King Of The Trenches
In Kelly Gregg's world, be prepared to bring a lunch bucket and work overtime
By Kevin Heitz
He's been called Buddy Lee, but he looks more like a cross between Chris Farley and Larry the Cable Guy -- kind of like that fat, hairy guy on your street that mows his lawn with no shirt. But then he slaps on shoulder pads, flashes a cocky Oklahoma "you betcha" smile and flexes biceps the size of a normal man's thigh.
Kelly Gregg has been considered one of the most underrated players in the NFL longer than the definition should allow. But that doesn't bother him -- "I don’t mind being underrated. It's better than being overrated.
"It's just the way the business is, it's like that -- big flashy guys, and I'm really not that. All I care about is the fans, coaches and players."
And while casual observers may not always see Gregg's value, those who play with and against him certainly know how vital the eighth-year nose tackle is to the Ravens defense.
"To the fans he's underrated because he doesn't have a glamorous job," line mate Trevor Pryce said. "But the guys that play against him know he's phenomenal. We know how valuable he is. And I think that’s most important to him. There's no one here that can do what he does. It's uncanny how good he is."
Not one to worry about individual honors like Pro Bowl berths (of which he has none), Gregg just goes out every Sunday and does his job.
"Kelly is a huge key," fellow defensive lineman Justin Bannan said. "He plays that nose guard position better than anybody, He's a smart player. You never have to worry about a guy like that. He's always going to do his job.
"It's kind of ridiculous. If you look at the numbers the guy has put up over the years. [The lack of recognition] baffles me. No one else puts those numbers up in the league; he deserves that recognition."
Opposing coaches hunkered down in film rooms recognized Gregg's importance to the Ravens long before fans.
“I think Kelly is what you want to be at the end of the day. We all want to be called an overachiever as opposed to the other, and I think Kelly has always been an overachiever in everything he’s done in his life," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who was the Ravens' defensive coordinator during Gregg's first two years with the team.
"He’s very talented; he’s more talented than people give him credit because he’s a good athlete. Yet, he continues to achieve greatness all the time. He plays hard, he plays sound, he’s got great leverage, and he uses his hands well. That’s why he’s been so very productive.”
This past offseason Sports Illustrated's Peter King ranked the best players in the NFL and Gregg -- the "greatest overachiever in the league," according to King -- ranked 83rd, three spots ahead of linebacker Ray Lewis. But if you think he rubbed in his higher ranking to Ray Ray, you don't know Kelly Gregg.
"It was pretty cool, man,” he said. “I can't get drawn into that kind of stuff, but it's nice to get that [recognition]. But you've still got to improve yourself every time you go out."
So how does a small-town Oklahoma boy with a body that looks better built for tailgating than football end up holding up the middle of one of the league's best defenses?
Linebacker Bart Scott says it's because Gregg is a perfectionist.
"It's fundamentals,” he said. “He'll out-technique you. He's just smart -- never makes a bad decision. He's always in the right position. He doesn’t make mistakes."
Fans and teammates can count on Gregg to quietly perfect his craft and do whatever he can to help the team win. And when he does get one of his numerous stops behind the line of scrimmage, count on him to keep the celebration simple -- hike his pants up to his chin and get ready for the next play.
"He works so hard at what he does," Pryce said. "He's a professional. He's damn good at his job. He's better at his job than anybody else on this team is at theirs."
At Edmond North High School in Oklahoma, Gregg was named to the All-State team as a junior and senior and was a three-time wrestling state champion -- in, you guessed it, the Heavyweight division -- and he uses many of the fundamentals learned on the mat to succeed on the gridiron.
"Leverage and hand position are huge on the line. Wrestling definitely helped," he said.
At 6 feet and 310 pounds, Gregg doesn't look like a towering NFL monster, but he has always used his stature to his advantage. "I've got built-in leverage," he said. "I think my height helps me out a lot."
"If you grew up in Oklahoma, you always wanted to play for the Sooners," Gregg said. And he did more than just play at the University of Oklahoma -- he flat-out dominated opposing linemen. Gregg holds the school record for most tackles for a loss in a season (24 in 1998). At a position not known for flashy tackling stats, the sociology major seemed to be everywhere on the field and capped his college career with a 117-tackle senior season.
Bannan, who has the neighboring locker at the Ravens' Palace in Owings Mills, saw Gregg's dominance first hand as a Colorado Buffalo.
"He led the whole team in tackles,” Bannan said. “And he made like every tackle when we played them. You just don't see that. I knew that guy would be playing years down the road."
Leading into the 1999 draft, the NFL Combine -- hardly a favorite activity for any player -- was not kind to Gregg.
"It was terrible,” he said. “There were dudes like 6-5 or 6-7 and I was little. I didn't do very good at the Combine… that’s not my style. I'd rather let my play talk for me. To get in the league and get a shot, that's all I ever wanted."
