Sunday, May 17, 2009

BJ Raji - Packer Player Profile

B.J. Raji stood outside the Boston College Sports Complex and unsuccessfully tried to hold back the tears. Just two days before the end of training camp in 2007, he had just been told he was academically ineligible to play football for the entire 2007 season.

It wasn’t because of his grades. An academic advisor had miscalculated his credits, and through no fault of his own, Raji was three credits short of the NCAA’s requirements. It would become a test of his character, and one that he would pass with an A+.

B.J. Raji, whose real name is Busari, grew up in Washington Township, NJ, the oldest of three children. His father had emigrated from Nigeria to the USA, where both parents are Pentecostal ministers.

He attended Westwood Regional High School in Bergen County NJ, where besides football, he played basketball for two years. He gave up basketball when he realized “I wasn’t going to get any taller, and I wasn’t going to be Allen Iverson.”

On the football team, he was a three-year starter on both offense and defense, and received some personal tutoring from former NY Giant J.T. Turner.

Raji broke out in his senior year, recording 75 tackles, 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He earned NJ All-State honors and was selected to play in the Governor’s Bowl, where top HS seniors from New Jersey and New York compete before their college careers begin.

Raji received offers from several Division I colleges, including Wisconsin (ironically) and Rutgers. He chose Boston College because he liked the campus, and they have a strong recruiting presence in North Jersey.

As a freshman with the Eagles, Raji cracked the DL rotation and appeared in eight games.

His sophomore year, he started all 12 contests at right defensive tackle, registering 27 tackles (20 solos), 1.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup.

As junior year rolled around, Raji’s weight had ballooned to 350 pounds. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski insisted he get down to the 320-330 range by the season’s start, and B.J. did just that.

He went on to have a solid, if unspectacular season, earning second team All-ACC honors. He finished the season having started 12 games, with 23 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

Raji was primed for his senior season, working incredibly hard in the offseason and reporting to training camp 20 pounds lighter than the previous year. As training camp drew to a close, he got the horrible news about his academic ineligibility.

“The first week or two, I said to myself, “Man, this is going to be tough,” Raji told The Boston Globe before the 2008 season. “But then I decided that I could use this for better or worse, depending on what I did. I made the decision to make things better by turning my attention to my schoolwork and trying to make the best of it.”

He also decided to help out however he could. He participated in every practice, playing for the scout team and handing out pointers to the guys actually playing in games.

“There wasn’t any sulking about it,” his defensive-line coach, Jeff Comissiong, said. “It helped him to understand that he needed to prioritize things in his life. It helped him mature quite a bit. And his teammates had more respect for him because of it. He was doing everything he can to help out. It was fun having him around because it was like having another coach around.”

Raji got through that difficult year and came back stronger and more motivated than ever. Projected as a third round draft choice before his final season, he moved up into first round territory with a fantastic senior year.

For much of 2008, Raji was unblockable and showed what a truly dominant force he can be when in shape and motivated. He played in 13 games and recorded 42 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks from the defensive tackle position.

Raji was invited to, and played in, the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. He had a superb week of practice and game play. He often outworked, and embarrassed some of the best guard and center prospects in the draft. That showing safely moved Raji into the top half of the first round.

Next, at the NFL Scouting Combine, Raji bench pressed 225 lbs., 33 times, which was fifth best amongst all 53 defensive lineman, and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.13 seconds, not bad for someone who weighs 337 pounds. He raised some eyebrows when he displayed a lot more quickness in the drills than was expected.

Raji quickly became a favorite of Green Bay Packers fans for their first selection with the ninth pick of the draft. For once, the fans and the Packers’ GM were on the same page. Raji was selected by Ted Thompson and the Packer faithful rejoiced. For many Packer fans, I think Raji stirs memories of Gilbert Brown.

With a new actor in the starring role, could this script be called “Return of the Gravedigger”?

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: NFL Touchdown, Packers Lounge, Packer Chatters , Jersey Al’s Blog and Bleacher Report.

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