As the Super Bowl prepares to kick off in New Orleans, a pair of former Catawba County prep football players reflect on their time with the Baltimore Ravens before Sunday's big game.
Former Bandys and Virginia Tech wide receiver Justin Harper, as well as former Hickory High and University of Tennessee fullback/linebacker Austin Johnson, have both been involved with the Ravens organization during their playing careers.
Harper, a seventh round pick by Baltimore in the 2008 NFL Draft, remembers the first call he received from the team during draft day.
“I was actually on the phone with Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan,” Harper said. “He just had said that the Broncos didn’t have any more picks, but they wanted to sign me to a free agent con- tract. I had another call come in, and it was Baltimore. They asked me how I was doing. I told them to hold on for a second because I was getting another call from the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens told me I didn’t need to answer because they were about to take me with the 215th pick. That was pretty cool.”
Despite not being drafted out of the University of Tennessee in the 2012 NFL Draft, Johnson kept in close contact with Baltimore and was set to join the team as a rookie free agent. However, a torn labrum found in Johnson’s left shoulder during a rou- tine physical caused the Ravens to rescind their three-year contract offer.
Johnson said he enjoyed his brief two-week stint in May 2012 with the Ravens.
“I went to their facility, and it was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “The reason I went to Baltimore is because they seemed to want me the most. When I was choosing colleges, Tennessee was the team that kept coming after me and visiting me at school. During the draft, Baltimore kept calling me and saying they wanted to draft me and weren’t sure they could take me. They called me in the seventh round and said they were going to take me with their last pick, but they didn’t. I was mad at them because they teased me, but they called me right after their pick and said they wanted me really bad and were sorry they couldn’t get me.
“They have a very well-organized organization,” Johnson added. “Their facilities are state of the art. They are very high class. They treat football like a business. They have their schedule down of where you needed to be and when. They knew the kind of guys they wanted to bring in.”
Part of the first-ever draft class by the newly hired John Harbaugh, Harper said he and the new head Raven bonded almost instantly.
“Me and him clicked really well,” Harper said. “He is one of those sticklers. He gets straight to the point. He wants things done a certain way. He was raised in a football family. He definitely knows what he is talking about. When I got drafted, that was his first year in Baltimore. They used to call us ‘the Harbaugh Regime.’ We were the first guys that came in with him. Seeing how he grabbed that locker room and how those guys flocked to him, I knew he is a special man.”
Johnson was also impressed with Harbaugh when the two communicated with one another.
“I talked to him through text messages,” Johnson said. “After I signed, he texted me ‘Welcome to the Ravens.’ He sent me emails and all of the other guys that signed. He seemed like a great guy. Any coach that is going to reach out to not only the guys that got drafted, but the guys that were long shots to make the team is special. He wanted his whole team to believe in his system and what he was going to do.”
In Harper’s draft class were two current pieces of the Ravens dynamic offense, including quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice.
Harper said both players are “down to Earth.” “Ray Rice was a youngster coming out of Rutgers his junior year,” Harper said. “He was the young one out of the whole group. Joe was just ‘Jersey Joe.’ He was calm, cool and collected. I was actually at the NFL Combine with Joe. I’ll never forget there were a couple of times I ran routes and teamed up with Joe. I can remember saying then that he had one of the strongest arms at the combine.”
The player that touched Harper’s career the most, however, was linebacker Ray Lewis.
Before he left the Ravens in 2011, Harper exchanged jerseys and autographs with Lewis, who is retiring after his appearance in Super Bowl XLVII.
Harper said Lewis is a father figure in Baltimore’s locker room.
“He is one of those men that is a blessing,” Harper said. “I remember coming into the locker room and going by his locker. I would ask him questions. It could be anything. With him being the greatest player in my era to ever play the game, why not be able to talk to him and pick his brain. That’s somebody I’ve got that I can send a text message to, and he will send me one back with encouragement and things of that nature. He is a dynamic man, plus he doesn’t have a problem telling his story and past. That is what I model my life after — being able to tell people my past and let kids understand that you have to go through struggles to be able to get somewhere. He is definitely one of those great motivational speakers. He is one of those men that you want to keep a relationship with for the rest of your life.”
Potentially playing with Lewis was something that enticed Johnson to want to play for the Ravens.
“It definitely was an attraction to go to Baltimore and have a chance to learn behind Ray,” Johnson said. “When they called me, they said I’ll be learning from Ray Lewis, but they were selling me on how good their defensive line was.”
After having surgery on his torn labrum and rehabbing the injury, Johnson signed a future’s contract with the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 7, 2013. Johnson said the Ravens’ Super Bowl appearance at the site of his future team is a little bitter sweet.
“I definitely wished my shoulder had held up, and I would have been able to sign with the Ravens,” he said.“If I had been blessed enough to make the team, I would be in the Super Bowl right now. They are in New Orleans, and it was interesting to sign with the Saints a couple of weeks ago.”
A diehard San Francisco fan growing up, Harper believes the team that drafted him will ultimately come away victorious in Sunday’s contest.
“I was one of the biggest fans of San Francisco’s Jerry Rice and Ricky Waters,” Harper said. “I got drafted by Baltimore and became one of the biggest Ravens fans. They are my family, too. I’m definitely rooting for Baltimore. I definitely think they are going to pull it out.”