Once, twice, three times a title
Ravens center Jeff Mitchell comes home determined to play and win. Kipp Vickers returns with similar intentions.
|[Times photo: Kevin White]
Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer lines up behind center Jeff Mitchell (60) and guard Kipp Vickers (77). Mitchell is from Countryside High and a former Gator. Vickers is from Tarpon Springs and played at Miami.
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Jeff Mitchell played in a national championship game for a losing team. He stood on the sideline in another championship game for a winning team. This week, he wants to get it exactly right.
That would be on the field, near his home and winning a Super Bowl.
"We had two chances at Florida. One turned out to be disastrous, we got whipped. And the other one I wasn't a part of," Mitchell said. "It's nice to be a part of this. It's nice to be getting this chance."
The Countryside High graduate had his first shot at a national championship ring in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1995 season, but the Gators were beaten 62-24 by Nebraska. The following season, Florida beat Florida State for the title in the Sugar Bowl, but Mitchell missed the season's final two months with an ankle injury.
If those games were a prelude to Super Bowl XXXV, the script is turning out nicely. Mitchell will be the starting center for the Ravens in a stadium 15 minutes from his Hillsborough home on the day before his 27th birthday.
"You're supposed to come into a season thinking and assuming you're going to get to the Super Bowl, but I'd be lying if I said I expected this," Mitchell said. "It's still kind of surreal. Until you actually get this far, it just seems like such a far-off thing."
It seems particularly distant from Mitchell's early days in the NFL. After the ankle injury at the end of his senior season, Mitchell was a fifth-round draft pick of the Ravens in 1997. A month into training camp, he was wondering if he would make it to 1998.
Mitchell tore the ACL in his left knee in training camp and missed the season. Anxious to see if he could make the transition to the NFL, the injury did little for his confidence.
A building construction major, Mitchell already was contemplating a move into the business world before his first professional game.
"It wasn't just the knee, I really didn't know if I could last in the league. I only had three weeks of training camp behind me. I still wasn't sure I could play at this level," Mitchell said "I wanted to be ready to go to work in the real world if I had to."
Mitchell can stop worrying about his resume. After rehabilitation in 1997, Mitchell won the starting job in training camp in '98. He shared the position with Wally Williams for much of that season but took over in 1999.
Other factors had an impact, but Baltimore's three-game losing streak this season coincided with an ankle injury that knocked Mitchell out of two games. Including the playoffs, the Ravens are 26-17 with Mitchell as a starter. They are 3-5 without him.
For a change, his timing could not be better. He not only reached the Super Bowl with the game near his home, he is heading into free agency after the game. Mitchell said Baltimore will be high on his list of teams in the off-season, but he plans to test the market.
"I'm feeling pretty good right now," he said. "I'm healthy, I'm playing well and we're winning."
Mitchell is not the only Pinellas County product on the Ravens offensive line. Kipp Vickers, who played at Tarpon Springs High and Miami, has been a versatile backup for Baltimore.
Vickers, 31, has played right tackle, left guard, right guard and special teams this season. He started only two games but carried a heavy workload in practices.
"When you play one position, that's what you study in meetings. I have to know what's going on with everybody," Vickers said. "If (the coaches are) talking to the tackles, I listen to that. If they're talking to the guards, I listen to that. I have to know what's going on across the board.
"It's not easy, but nobody wants to hear that when you call the play. The guy across from me doesn't care if I had to learn more than one postion, he is still going to try to beat my butt."
Vickers is accustomed to playing in January. With the Hurricanes, he won a pair of national championships. Since coming to the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 1993, he has reached the playoffs with the Colts, Redskins and the Ravens.
When the Ravens beat the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago, Vickers was pressed into action when left guard Edwin Mulitalo was sidelined with a concussion. Coach Brian Billick was so impressed with Vickers' relief duty, he gave him a game ball.
"I had no idea that was coming. I wanted to come and watch film just to see how I did, because I had no idea," Vickers said. "I was happy we won, but I was anxious to sit down and see what I could have done better. Then (Billick) starts talking and the next thing I know I have a game ball."
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