McKinnie’s ‘strange journey’ ends in Super Bowl

Bryant McKinnie stood in the middle of the Superdome and

marveled at the spectacle that surrounded him.

Behind the Baltimore Ravens giant left tackle, several of the

team’s most notable stars were seated individually at raised

tables. Each space featured huge name plates and was surrounded by

a blockade designed to keep the throng of interviewers at a

reasonable distance. It was, after all, media day at the Super

Bowl.

McKinnie looked over his shoulder in amusement. His assignment

Tuesday was to simply to stand among the masses and field questions

from people who crowded in with microphones held high to catch a

few words from the 6-foot-8, 354-pounder.

Those who kept their arms raised long enough to hear McKinnie

tell the story of his season were rewarded with quite a tale, one

that began with a pay cut and ended with a starting role in his

first NFL championship game.

”It’s been a long, strange journey, but I like the way it’s

ending so far,” McKinnie said. ”One step farther, I can complete

it with a ring.”

Before starting his 11th training camp in the NFL, McKinnie was

asked to accept less money because the Ravens needed to clear some

salary-cap space. After a good bit of grumbling, he was OK with an

incentive-laden contract.

But McKinnie’s run of 60 straight starts ended in the opener,

when coach John Harbaugh opted to start Michael Oher at left tackle

and use McKinnie solely as a backup.

In his unaccustomed role off the bench, McKinnie hurt his hip in

a game against Dallas on Oct. 14. When right tackle Kelechi Osemele

got hurt the following week in Houston, McKinnie got the chance to

steal away a starting spot. But he aggravated his hip injury and

ended up back on the bench. One week after another went by without

the opportunity to start.

Finally, before the season finale against Cincinnati, McKinnie

was told by Harbaugh to prove he was healthy.

”The coach was like, `Show me that you’re healed. Show me that

you can move,”’ McKinnie recalled. ”In the Cincinnati game, he

said, `I’m going to let you play, show me you’re back

healthy.”’

McKinnie came off the bench and played well. In that game, left

guard Jah Reid hurt his toe and was subsequently placed on injured

reserve. So, in the playoff opener against Indianapolis, the Ravens

put McKinnie back at his old left tackle spot, moved Oher to right

tackle and plugged Osemele into Reid’s spot.

It proved to be a winning combination. Now 3-0 with McKinnie as

a starter, the Ravens look to complete their run Sunday against the

San Francisco 49ers.

”This is a great reward,” McKinnie said. ”I waited for my

time and was able to step in there and help the team go to where it

wants to be.”

Funny how things work in the NFL.

”What’s Bryant been through can’t be overstated,” Ravens

center Matt Birk said. ”All year, to sit and wait and wait. To his

credit, he kept himself ready, kept himself in shape. He kept

himself mentally ready to go. He didn’t play all year, and here’s

(Indianapolis end) Dwight Freeney. The next week, here’s (Denver’s)

Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The man’s done a great job. It’s a

tribute to his attitude and work ethic.”

Maybe it’s because of Reid’s toe, or perhaps it was just

McKinnie’s time. Whatever the reason, Baltimore’s offensive front

is better than it’s been all season.

”McKinnie has played well for them, and it had a domino

effect,” San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

”They put Oher at right tackle, who’s playing right tackle better

than the guy they had in there. They moved (Osemele) to left guard

and he’s playing that position better than the guy they had in

there.”

The 33-year-old McKinnie, meanwhile, is feeling the benefit of

limited playing time from September through December.

”I’m fresher than anybody else,” he said.

His task in the Super Bowl will be to help neutralize 49ers

right tackle Justin Smith, a 12-year veteran playing with a

partially torn left triceps.

”McKinnie has been a good player in this league for a long

time,” Smith said. ”I think the run they’ve been on, he’s out

there playing real good football. The mix of their offensive line

right now is really working for them. They’re playing the best

football when they need it.”