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When Gino Gradkowski got the call from the Ravens in the fourth round of this year’s draft, he knew Baltimore was an ideal destination.
“It’s a perfect spot for me,” Gradkowski said minutes after the Ravens took him with the 98th-overall pick.
Not only will he compete for a starting job right away at left guard, but he’ll also get a chance to learn under six-time Pro Bowler and one of the league’s most respected players in 15-year veteran Matt Birk.
“It’s exciting to go in and learn behind the best center in the game right now in Matt Birk,” Gradkowski said Friday. “I just can’t wait to meet him.”
Gradkowski, a Delaware product, played center and both guard positions in college.
Birk has a clear hold on the center spot this season, but Gradkowski will challenge second-year lineman Jah Reid and fellow rookie Kelechi Osemele for the starting left guard job.
“I’m going to go in there and I’m going to compete and do all I can,” Gradkowski said. “Wherever they want me to play, I’ll play. I can play either guard, as well as center. I’m excited to get to work and learn the offense.”
In terms of the long-term projection, Gradkowski is likely the center of the future.
Birk contemplated retirement this offseason, but ultimately decided to return and signed a three-year deal with the Ravens. He will turn 36 before the start of next season, but the exact number of years he has left is up in the air.
Regardless of how much longer Birk continues to play, Gradkowski said that he’s looking forward to learning as much as possible from his veteran teammate this year.
“Anytime you can play with a guy that’s had success in the NFL, you have to definitely watch what he does and learn from him from how he handles himself on and off the field,” Gradkowski said. “I’ll definitely be monitoring and watching him.”
Birk shares Gradkowski’s enthusiasm about working together.
“In my career, when I was a young player, especially a rookie, I relied on the older guys a lot,” said Birk, who played his first 11 seasons in Minnesota. “I was lucky I was with a team and a group of guys that didn’t mind taking me under their wing a little bit, sharing information and really taking an interest in me and caring and trying to help me get better. I don’t think that’s always the case. I’ve never forgotten that.
“As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve always tried to be that guy for younger players by offering any type of information I can.”
That learning process will extend beyond football, as Birk has a strong reputation off the field. Last year he was named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year, which honors players for their work in communities.
“Matt just seems like a great guy and a great person,” Gradkowski said. “The NFL is fortunate to have guys like Matt Birk, who show the public that these NFL players do great things and that sometimes gets overlooked.”
Playing with Birk wasn’t the only draw to Baltimore for Gradkowski.
The Ravens showed interest in him throughout the pre-draft process, and from the time he visited the team’s facility in Baltimore, Gradkowksi hoped to end up in a Ravens jersey.
“After I left there, I loved it,” Gradkowski said. “The coaches, the scouts, the personnel – everybody that I met – it was a first-class visit and it was a great organization. It was definitely one of the places that I wanted to be because they play great football in Baltimore and they win.”
The one challenge with coming to Baltimore, however, was that Gradkowski is a Pittsburgh native and has taken plenty of flack from his friends for going to the Ravens.
“I’ve been catching some heat about being a Raven now,” Gradkowski said. “But they’re all just kidding around and happy for me, and hopefully we’ll have a lot more Ravens fans in Pittsburgh now.”
Gradkowski said he is looking forward to playing his part in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry.
“That’s just great football,” Gradkowski said. “The Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry is one of the greatest rivalries in sports today, and I can’t wait to come to Heinz Field and I can’t wait to have the Steelers come to Baltimore. It’s very exciting. It’s a bitter rivalry and it’s a lot of fun to play in rivalries like that.”
Before getting that chance against the Steelers, Gradkowski emphasized that his first job is to make the team coming out of training camp.
After that, he said his focus will be on filling whatever role the team needs and learning as much as possible from the veterans in the locker room.
“I just want to do what I can to help the team,” Gradkowsi said. “Obviously I want to be a playoff team, win the division, win the conference, I’d love to win the Super Bowl. It’s all about winning and going in there and learning behind those veteran guys and doing all you can to help the team.”