- - Monday, May 28, 2012

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Courtney Upshaw looked out of his bottom-floor apartment window on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

There it was, a massive, swirling tornado moving through the city April 27, 2011. He didn’t want to believe one was rolling through the city and in his direction, even after a friend called to let him know. When he saw it, he ran to the bathroom for cover.

After the tornado passed through, Upshaw walked outside and saw the destruction the twister left behind. In Tuscaloosa alone, 53 people were killed. The EF-5 tornado ravaged the city’s downtown and campus districts, destroying many family businesses and homes. Upshaw, poised to enter his senior season as a linebacker at Alabama, felt fortunate. He survived and still had a place he could call home. Shortly after, Upshaw decided to use his name to create The 41 Fund — 41 being his jersey number at Alabama — to help raise money and supplies for those afflicted.

“A lot of people lost their homes and needed supplies,” Upshaw said. “I always told myself if I was ever to make it [in the NFL] that I would start something for little kids. But when the tornado hit, it gave me the opportunity to use my name for something. We ended up raising a lot of money and a lot of stuff that people needed.”

At first, Upshaw had to make his intentions known to the NCAA before handling any kind of money. Once he was given the OK, he teamed up with Alabama judge Bernard Smithart to help organize events. Upshaw took pictures and signed autographs for fans at Wal-Marts in Alabama towns Eufaula (Upshaw’s hometown) and Alexander City. In return, he asked that those who came donate money or household items.

That kind of character is part of the reason Baltimore was keen to the idea of selecting Upshaw with its first pick in the 2012 draft. Not only was Upshaw a star linebacker for the national champion Crimson Tide, but he had the initiative to reach out to his community.

At Alabama, Upshaw wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks in the SEC. In 2012 alone, Upshaw finished the season with 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Former Florida quarterback John Brantley, who signed an offseason deal with Baltimore, said it was tough to prepare against Upshaw.

“He’s definitely one of those guys that shows up on your scouting report,” Brantley said. “He’s one of the top guys you want to gameplan around.”

Many draft pundits figured Upshaw would go in the first round before Baltimore had a chance to take him at No. 29. But when it was the Ravens’ pick, they traded their slot to the Minnesota Vikings for the third selection of the second round and a fourth-rounder. Upshaw, hoping to be a first-round selection, was forced to wait until the second day of the draft after his name wasn’t called. But Baltimore took him quickly on Day 2, the 35th overall pick.

“I got a little frustrated after Day 1 with the trade of the pick.” Upshaw said. “But I got there the next day and was hoping Baltimore would pick me, and they did. It all fell into place at the end of the day.”

Upshaw initially had a battle for the starting strongside linebacker spot with Paul Kruger lined up. That has since changed. When NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon, it became clear Upshaw would need to prepare as a starter the moment the team practiced for the first time.

For now, Kruger is taking over Suggs’ rush linebacker spot while Upshaw receives most of the reps at strongside. Upshaw didn’t drop much into coverage in college but said he has the skill to do so. Veteran inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo noticed Upshaw’s versatility to play the position but said he needs fine-tuning before the season starts.

“That’s the thing we’re working on, getting his instincts a little bit better,” Ayanbadejo said. “Sometimes he stays on them a little too long and might get outflanked. But it’s a brand new defense, a new scheme. you can see his athletic ability and the physical talent already. He just has to learn the scheme a little more.”

By playing at a school such as Alabama, Upshaw is accustomed to the added pressure on game days. From now until the beginning of the NFL season, many will be watching Upshaw to see how he elevates his game with Suggs out.

Coach John Harbaugh commended Upshaw’s transition thus far in rookie minicamp and organized team activities.

“He is really sharp, really knows football,” Harbaugh said. “He does all the things that you might not expect a bigger guy to do. He does those things well. He gets into coverage well. He’s just a quick learner. He’s off to a good start.”

With Suggs out when the season starts, Upshaw said he has to continue to play within the realm of his game.

“You can’t replace Suggs,” Upshaw said. “Everybody has to come in as a team. I know the veteran leadership on this team is not going to allow slack on my part or anybody else. Everybody needs to step up.”

On April 27, 2011, Upshaw was hiding in his apartment’s bathroom, in fear of the Tuscaloosa tornado. On April 27, 2012, Upshaw was selected by the Ravens. Though he’s packed his bags and moved for the time being, he hasn’t forgotten about the victims, many of whom still are affected today. Whenever he gets downtime in the foreseeable future, Upshaw plans raise more money in his home state.

“As soon as I’m able to, we’re going to start it back up,” he said.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide