Super Bowl 2013: Ex-Bruin Ayanbadejo is a person of interest
By MICHAEL LEV / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
No one playing in Super Bowl XLVII has had a more improbable journey than Baltimore’s special-teams standout. But his story doesn’t stop there
NEW ORLEANS – He has appeared in 14 playoff games but never started one.
He is a football player who speaks out about issues that are taboo in football locker rooms.
He is a big-hearted person who worries every day about his son’s heart.
He is … the most interesting man in Super Bowl XLVII.
That man is Brendon Ayanbadejo, the former UCLA linebacker whose long, winding journey through multiple football leagues and countries of the world has led him here, to New Orleans, for another shot at a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens.
Is there any more improbable success story in this game, or even this league? Ayanbadejo went undrafted in 1999, signed with Atlanta and didn’t make the team. He played for Winnipeg, Toronto and B.C. in the CFL, plus Amsterdam in NFL Europe, before ever appearing in a regular-season NFL game. (He also lived for a while in Nigeria, where his father is from. One imagines Ayanbadejo’s passport is inked like Colin Kaepernick’s arms.)
Ayanbadejo finally made an NFL team, the Miami Dolphins, in 2003, four years after he was draft-eligible, turning 27 the day before the season started. He made it because of his prowess on special teams, and that’s still his primary role. At 36, he excels at a job usually reserved for 22- and 23-year-olds.
“Brendon is a very good example of all that’s good about the competitive nature of this league,” said Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens’ assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator. “If you find something you can be really good at, there’s a place for you. His persistence in going through Canada and all the trials in all the other leagues to get here is a testament to his determination.”
Ayanbadejo was close to giving up. He had a standout season for B.C. in 2002, earning CFL All-Pro honors, while also preparing for the LSAT. If he didn’t make an NFL team in ’03, he probably would have gone to law school. But he made the Dolphins roster – which also included his fullback-playing older brother, Obafemi – led the team in special-teams tackles and hasn’t been out of work since.
Ayanbadejo signed with Baltimore in 2008, the same year John Harbaugh and Rosburg arrived, after back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with Chicago. Ayanbadejo has appeared in 156 NFL games. He has started at linebacker only seven times.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” Ayanbadejo said. “I didn’t get a scholarship out of high school. I went to junior college. I wasn’t drafted. Everybody was telling me my whole life that I wasn’t good enough to play the highest caliber of football.”
Ayanbadejo recently took up an underdog cause, and it brought him more notoriety than anything he ever has done on the football field.
Ayanbadejo became a vocal advocate of same-sex marriage, so outspoken on the subject that local politician Emmett C. Burns Jr. sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. The team supported Ayanbadejo, and legislation passed last fall legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland.
Ayanbadejo backed that particular issue because “it’s near and dear to me. It affects everybody. Being the product of a biracial household, the issues to me, they’re all the same. It’s just about equality.”
Ayanbadejo is socially active in general because he believes in “doing the right thing” and “trying to help society.” Many others in professional sports shy away from activism – i.e., controversy – to protect their brands and marketability. Ayanbadejo has no such concerns, even when the position he’s taking is an uncomfortable one in his macho profession.
Gay rights became a hot topic this week when 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made disparaging remarks during a radio interview. He spent the better part of Thursday apologizing.
Although most players here said they would support a gay teammate, no active player in the four major American team sports has come out. Perhaps by the time Ayanbadejo’s children are grown up, someone will have.
“I will love them unconditionally,” Ayanbadejo said of daughter Anaya, 7, and son Amadeus, 22 months. “We believe you’re born the way you’re born. Whatever my kids decide to do and dream about, as long as they love and they get love and they’re happy, I’m going to support them.”
Ayanbadejo describes his son as “the most perfect little creature I’ve ever seen.” But Amadeus has a physical imperfection that could threaten his life.
The child suffers from Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), commonly known as a hole in the heart. His is in such a place that it likely will require open-heart surgery.
“It’s going to test everything that my family is built on,” Ayanbadejo said. “But we’re going to get through it.”
Ayanbadejo finds hope in the fact that the then-infant daughter of former Bears teammate Charles Tillman survived a heart transplant. Ayanbadejo also knows that his son, like his father, is a battler. As part of the diagnostic process, Amadeus had to undergo an MRI. It required him being put under.
“He fought it every second he could,” Ayanbadejo said proudly. “He fought that gas mask to his last breath.”
No matter who wins the game Sunday, Ayanbadejo will get to hug and hold his son soon after. That’s a victory in and of itself.
“Every day I try to kiss him and love him and enjoy him as much as I can, because you never know,” Ayanbadejo said. “Tomorrow’s not promised for any of us.”
So says the ultimate football survivor.
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