.
Grubbs is hoping to mirror the initial impact of San Diego Chargers rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill, who played next to Grubbs for two years at Auburn. McNeill emerged as an all-rookie selection last season for an AFC West division champion.
"I learned a lot of good things from him," Grubbs said. "He called me and said how proud of me he was and how he knows that I'm going to be successful as well."
Virtually the only criticism leveled at the Ravens' new prize blocker was that he lacks a nasty streak and doesn't always play as physically as possible, allowing defenders to get into his pads. Grubbs dismissed the notion that he might be too nice to excel at this brutal sport.
"On the field, I have no friends," Grubbs said. "My motto is, ‘Hit them before they hit me.' I don't want to walk off the field with any regrets. I take that with me everyday and try to play my heart out."
NOTE: The Ravens signed exclusive-rights free agent long snapper Matt Katula.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
Grubbs: 'Hit them before they hit me'
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