He got that shot when he was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. And when the call came, Gregg was where anyone who knows him would expect -- at home with his family.
Telling Gregg's agent that they didn't think he could be a player in the NFL, the Bengals waived the rookie and he spent the '99 season on Cincinnati's practice squad. He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason and spent the summer playing in NFL Europe for the Rhein Fire, where he led the team with six sacks and finished third with 40 tackles.
Prior to the 2000 season, the Eagles waived Gregg with plans to re-sign him to the practice squad. Gregg made his way to Baltimore instead, turning down more money to be reunited with Rex Ryan, who coached Gregg his senior season at Oklahoma and was then the Ravens defensive like coach. Ryan had pushed Ozzie Newsome to draft Gregg a year earlier, and even though the Ravens were well-stocked at nose tackle with Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams clogging the middle, Baltimore signed Gregg to the practice squad.
While he was nowhere near his predecessors' textbook nose tackle size (Adams, 6-foot-3, 350 pounds, and Siragusa, 6-foot-3, 340), Gregg made the roster after a year of impressing coaches with his intensity in practice, and he appeared in eight games in 2001. By 2002 he was the fulltime starter. The quiet leader of Baltimore's defense started every game that year and has only missed two games since.
"The way football works is kind of like everything else: The middle has to hold everything else up," Pryce said. "It's almost like the human body, your core is the most important thing. And Kelly is our core."
Often nose tackles in the NFL are behemoths of men, placed in the middle of the line for the sole purpose of clogging the inside to free up linebackers, but Gregg uses his athleticism to do so much more.
"He does the dirty work and yet he also makes plays,” Ryan said. “He's had more than 100 tackles two or three times in his career. He's not just a guy that takes up space. He makes plays. And he's probably the hardest guy in the league to knock off his feet.
"It's just now people are starting to recognize the fact that he's better than any tackle in the league."
While shunning the spotlight, Gregg has become the second-leading tackler in Ravens history with 551 and leads all interior linemen in tackles since 2002. Yet you won't see Gregg on TV hawking Fatheads to hang in garages or game rooms. There aren’t posters of nose tackles hanging above little Jimmy's bed, but the men in the middle are the keys that start the defensive engine -- and Gregg's engine never stops.
His motor has one speed, and apparently no off switch. Gregg ties his shoes with the same intensity he uses to chase down opposing players.
“When you look at him, you see he is a character,” said center Mike Flynn. “He wears his pants to the middle of his chest, always has his shirt off, and he is built like a bulldog. You wonder, 'Who is this guy?' Then you play against him, and you see this guy is for real. He has great technique. He’s not the tallest guy with the greatest size, but he has great hands, holds the point [of attack] well and knows how to play the double team well. He’s a great player, but first of all, he has a motor and always goes hard. Late in the season, that gets to be a pain.”
Amazingly, each week people still ask, "Who is this guy?" despite Gregg's 46 tackles and two sacks already this season.
Loyal is a word often used to describe Gregg. Family -- a wife and two sons -- comes first with Gregg, but football is a close second. "The guy's extremely loyal … first of all to his family,” defensive end Jarret Johnson said. “But also to his team. His whole D-line. A great guy to have on your team.”
His loyalty will continue for at least a few more years. The Ravens signed Gregg to a four-year contract extension this past April.
"I love the way [Baltimore fans] embrace their football," Gregg said "They're with us; they love their Ravens. There's nothing better than playing at home here."
He is a fan favorite, the guy you want to go fishing with or belly up to the bar with during a game.
And one of Ravens fans' favorite plays this season -- and Gregg's, no doubt -- may have been the Gus Frerotte-fumbled ball that Gregg snatched out of mid-air against the Rams in Week 6 with the end zone a mere 30 yards away. Could the nose tackle who has defied the odds his whole career score a rare touchdown? Gregg would be lying if he said the thought didn't cross his mind.
"The winds could have blown me over, I was so nervous," he said. He didn't get the touchdown, but it was one of many key plays by Gregg in that game that led to the Ravens' victory.
Gregg may get another chance to scamper for a score sometime in his career, but if he doesn't, he'll just keep toiling among giants at the line of scrimmage while continuing to amaze people with his ability.
“I love that guys underestimate me because of my height, and that works to my advantage," Gregg said before the season. "People are always trying to bring you down, but if you do what you are supposed to do, who cares about your size? I just keep working hard. If I wasn’t playing in the NFL, I’d be trying to get in a game back home on the sidewalk.”
He's the lunch pail-toting working man on a blue collar defense. Baltimore fans can relate to the guy who goes out there, does his job, makes the entire unit work because of his skill, and gets less recognition than others. And that's just the way he likes it.
That's Baltimore, and that's Kelly Gregg.
Issue 2.44: November 1, 2007