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NEW ORLEANS – Brendon Ayanbadejo arrived in the Crescent City on Monday on the Baltimore Ravens' team plane, and if it felt like more than the usual tailwind was facilitating his flight, it's tough to blame the veteran linebacker.
With the underdog Ravens having prevailed in road playoff victories over the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots – and Ayanbadejo's improbable professional football journey possibly culminating in a Super Bowl XLVII appearance against the San Francisco 49ers – it's little wonder that the veteran linebacker and special-teams ace feels "an incredible energy, like there's something extra ordinary going on driving this team to win."
By all appearances, Ayanbadejo, 36, is living the dream. He's about to play in his second Super Bowl, this time with a platform to speak his mind on causes ranging from gay-marriage advocacy to a push for ALS research. He's riding shotgun, literally and figuratively, as his close friend and teammate, legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, takes his "last ride." And he's now in the second decade of an NFL career that seemed highly improbable after he was cut by three NFL teams, had stints in NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League, and still hadn't appeared in an NFL game by his 27th birthday.
And yet, as he soaks up the spotlight and cherishes his professional success, Ayanbadejo is anxiously awaiting a far more important – and scary – event: Sometime this spring his 22-month-old son, Amadeus Prime, will undergo major surgery to correct a congenital heart condition known as Atrial Septal Defect (ASD). Until that daunting medical procedure to address the hole in his son's heart is successfully completed, Ayanbadejo won't truly feel like a winner.
"Really, nothing else is important," Ayanbadejo told Y! Sports. "This is one of the biggest weeks of my life – it's the pinnacle of professional greatness – but if he's not healthy, then there is no greatness. After the operation, then I'll really celebrate."
Ayanbadejo, who also has a 6-year-old daughter, Anaya, learned of his son's condition shortly after his birth. The surgery should resolve it, though he's obviously nervous about the operation. For now, he's enjoying a child that the proud father describes as perfect.
"You can't have created a more magnificent creature," Ayanbadejo says of his son. "He has the brightest blue eyes you've ever seen, and big, juicy lips. And he's an incredibly smart kid. He potty-trained himself, two months ago; he just decided to take off his diaper and sit down on the toilet."
In the meantime, Ayanbadejo will resume his role as a vocal leader in a gridiron cause celebre that's expected to extend to a guest stint on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" later this month. Among the topics of conversation he'll address at Tuesday's media day is his fervent support of gay rights, including his campaigning for a recently passed initiative in the state of Maryland legalizing same-sex marriage.
Ayanbadejo's unconventional path to the podium included a residential stint at a UC Santa Cruz dormitory that served as a sort of unofficial safe harbor for LGBT students in the late 1980s.
"Our [stepfather] was basically a dorm dad – the technical term was a 'preceptor' – and we had gay, lesbian and bisexual members in the dorm," recalls Brendon's older brother Obafemi, who spent 10 years as a fullback and special teams ace for four NFL teams. "And, for them, it was kind of a peace haven. Santa Cruz was a very progressive place, from social to holistic issues, and that environment really prepped us for where the country is going now."
Born in Nigeria, the Ayanbadejos (including their sister, Rosalinda Sanford) lived in a Chicago housing project before moving to California. Lightly recruited out of Santa Cruz High School, Brendon parlayed a stint in junior college to a scholarship at UCLA, where he first became a public advocate for social causes, speaking out against the campus' declining number of minority students.
Undrafted out of college, Ayanbadejo had stints on the practice squads of the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears before signing with the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, later joining the Toronto Argonauts. He spent part of the 2001 offseason with the Ravens (where Femi, his brother, was celebrating his part in the team's Super Bowl XXXV championship) before heading to NFL Europe to play for the Amsterdam Admirals.
By the time he returned to the CFL for a 2002 stint with the BC Lions, Brendon was confronting the distinct possibility that his NFL aspirations would never be realized.
