Throughout the Ravens' stellar 2008 campaign, left tackle **Jared Gaither** routinely faced the best pass rushers in the NFL, and he rose to the challenge nearly every time.
For a 23-year-old prospect in only his second season, that would be considered impressive.
It might be even more so when taking into account that he did most of that blocking with only one arm.
Gaither suffered a serious shoulder injury in Week 11 against the New York Giants and never had a chance to recover until now. Since that game on Nov. 16, he never got his name off the injury report.
Each week, the Greenbelt, Md., native would sit out at least one practice, wearing a sling on his right arm and showing obvious discomfort to perform simple tasks like put on a shirt. But each week, the assaults continued to come. Trent Cole of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys were just some of the sack masters that Gaither kept at bay.
Participating in the Ravens' offseason conditioning program last week, Gaither said it took him months after the AFC Championship to finally feel healthy again.
"I just started feeling OK about a week before I came in," he said with a laugh.
"It was a challenge. I don't think people really knew how much it was hurting, because defenses weren't trying to exploit it a lot. That surprised me."
Gaither noted that the presence of left guard **Ben Grubbs** on the inside deterred some rushers to spin to the inside on him, and he used his quickness and long wingspan to contain the edge.
Of course, the shoulder was just one among a litany of injuries. Gaither hurt his ankle in the preseason, banged his knee in the regular-season opener and suffered at least one stinger in his neck.
The only way the tough, young tackle knew how to deal with the aches and pains was to not think about them. Instead, he focused on being there for his teammates.
"I started the preseason with the ankle and ended it with the shoulder," Gaither stated. "My knee kept swelling up. In our home game against Cincinnati, I got hit in the back of the leg by a running back and fell on my kneecap. I dealt with that for a good part of the year. I had a few stingers, too.
"You have to out-think your opponent and not think about the shoulder," he continued. "Really, that's how this brotherhood works. You try to do anything for one another."
Gaither isn't just talking about his offensive line brethren, however. He understands how important his consistent play is to the development of quarterback Joe Flacco!(/team/roster/joe-flacco/3e20766f-6520-4ca1-9901-44389aaea8b8/ "Joe Flacco").
Last year, in Flacco's rookie season, the signal-caller was only sacked 33 times, the second-fewest times in franchise history. As such, Flacco grew into one of the league's best young passers.
Gaither believes that even though the line will miss center Jason Brown, who signed a lucrative free agent contract with the St. Louis Rams, the addition of six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk!(/team/roster/matt-birk/f7490078-5e55-4d88-adfc-334ae2919b31/ "Matt Birk") and the retention of veteran right tackle **Willie Anderson** will help the unit improve.
In fact, the entire offensive line, including Grubbs and right guards **Chris Chester** and Marshal Yanda!(/team/roster/marshal-yanda/a93162da-9ca5-4ec8-ad51-c02253b292c1/ "Marshal Yanda"), has been at team headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., for the conditioning workouts.
"There is a big step we need to take, and we need to do it together," explained Gaither, who added that he will be present for the entire program. "Just as Joe is evolving, so are we as a group. This is fun. It was fun last year when we came together as young guys. Then you added Willie. Now, we have Birk, who is a seasoned veteran.
"I'm happy we're all here."
Admittedly, Gaither has come a long way since he entered the 2007 supplemental draft after being declared academically ineligible to play at the University of Maryland.
Some questioned his work ethic and desire, but his outstanding size (6-foot-9, 330 pounds) and athletic ability led the Ravens to select him in the fifth round - surrendering a 2008 fifth-round draft pick in the process.
If the Ravens have, in fact, found their long-term successor to future Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden to mature along with Flacco, that fifth-rounder will be well worth the sacrifice.
"You just have to go out there and work hard, thinking that no one is going to beat you that day and mean it," Gaither said. "I didn't listen to the people that said I wasn't focused. I take this seriously, and I think the way we played last year showed that. I believed in myself and was confident in what I could do."