The fact that he's a starting linebacker in the NFL still hasn't sunk in for Ravens rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe yet.
There have been so many highs and lows, and highs and lows again, during Ellerbe's football career that he takes it one day at a time now.
The journey from college promise to jail to college stardom then to the uncertainty of rookie free agency isn't the usual path to a starting position in the NFL. But Ellerbe's lived it.
Once staring at a waning career, Ellerbe now stands as an integral piece of the Ravens' hopeful playoff run. On the eve of traveling back to New England, where he saw his first NFL action, it's evident how far Ellerbe has come.
"I haven't sat down and just really thought about where I am," Ellerbe said. "I'm still working hard, still fighting, struggling, trying to do my best."
The best moment of Ellerbe's football life came last Sunday in Oakland. Starting next to Ray Lewis, he notched his first career interception in the third quarter and first fumble recovery in the fourth to preserve a Ravens' 21-13 win and launch Baltimore into the playoffs.
In the locker room afterwards, Head Coach John Harbaugh presented Ellerbe with a game ball, a trophy of sorts for players' in-game accomplishments.
"That was like a dream," Ellerbe said. "I never would have thought I would get a game ball my rookie year. It just shows hard work pays off."
Before Ellerbe reached that pinnacle, however, he had to go through the struggle.
Ellerbe, a dreadlocked 6-foot-1 hulk from the southern border of North Carolina, was a talented prospect at the University of Georgia. He was part of the SEC Championship team as a freshman and seemingly on his way to a breakout sophomore season.
Then Ellerbe made the worst decision of his life. He borrowed a teammate's car one night and crashed it into a tree. He was suspended for the first three games of his sophomore season after pleading guilty to underage possession of alcohol, reckless driving and unlawful use of a license.
Ellerbe ended up being sentenced to two days in jail and two years of probation.
Sitting in a silent jail, Ellerbe said, he hit his lowest point.
"It was a life-changing experience, really," Ellerbe said. "There is no feeling. There's no way to explain what it's like. That was the only time I've ever gotten in trouble. I've stayed straight ever since. I realized what I did wrong."
Ellerbe returned to the field as a junior and etched an All-SEC season, leading the Bulldogs with 93 tackles. Ellerbe felt he was ready for the NFL then, but decided to honor a promise to his mother that he would graduate from college, so he returned for his senior year.
He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview section, kneeling beside future first-round draft picks Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions and Knowshon Moreno of the Denver Broncos. Ellerbe said he was being tabbed as a potential first-round draft choice as well.
But as quickly as Ellerbe's stock rose, it fell back down. Ellerbe sprained his left knee and missed four key games during the middle of his senior year. Suddenly, he was tainted goods and questions about his checkered past began to resurface.
He broke a toe and suffered a pectoral injury, which meant he couldn't bench press or run the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Ellerbe knew he wasn't going to be selected on the first day so he didn't even watch the NFL Draft on television. On the second day, he sat in North Carolina church, phone in hand, waiting for a call. He got only text messages from befuddled friends, asking what was going on.
Ellerbe had been told he would go somewhere between the third and fifth round, at the latest. His name was never called.
"It hurt so much, because going into the season I had high hopes," Ellerbe said. "I was kind of mad in church."
But when one door closed, another opened. After 12 days of questioning his future, Ellerbe signed with the Ravens as a rookie free agent on May 8, 2009.
In another blow, Ellerbe suffered an injury to his other knee during training camp. He saw action in just one preseason game and missed significant practice time. Still, coaches thought enough of him to make him the only undrafted free agent signed to the active 53-man roster.
At the time, Harbaugh said he was impressed with Ellerbe's dedication to improvement. And glimpses of Ellerbe's obvious physical tools impressed coaches and teammates alike.
"He's a steal, a guy that was a sleeper in camp and coaches loved, but nobody really knew him," Ravens veteran linebacker Jarret Johnson* *said. "Very explosive, a young guy running around, and he's just gotten better every game."
Ellerbe made his debut in the Ravens' first meeting against the Patriots on Oct. 4. Starting in place of a banged-up Tavares Gooden, Ellerbe netted six tackles, mostly in run-stuffing situations. Since then, he has worked to become more of a complete linebacker by improving in pass coverage.
The Ravens hope Ellerbe can turn into the next Bart Scott, a Ravens rookie free agent in 2002 who developed into one of the NFL's best all-around linebackers in seven years in Baltimore. His departure at the end of last year left a hole in Baltimore's defense that Ellerbe is beginning to fill. Scott didn't see nearly as much playing time as Ellerbe has until his fourth season, however.
"I was just hoping to see the field on special teams, maybe get a few snaps on defense here and there," Ellerbe said. "But to be starting right now, it's just a great feeling. I feel I'm proving I belong here and I'm good enough to play here."
"I've learned, don't take the opportunity that you're given for granted."