Perched behind the wheel of his Dodge Ram pickup truck, Kelly Gregg was driving by himself, but he wasn't alone.
Riding shotgun next to him—seatbelt and all—on this July 2004 trip from his beloved Oklahoma home to his professional one in Baltimore was an urn containing the ashes of his father, Terry. The man whose unyielding work ethic inspired Gregg to never stop pushing his body or his will had just passed away from cancer of the liver, nose, and kidneys that took him with a chilling swiftness. Diagnosed in February, he was gone by June.
It was Terry who first assured Kelly that football could take him places in life, when most people were telling him he was too small to play big time ball. Now, as Gregg drove east toward yet another training camp with the Baltimore Ravens, for whom he was an established starter and would soon become a star, memories of his father raced through his head.
"There was not much conversation," he says of the ride. "But it was something I felt I had to do. He was the best dad. He always kept us loose, you always felt secure, even when he was sick. I always thought he was gonna lick it. If we were doing yard work or doing anything, he said, 'Work hard and get the job done.'"
It's a mantra that defensive tackle Gregg has lived by through thick and thin, one he's leaned on throughout an NFL odyssey that has seen him transform himself from a twice-released journeyman to a vital cornerstone of one of the league's consistently-best defenses.
The savvy fans in Baltimore have taken notice. Despite a lack of accolades and fanfare from the national media, Gregg has become a somewhat unlikely favorite with the Raven faithful.
Four years after his journey with his father's ashes, Gregg arrives at this year's training camp in Westminster as something of a star. Not a superstar, mind you. But a smattering of No. 97 Gregg jerseys can be spotted in the stands among the purple sea of Lewis 52s and Reed 20s.
"He has the best work ethic I've ever seen," says Jason Fischer, 23, who came from Ellicott City to watch Gregg practice. "He doesn't have the flash or the charisma, but he should be a Pro Bowler every year."
It's an astute observation, one that Ravens all-world linebacker Ray Lewis agrees with wholeheartedly.
"Kelly has played at a Pro Bowl level for the past three or four years, and should be viewed as one of the best defensive linemen in the league," Lewis says. "I know we view him that way. Without Kelly Gregg, there is no Ray Lewis, or Bart Scott, or Ed Reed. He means that much to this defense and this team."
Gregg, 31, never dreamed of NFL stardom. As a child in Edmond, OK, his sights were set on following in the footsteps of his father.
"I thought growing up as a kid I'd wrestle, go play football in college, and then become a police officer in Edmond," he says.
Just like Terry.
"That's all I wanted."
For a humble guy rooted in Midwestern modesty, Kelly Gregg has always had a big head. Literally.
Eight pounds, 10 ounces at birth, one particular part of baby Gregg's anatomy really dominated.
"He had a great big head," says his mother, Patrice. "Luckily he grew into it."
And everything else.
"He was a big boy," Patrice says. "He'd eat anything in sight. He always liked to have ranch dressing on everything. He would drink a gallon of milk a day."
The Gregg household was charged with testosterone, and Kelly's football career began the way so many in Oklahoma do, in the yard with his father and older brother.
"As a kid, we always played rough, and football was rough," he says. "I started playing in second grade, but I was so big I had to play with the third graders. I was always a heavy, chunky kid."
He was thick, yes. But not particularly tall. Questions about Gregg's size have dogged him throughout his career.
"Even my high school coaches were saying I might be too short to play college football," he says.
Football always was Gregg's primary sport. His goal was to earn a scholarship so his parents, working-class folks living "from paycheck to paycheck," as Patrice says, wouldn't have to scramble to try to pay for college. In the seventh grade, Gregg took up wrestling after an associate football coach recommended the sport to him.
"I just thought it would be something to keep me in shape during the offseason," he says. "When I first started, I took my bumps. In Oklahoma, wrestling's huge, guys start in second or third grade."
A quick study, it wasn't long before Gregg stopped taking the lumps and started delivering them. In ninth grade, he won the junior-high state championship, and he went on to win three state heavyweight championships and one national championship in high school.
"If you're going to be an interior lineman, the best thing you can do is wrestle," says Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who also coached Gregg during his senior year at the University of Oklahoma. "You have to not only control your body, you've got to control somebody else's, too. His balance is amazing, he's never on the ground unless he's making a tackle. He just doesn't look like the typical defensive lineman, he's about as wide as he is tall. He doesn't quite look the part, but man, once you get over it, he's about as tough as there is. He's probably the strongest Raven. He benches over 550. He's one of the baddest men on the planet."
It wasn't until his third season as a collegiate player that Gregg first began realizing that.
"By my junior year, I played with some guys that were getting drafted, so I thought I had a real good shot at making it," he says.
In 1999, the Cincinnati Bengals took Gregg in the sixth round of the NFL draft, but they released him before he even played a single regular season down. The Philadelphia Eagles signed him, then released him, but Gregg never allowed self-doubt to creep into his mind.
"I always looked at it like when one door shuts, another door opens," he says.
Behind that next—and possibly final—door stood Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, and Gregg's old college coach Rex Ryan.
