Ravens tight end Mark Andrews was always tall for his age. As an 11-year-old soccer player, he towered over teammates. His mother, Martha, still smiles at the team picture.
"He looks likes the coach," Martha said, speaking by telephone from Scottsdale, Ariz. "In second grade, when he was at the front of the line, he looked like the teacher leading the class."
Andrews' 6-foot-4, 256-pound stature is not being wasted. As a rookie third-round pick from Oklahoma, Andrews leads Ravens tight ends with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. His chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco has developed quickly, partly because Andrews took the time to study Flacco's throwing tendencies on film weeks ago.
"I haven't played with anyone who reads receivers the way Joe does," Andrews said. "He loves throwing to tight ends. I didn't get a ton of reps with him in camp, but I noticed how he likes to throw the ball early. You have to get your eyes around quick. Guys who have done that in the past have caught a lot of balls from him."
Attention to detail is ingrained in Andrews. At 9 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Having the disease never stopped Andrews from pursuing his goals. But coping with the disease at such a young age changed his life forever. Monitoring his blood sugar levels, watching his diet closely, and taking insulin became part of his daily regimen.
Since high school, Andrews has never missed a practice or game due to diabetes. Instead of viewing it as an obstacle, Andrews has used the condition as a driving force, an opponent that must be defeated, like a linebacker trying to defend him in pass coverage.
"When you get in this locker room, you find that all of us had our reasons why – why we were able to get this far, whatever our chip on our shoulder was," Andrews said. "That was probably the biggest one for me – not letting this disease define me. I did everything I could to show everyone, that even with diabetes, I could be one of the top tight ends in the world. That has always driven me."
Andrews has two older brothers and an older sister, and none of them have diabetes. Neither do his parents. The diagnosis took them completely by surprise. They noticed Andrews needed extra bathroom breaks and was drinking a ton of fluids while playing youth soccer. Then one day, he stayed home from school sick. His parents took Andrews to the doctor, thinking he might have a bladder infection.
"We were floored when they told us," Martha said. "My husband (Paul) is a physician, and he was surprised."
But while his parents were emotional, Andrews took the diagnosis in stride. Andrews' most serious diabetic episode occurred as a freshman at Oklahoma, when he was briefly unresponsive due to hypoglycemia caused by low blood sugar. His roommate alertly shoved fruit snacks into Andrews' mouth and he quickly came around.
Martha still worries about Andrews living alone since moving to Baltimore, and both she and her husband track Andrews' glucose levels on their cell phones. But watching Andrews manage diabetes so well for over a decade helps put her at ease.
"Mark never questioned it, never fought it," Martha said. "He just said, 'Tell me what to do, and I'll do it.' I don't know if he really understood he was going to be dealing with this for the rest of his life, and how dangerous it could be. But he's been very, very diligent about it. He never said, 'Why me?' To me, that's always been pretty amazing."
Andrews played soccer, baseball and basketball as a youngster, but he didn't play football until he was a freshman in high school. Soccer was becoming less enjoyable, towering over other kids and getting kicked in the shins. He was a decent basketball player, but not a Division 1 prospect.
But the moment he stepped on a football field, Andrews became a star. He had the size. He had the coordination. He loved the physicality. Everything just seemed to fit.
"I still remember my first (freshman) football game vividly," Andrews said. "I was catching passes, running over defenders, scoring touchdowns. I just figured that's what I was supposed to be doing."
Others in Scottsdale knew better, like Tony Tabor, who was Andrews' football coach at Desert Mountain High School. Tabor looked at Andrews and said he immediately saw NFL potential.
"Sometimes, you can just tell," Tabor said. "He was a wide receiver for us, but I could've played him anywhere and he would've been good. He was like Terrell Suggs, who was a high school running back in Arizona. Put them out there, and they'll get it done. I told Mark's mother early on, 'Aren't you glad he's playing football now? You're going to be watching him on Sundays.'"