"I always dreamed about making the NFL, but once things started out as rocky as they started out, it was tough to hold onto that dream," he says. "I always thought I was a big star, but after being cut by my first three teams I thought, 'Maybe this isn't for me. Maybe I'm not as good as I think I am.' "
Ayanbadejo enrolled in LSAT-prep classes and pondered a career as a lawyer while shining for the Lions, earning CFL All-Star honors. That piqued the curiosity of several NFL teams, and some clairvoyant advice helped Ayanbadejo make his next move.
"I went to a Fijian psychic in Vancouver named Annar," Ayanbadejo recalls. "I needed an appointment weeks in advance to see her. She told me, 'Your brother is surrounded by palm trees right now. You're gonna go there and you'll join him.' I didn't know what she meant. Afterward, I called my brother and he said, 'I'm in Miami – I'm about to sign with the Dolphins.' I said, 'Oh [expletive]!' "
As Dolphins teammates in '03, the Ayanbadejos shared an apartment – but not a mutually agreed upon approach to excellence.
"He was one of the first guys at the facility every day," Brendon says of Femi. "I was one of the last. He taught me all the things that professionals do, from weighlifting to nutrition to work ethic."
Recalls Femi, a former undrafted free agent from San Diego State who'd fought his way into the league and became a productive player on the Ravens' championship team in 2000: "I used to get on his ass, dude. We had a two-bedroom apartment, and he was on one side of the house and I was on the other. And when his door was closed, I knew he was sleeping. Trust me, I would leave and his door would be closed. I would come home and his door would still be closed. He likes to get his sleep.
"I would give him [expletive] all the time, like, 'What the [expletive] are you doing?' I'd already lifted, and he would hop out of bed and roll in right before meetings started. After practice, I'd go back to the facility and ride the bike and do extra cardio. He'd be sleeping. That dude can sleep the day away."
Eventually, Brendon adapted, improving his work ethic and working his way onto the roster after several players ahead of him on the depth chart went down with injuries. "I promise you, he was probably the ninth linebacker on a depth chart of 10," Femi recalls. "But guys went down, he performed, and three years later, he was going to his first Pro Bowl."
By that time Brendon had been traded to the Bears, earning consecutive Pro Bowl selections as a special teamer in the 2006 and '07 seasons. As part of the team's Super Bowl XLI run, which ended with a 29-17 defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, he experienced the intensive media coverage that comes with an appearance in The Ultimate Game.
Back then, gay-marriage advocacy was hardly a popular topic.
"I remember talking about it a little bit when I went to the Super Bowl with the Saints [in February 2010]," recalls Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who has also been an outspoken advocate for social causes. "To see how far we've come, with people like Brendon having spoken out – it's completely changed the conversation in the course of a couple of years. I'm really proud of him. People are always searching for these underlying stories the week of the Super Bowl, so it's nice to see something with positive change as the message, rather than just a breakdown of the two teams."
Ayanbadejo, who made a third consecutive Pro Bowl after signing with the Ravens in '08, admits there have been times when he has been nervous about how his outspoken views would be received in Baltimore's locker room. "When Emmett Burns put me on blast," he says, "I walked into the facility on eggshells."
That was a reference to the Maryland politician and minister who wrote a letter to owner Steve Bisciotti to take the "necessary action" to silence his employee on the issue. The Ravens publicly supported Ayanbadejo, who continued to campaign for a Maryland ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. Whatever role he might have played in facilitating last November's passage of Question 6, he says, "was probably my biggest off-the-field accomplishment."
Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Ayanbadejo said he hoped to downplay his views on the subject because he didn't want to detract from the team's focus heading into Sunday's game.
"This is the most important week of my career," he said. "My advocacy is important to me, but this time and moment are purely about my teammates, the organization and my family."
Ayanbadejo, who has two years remaining on his contract but is contemplating retirement, is unsure what the future holds. He plans to get his MBA and is also exploring broadcasting as a post-football career, but his primary post-Super Bowl focus will be on Amadeus' impending heart surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
"He's an amazing child," Ayanbadejo says. "He's got such a great future ahead of him."
The immediate future, of course, is quite scary for the Ayanbadejo family. On Super Sunday, the linebacker who so often speaks from the heart will be playing with a heavy one – and looking forward to the day when he can truly celebrate his son's recovery.
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