- By Shane Koppens *
One of the major questions players ask when they arrive at training camp has nothing to do with playing football. It surprisingly has nothing to do with the lavish spreads of chicken parmesan and grilled mahi-mahi that fuels them. The question on most players' minds is, "Who's going to be my roommate?"
As the football world already knows, team chemistry is what gives a team its identity. When the season is getting tough and players are worn down, it takes the entire roster to keep up morale.
Playing as one, cohesive unit takes the strength of each and every player wearing a Ravens jersey.
That's why learning everything you can about your teammates and bonding beyond the gridiron is a special part of the equation for success, and the Ravens believe the have done just that after a month of camping.
Looking back, here are some of the more interesting pairings that resided at the Best Western Hotel in Westminster, Md.:
The 1-2 Punch
No. 4 and No. 70 have a bond that not many players can say they have. The two special teamers have been wearing the purple and black jersey together since the 2006 season, and they've made Baltimore's special teams units some of the league's best.
From rooming together at training camp, to hitting the links in their free time, Katula and Koch have a relationship that can be described as one of the best.
"Anytime you spend three years, pretty much every day, nine months out of the year together – you have a close bond," Katula says. "We room together here, we hang out at the facility, outside the facility. We play golf together. So, it's good to be close. We work so well together."
Katula and Koch have been rooming together for so long that they have an un-spoken routine that each player is used to and comfortable with. In other words, it's telekinetic; they can basically read each other's minds.
"We've been roommates so long that we know if we need to go to sleep, the TV has to be turned off," Katula explains. "We know what temperature the room needs to be so we're both comfortable – how the blinds need to be and what time we're going to get up. We don't even talk about it."
Not only have the former Nebraska punter and Wisconsin long snapper been close friends their entire NFL careers, they have combined to produce some gaudy statistics. Koch currently boasts a 43.8 career gross average and 37.9 career net average – both of which rank first in Ravens history.
When you ask the 6-foot-1, 220-pound punter why he has had so much success, one of the first names that comes out of his mouth is Matt Katula.
"Everything starts with him," Koch acknowledges. "With him snapping the way he does, he takes a lot out of my game as far as being consistent and going after the punts. He helps me out so much. We trust each other out on that field."
With the 2009 season around the corner, the two roommates are looking to step their game up to the next level. With each and every punt, Koch and Katula are making their mark as one of the premium long snapper – punter combinations in franchise history.
"I just want to make his job as easy as possible – take one of the variables out of it." Katula declares. "That's what I try to do. I do my best at it and see if he can make it to the Pro Bowl because then he has to take me and my family."
Shake n' Bake
The fullback – tailback tandem of Le'Ron McClain and Ray Rice extends much further than the football field. Sharing the same hotel room for training camp has advanced their relationship to the next level.
The Pro Bowl fullback calls himself Rice's older brother. As brothers tend to do, McClain and Rice argue on a daily basis. Not an argument that results in a fight, but arguments that are meant to irritate or annoy one another in hopes of a good laugh or a future inside joke.
"We argue a lot just to get us through the day," McClain says. "We argue about every little thing – who has their lights on, who's going to sleep too early. I'm the older brother; he's the little brother."
Not only do McClain and Rice share a room, they also share a spot in the starting lineup. When they're not antagonizing each other, they are a force to be reckoned with.
In the 2008 season, No. 33 and No. 27 combined to rush for 1,356 yards on 339 attempts. So far during training camp and in the first preseason game, McClain has no problem plowing open holes so his counter part can race through them.
"I love blocking for him," McClain proclaims. "He's a great back. I'm going to do everything I can do get him over 1,000 yards. If that means blocking every play, that's what I'm going to do. The sky's the limit for him."
The little brother, Rice, looks up to McClain as a teammate and friend. Coming into the NFL, the 5-foot-8, 210-pound tailback didn't know how he was going to adapt to the professional game. Fortunately, McClain has been there for Rice every step of the way. Like all good mentors, he guides him, advises him and teaches him how to play like a Raven.
"He's been a good team mate to me since I've gotten here," Rice proclaims. "He's been a good friend."
With high hopes for the '09 season, McClain and Rice are looking to boost an offense that has plenty of artillery to choose from. With fellow back, Willis McGahee in prime form, Baltimore has a three-headed monster ready to attack at a seconds notice.
Even though McClain and Rice are pranksters off the field, they are probably two of the most competitive guys on the team. They are both in great shape and ready to prove that last year was no fluke.
"The sky's the limit for this team, especially for this offense," McClain boasts. We have so many weapons now. They called the Rams, back in the day, the best team on turf. We're trying to follow that up on our turf at M&T Bank Stadium. I can't wait to get going."
Suggs and Gooden were paired up at the start of training camp. In 2008, 10-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis requested to have Gooden as his roommate. Lewis took Gooden under his wing and shared the knowledge that comes from a man who has dominated the game his entire career.
Now, it's three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs' turn to show Gooden a thing or two about playing the linebacker position. So far, No. 55 has nothing but great things to say about "T-Good."
"He's one of the fastest linebackers I've ever seen," Suggs acknowledges. "I just can't wait to see what he does when the regular season hits. I'm a big fan of his already."
As roommates, the tandem of Suggs and Gooden are truly enjoying each other's company. Gooden didn't know what he was walking into when he found out that Suggs was his training camp roommate.
"It's like living with Richie-Rich – the kid with everything," Gooden laughs. "The first day I walked in the room, there was a 52 – inch flat screen TV still inside the Sony box."
Sizzle is more than pleased to room with T-Good. He can't get over how hilarious Gooden is.
"T-Good's a great roommate man," Suggs boasts. "He's funny as hell. He does impersonations of everybody on the team – it's just the funniest thing ever. He's definitely in the running for the best roommate ever."
The bash brothers are definitely one of the more comical pairings at training camp. Both Suggs and Gooden are patiently waiting to step out on the turf against Kansas City Sept. 13th. Gooden is more than looking forward to playing alongside the former Sun Devil.
"Terrell is the guy who makes a lot of plays – interceptions, sacks," Gooden says. "I'm excited to see him play and just see Suggs in person – play next to that guy. He's going to be one of the top guys to play on our defense this year."
When all is said and done and training camp is over, the bonds created here will endure the test of time. The building and strengthening of relationships, on and off the field, will be remembered.
In the end, they'll be roommates for training camp, devoted teammates for a winning 2009 season and friends for life.