Bryant McKinnie stood in the middle of the Superdome this week 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 nameplates 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 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-pound who was a first-round draft pick of the Vikings.
"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 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 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 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, 33, 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 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."
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.
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