Before the Ravens were known for a bone-rattling defense, their calling card was an offense that bullied opponents in the trenches.
All 6-foot-6 inches and 316 pounds of Jeff Blackshear, the Ravens' starting right guard from 1996 to 1999, took pleasure in kicking tail.
"I remember some games when I was driving guys into the ground," Blackshear said. "We had a dominant offensive line. We just didn't have the defense at that time. I can seriously say that we were some bullies, and the other team knew it."
Now Blackshear is in an even tougher fight, this time against pancreatic cancer that became Stage IV when it reached his lungs.
During Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens will put the spotlight on the "Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer" initiative, which extends throughout October.
Prior to the game, the Ravens will recognize approximately 40 PSL owners who have fought, and in some cases continue to fight, a wide variety of cancer types. During the game, fans will participate in a stadium-wide moment honoring those who have courageously fought or are currently battling cancer, by displaying placards with either a pre-printed or personalized message.
Blackshear, 49, will be in attendance. After a difficult four years – he was first diagnosed in January of 2014 – it will be a welcomed distraction.
"It's going to be good for the soul and I think for my kids," Blackshear said. "I still live here in Baltimore and the last four years have been pretty hard for me dealing with this cancer. But I know I'm in God's hands, and that's a good place to be."
Blackshear has two kids, a 14-year-old daughter and 4-year old son, who were both born after his playing days were over, so he's excited to show them where he used to suit up.
Blackshear's cancer was first discovered with 25 tumors all in one spot and in the size of an egg. He had immediate surgery to remove them, started extreme chemotherapy for a few months, then radiation, then back on chemo.
For almost a year, he was cancer free, but in June of 2016, doctors found a tumor in his lungs, which elevated him to Stage IV. He began treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago, but all the travel and care became too expensive, so he now receives the same treatment at Johns Hopkins. He currently gets chemo three Mondays in a row and then a Monday off.
"It's very hard," Blackshear said. "There's not a day that doesn't go by that you don't think about death. I'm not afraid of dying, but it's just my kids and my family. I have a lot of people that still depend on me and need me."
The Ravens offense relied on Blackshear too. An eighth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1993, the Louisiana-Monroe product, who was recently admitted into their Hall of Fame, came to Baltimore at the start of the Ravens franchise.
The Ravens had one of the league's best offenses back then with Vinny Testaverde under center, protected by Blackshear and Orlando Brown Sr. on the right side and Jonathan Ogden on the left side. They paved the way for Priest Holmes, Earnest Byner and Bam Morris.
Blackshear is particularly excited about shaking hands with Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. after playing with his late father and seeing Brown Jr. running around as a kid.
"This will be my first time seeing him since his father passed away," Blackshear said. "There are a lot of different things that I want to talk to him about that I know his dad would want me to tell him, about football on and off the field things."
Nico Practices With the Ravens
A special guest visited the Ravens during Friday's practice, as Nico and his family from Grand Rapids, Mich., are in town to also go to Sunday's "Crucial Catch" game against the Saints.
Seven-year-old Nico was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks before his 4th birthday. A three-and-a-half year treatment plan was put in place, and his final chemo treatment will be in August 2019.
The family's roots are in Baltimore, but they have since moved to Michigan and follow their favorite team from afar. Nico's family teamed up with Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic to make Nico's dream of meeting the Ravens come true.
Nico went on a tour of the Under Armour Performance Center, watched practice, then ran some plays with the offense, including an 80-yard touchdown run in which he juked out safety Eric Weddle. He ran some plays with the defense, including a sack, then practiced kicking field goals with Justin Tucker.
Sunday's game against the Saints will be his first, and Nico will be on the sidelines before the action.
"Super excited," said Nico, who named quarterback Lamar Jackson among his favorite players (it's really hard for him to pick just one).