At its roots, football is a game of strength and toughness in the trenches. Those are areas Baltimore Ravens tight end Billy Bajema excels.
Drafted in the seventh round in 2005 out of Oklahoma State, Bajema has carved out a nice eight-year NFL career despite being a one-dimensional tight end in an era when elite tight ends routinely haul in 60 to 100 receptions a season.
Bajema has 38 catches. For his entire career. He didn't record a reception last year in 11 games with the Ravens, including the playoffs. The previous season, he compiled only nine catches in 16 games with the St. Louis Rams.
The stat that stands out is Bajema has started 51 of 114 NFL games. It's evidence there's still a place for tight ends that produce running lanes and provide pass protection.
“I've tried to establish myself as the type of player who will help the team win, whether that's being a tough blocker or making sure our quarterback doesn't get hit,” Bajema said. “I've also always played on special teams. I'll do whatever I can to help. I think that's helped me stick around.”
Coming off a season he won a Super Bowl ring after seven years of playing for teams that didn't advance to the playoffs, Bajema once again is battling for a roster spot.
Ravens star tight end Dennis Pitta is out with a hip injury. Baltimore, though, signed 34-year-old tight end Dallas Clark last week after signing 33-year-old Visanthe Shiancoe before training camp.
Bajema is listed fourth on the official depth chart but has run with the first team some during camp. NFL offenses these days mandate having a pass-catching tight end. Bajema, though, is what coaches refer to as “a football player.”
Mike Whaley is the director of officials for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. His previous job was Westmoore football coach. The best player he ever coach was Billy Bajema.
“I can't speak for the NFL level, but he's always been a guy who will outwork everyone,” Whaley said. “He has the competitiveness, heart and desire to do whatever it takes.”
Whaley said Bajema's athleticism is underrated. His senior year at Westmoore, Bajema was the Jaguars starting quarterback. He also played defensive end, a terror on the D-line. A standout baseball player, Bajema preferred football over pursuing a pro baseball career.
“My entire time at Westmoore he never lost a sprint. Ever. Never lost,” Whaley said. “It didn't make a difference what group he was running with.”
Bajema's first taste of playing tight end was in the Oil Bowl, which matched Oklahoma and Texas high school all-stars a couple of months before they left for college.
“He played tight end for four days, and it was if he'd played it his whole life,” Whaley said. “He can block anything standing in front of him. A lot of blocking is about five percent technique, 95 percent want-to.”
Bajema, who lives in Edmond during the offseason, played a similar role at OSU during the Les Miles era. Bajema recorded 52 career receptions with the Cowboys, notching a career high 20 catches his senior year. He was Miles' kind of a player, a tight end who excelled in the jumbo goal-line package.
One of Bajema's strength's is his strength. Before his senior season at OSU, Bajema set weight room records for a tight end, including a 675-pound squat.
“It all goes back to his work ethic,” Whaley said. “If the workout was four sets of 10, he did five sets of 15. That's just the way he's wired. Whatever coaches require he'll always do a little more.”
That also applied to the classroom and applies to the NFL film study. An ESPN Academic All-American his senior year, Bajema graduated with a 3.7 GPA in a double major — pre-med and business.
“He's one of the three or four smartest guys I've ever been around,” Whaley said. “He's not going to make mental mistakes. It's just not going to happen. Plus, he's going to work hard at everything. To model that in front of everyone, how can that not be valuable to a team?”
Because it was future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis' final season, some labeled the Ravens a team of destiny last year. Baltimore lost four of its final five regular season games but got on a roll in the playoffs.
Following a win over Indianapolis in the wild-card round, the Ravens won a double-overtime classic in Denver. Baltimore posted a 28-13 win over the Patriots in the AFC title game and held on 34-31 against San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
“I bought into we were a team of destiny,” Bajema said. “In the playoffs we always felt we'd find a way to win. Obviously, there were some games it seemed it shouldn't happen, no way we were going to win, especially that Denver game. That was the craziest game I've ever played in.”
Bajema, who will turn 31 during the season, said winning a Super Bowl ring is something he'll always cherish.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Bajema said. “Playing in the Super Bowl, then winning it, that's something you dream about since you were a little kid.”
The Ravens are replacing longtime defensive stalwarts Ed Reed and Lewis. But in the watered down AFC, with Denver dealing with Von Miller's suspension and injuries, there might not be a clear-cut favorite.
“This year is a new journey. We've put last year behind us,” Bajema said. “We're focused on our goals this year. We still have a great team. It's a new team. You have to build like we did last year. It starts with hard work.”
After his senior year at OSU, Bajema had no idea if he could make an NFL roster. His backup plan was to cash in an Academic All-American $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. Instead, he's preparing for his ninth NFL season.
“When my career is done I'll look back and feel very blessed to have the opportunity to play as long as I have,” Bajema said. “I always wanted to play in the NFL. To still be playing, and play on a team that won the Super Bowl, has been a tremendous blessing.”