"I always kept in the back of my mind that if I could just get on the field, I would be fine," he says. "I just needed a shot. Luckily, Ozzie and Rex believed in me. I got my chance."
When the Ravens signed Gregg in 2000, at least one person just knew he had found a home.
"Kelly called me and said, 'Mom, I have a chance to go to Baltimore. Rex Ryan called me, and should I go?'" Patrice recalls. "At that time, I was working for Southwest Airlines, and they didn't have direct flights from Oklahoma City to Cincinnati or Philadelphia, but they did have a direct flight to Baltimore."
She told her son that it was "meant to be."
Gregg spent the 2000 Super Bowl season on the practice squad learning from veteran tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. His non-stop motor and simple country-boy demeanor caught everyone's eye and led then-head coach Brian Billick to nickname him Buddy Lee, after the roundish Lee Jeans advertising icon.
It was 2002 before Gregg got his first shot at extensive playing time, and he immediately cashed in on the opportunity, recording a defensive-line leading 90 tackles. The next season, he registered a career-high 104 tackles, and the Kelly Gregg/Buddy Lee phenomenon burst into full bloom.
"If you look at Kelly Gregg, you see the Baltimore Ravens," says Donnie Stotelmyer, president of Ravens Roost No. 7 in Hagerstown, which honored Gregg with its "Ravens Extra Effort Award" in 2003. "If anybody on the Baltimore Ravens exemplifies extra effort, it's Kelly Gregg. Here's a guy that was just Mr. Energy, extra effort all the time."
The club presented Gregg his award at a dinner banquet during which it also honored its All-Washington County high school football team.
"He stayed to the end, spending time with the kids," Stotelmyer says. "He couldn't believe that we wanted to honor him. After spending the evening with him, if you weren't a Kelly Gregg fan before you walked into that banquet, you were definitely a Kelly Gregg fan at the end of the night."
Gregg's humility is genuine, and definitely contributes to his popularity among the fans. His mother, for one, wouldn't stand for it any other way.
"He better be friendly and not stuck-up; I can't stand that," Patrice says. "We were raised to be friendly, that's the way Oklahoma is."
Just once did a dash of cockiness seem to be in order. As a sophomore in college, Gregg spotted his now-wife Krissy outside a Norman nightclub.
"I told her on our first date that I was going to marry her," he says. "She thought I was a stalker. I sort of scared her off for a couple of days, but she came back."
For good. Eleven years later, the couple has three sons, Wyatt, 5, Ryder, 3, and 6-month-old Maddox.
"I knew when I met him he was the one by the way he treats his mother," Krissy says. "The way he plays football is the way he lives. He doesn't do anything halfway, it's either all or nothing. He's got tunnel vision."
Fatherhood and family are what Gregg calls "the most gratifying part of my life."
"As soon as daddy walks in the door, it's what we call smashing time," Krissy says. "He can be aching, hurting, but every day he makes a point to wrestle with the boys. He's all about making sure every day is special."
Practical jokes often are Gregg's metier, and they seem to take a morbid tone that delights him. Like the time when he was dating Krissy and he enlisted his mom to play dead on the kitchen floor while he sprinkled fake blood everywhere. She laughs about it—now.
"He's a real prankster," Patrice says. One time he called her at work, on the Southwest Airlines toll free number. He put on a fake voice. "He said, 'Ma'am, I need to fly from Buffalo to Phoenix because I just killed my brother,'" Patrice recalls. "I was going crazy but I booked the flight. Finally, he said, 'Mom, it's me! I just wanted to hear your voice.'"
Gregg's sense of humor reflects his philosophy of life.
"There's a time to be serious, but when you're with your family, you always gotta joke around," he says. "Life's too short."
It's the first play of live offense-versus-defense drills at training camp, and as Gregg bursts off the line headed toward the quarterback, his jersey gets ripped near the shoulder pads. He waits on the sideline while an equipment manager tries a makeshift repair job with string, but appears antsy to get back onto the field.
"I still can't believe how much fun playing football is," he says. "I consider myself lucky to be able to play football for a living. There's nothing better than waking up every morning and putting on shorts, not a suit."
That joy, the passion that is so evident in the way he approaches his craft, is not lost on Ravens management. Last year the team came to him with a contract extension offer, and in April 2007 he signed a four-year deal worth a reported $20 million.
Gregg's plans for the money are about as flashy as he is.
"I save everything," he says. "I've got three kids now. When I'm dead, they'll spend it."
It's not an act; life's really that simple for Gregg. As he prepared for the doldrums of another training camp, his thoughts turned, as they have since 2004, to the man who, in large part, made this dream possible.
"I was thinking about him today," Gregg said after the first day of camp. "He was always a big part of my football and my life. He's always with me."
That tear in his practice jersey is too wide, so team personnel have to bring him another No. 97. After he sheds the damaged one and slides—as quickly and smoothly as a 315-pound man in full football pads can slide—into another white one, Gregg throws on his helmet and runs with a giddyup in his step back onto the field.
Back to work.