Andrews put up some staggering numbers during his three years playing varsity high school football – 207 receptions for 3,674 yards and 48 touchdowns. He held the Arizona high school record for pass receptions until it was broken by Kade Warner, a receiver at Nebraska who is the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.
Yet, despite his athletic prowess, Andrews remained humble. When Andrews committed to play college football at Oklahoma, Tabor said he could not convince Andrews to reveal his decision with an announcement at school. No gymnasium ceremony, no media, no suspense, no pulling out an Oklahoma hat and placing it on his head.
"Mark doesn't go for any of that stuff," Tabor said. "I can honestly say he's one of the most down-to-earth players I've ever coached. Even now, he's got a million things going on. But when I send him a text, I know he'll get back to me sooner rather than later. That's just the way he is."
Andrews switched from wide receiver to tight end as a freshman at Oklahoma. His size and agility made the move a no-brainer.
"I saw the writing on the wall that I could make a living at that position," Andrews said. "I was 230 pounds. I was already as big as some of the tight ends there."
At Oklahoma, Andrews had 19 receptions and seven touchdowns as a freshman, 31 receptions and seven touchdowns as a sophomore, and 62 catches for 958 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior. He was clearly ready for the NFL draft, but Martha was more nervous than her son during the draft process.
"The draft was insane," Martha said, recalling the experience of watching it with Mark, surrounded by family and friends. "In our mind, Mark's the best tight end there is. So every name that goes by is a stressful thing. You have no control. I'm a mother of four. I try to control everything."
Martha wanted Mark to be drafted by a team close to Arizona. So how did she react when the Ravens called?
"I burst into tears because it was so far away," Martha said. "I was glad the process was over, but…?"
However, there was a silver lining. One of Andrews' closest friends from Oklahoma, offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., was also drafted in the third round by the Ravens (83rd pick), three picks before Andrews. Brown has a brother who also suffers from Type 1 diabetes, so Brown is familiar with Andrews' health challenges and what to look out for.
Brown and Andrews have lockers next to each other in the Ravens' practice facility. They are often seen laughing and talking before or after practice. They love continuing their friendship as teammates from college into the NFL, and Brown is not surprised Andrews has become a factor on offense so quickly.
"It was the same at Oklahoma," Brown said. "Mark can play, and you always know he's going to be serious and work hard."
Meanwhile, Martha has quickly come around to the idea of her son playing in Baltimore.
"To me, it's the answer to prayer, because I know Orlando and Mark have each other's backs," Martha said. "And the organization has been nothing but wonderful to us."
The Ravens used their top pick in the draft on another tight end, Hayden Hurst, who missed the first three games with a stress fracture. Hurst returned to practice this week, but Andrews has done enough to carve out a role in the offense moving forward.
"It's a great tight end room, two vets like Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle to show us the ropes, and two young guys in Hayden and myself," Andrews said. "We get Hayden back, and we'll be that much stronger."
Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg likes to use two tight-end sets, and Head Coach John Harbaugh has compared Andrews' potential to former New York Giants Pro Bowl tight end Mark Bavaro. A bruising tight end known for his sure hands and ability to break tackles, Bavaro was a two-time Pro Bowler who helped the Giants win two Super Bowls.
"Some of the older guys on the sideline were calling him 'Bavaro,'' Harbaugh said. "And then Mark asked me, 'What's that mean?' And I'm like, 'You've never heard of Mark Bavaro?' I told him to google Mark Bavaro."
Andrews may not know Bavaro, but he knows about the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. He looks forward to being part of it Sunday night, feeling it will be like playing in the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry, where the intensity level was always high.
Before the game, Andrews will have his usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich to help manage his blood sugar levels. He hopes his platform as an NFL player will inspire youngsters who have been diagnosed with diabetes.
"That's huge for me, something that's dear to my heart," Andrews said. "I'm on a stage, being in the NFL. For a lot of reasons, I want to make the most of it."