Hail Mary tip now but a footnote in game of James Ihedigbo's life

Wednesday November 13th, 2013

James Ihedigbo's 'boneheaded' tip on a last-second Hail Mary allowed the Bengals to tie the game.
Nick Wass/AP

Every week, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players and coaches about what it meant, and why it mattered.

My kingdom for a lip-reader.

Whatever it was Jimmy Smith was screaming at James Ihedigbo on the Ravens sideline as the Baltimore-Cincinnati game headed into overtime on Sunday, it wasn't rated G. Ihedigbo, the strong safety, had been terrific ... for 59 minutes and 58 seconds. He'd played the game of his life, buzzing all over the field, racking up nine tackles and two interceptions. And yet, those last two ticks were all anyone was going to remember about this game.

Veins bulging, sulfurous epithets flying, the normally reserved Smith just laid into his teammate. Ihedigbo defended himself, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it. Part of him agreed with Smith. The Ravens were now on the cusp of their fourth straight loss -- a defeat that would devastate their postseason hopes -- thanks to what Ihedigbo himself described as a "bonehead play" he perpetrated at the worst possible moment.

Slow-motion replay was not Ihedigbo's friend. There was Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, at the end of an afternoon Ihedigbo had made miserable for him, stepping into a desperation heave, a Hail Mary with two seconds on the clock. After hanging for an eternity in the wind, the ball made landfall in the middle of a half-dozen tangled, jousting Bengals and Ravens, caroming off the helmet of Cincinnati receiver Marvin Jones, and in the direction of Ihedigbo.

Slow-motion replay gives the impression that Ihedigbo has most of the afternoon to ponder his next move. In real time he has roughly an eighth of a second to react. Up goes his left hand -- "I tried to slap it to the ground," he later explained. The opposite happens: he bats it upward in a gentle arc, on a silver platter, toward A.J. Green, whose hands envelope the ball. A fat usher just beyond the end zone turns away in disgust. A game the Ravens had dominated is now tied. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh collapses into a catcher's squat, grim-faced. On CBS, Dan Dierdorf is browbeating Ihedigbo, preparing the goat's horns. "I can't pretend to know what James Ihedigbo is thinking," he scolds, as if the guy had time to think. On the sideline, Smith, the cornerback, piles on for all the world to see, just in case Ihedigbo doesn't feel lousy enough already.

"It's a play that you go over all the time," Smith said after the game, "and the frustration just came out. I hardly ever get too riled up. That, for some reason, just got to me."

In his postgame press conference, Harbaugh nudged the conversation away from the Hail Mary, reminding reporters that Ihedigbo had played an excellent game; that he is a bright guy -- "a very cerebral player" -- with an incredible backstory: "He's been fighting his whole career for an opportunity like this."

He is the son of Nigerian immigrants whose parents earned Ph.D.s after arriving in this country. After walking on at the University of Massachusetts, Ihedigbo worked his way up to starter, then defensive captain. He made the Jets roster in 2007 as an undrafted free agent, scuffling on the margins of the roster as special teams commando before signing with the Patriots in 2011. He emerged as a key contributor that season, starting 12 games and making 69 tackles. His reward for stepping up? The Pats cut him before the '12 season. Baltimore snapped him up. His intelligence and intensity -- the relentlessness of his play bordering on desperation -- turned heads.

"Even though he's played for two other teams," then-Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo said last season, "he's always played like a Raven."

The departures of Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard following Baltimore's Super Bowl season opened the door for Ihedigbo, who earned the starting job in preseason. He has been swarming, better than solid. Yet it was not until midway through the second quarter of the ninth game of his sixth pro season that he snagged his first interception in the NFL, a Dalton pass down the seam sailing in the wind, into the arms of Ihedigbo. "Pretty exciting to get the first one out of the way," he told Jim Rome, "and just kind of fall into a groove."

He did seem to enter a rarefied zone, thereafter, the ball repeatedly coming to him. His second pick of the day, tipped into his arms by safety Matt Elam with two minutes to play, put the game on ice. Until the final play of regulation, that is, when Ihedigbo did his best impersonation of a volleyball setter, and the Bengals completed their comeback.

Dalton and hulking defensive tackle Domata Peko were all smiles before the overtime coin toss. Ravens captains Haloti Ngata and Jeromy Miles, not so much. Having won the toss, it took the Bengals eight plays to get as far as Baltimore's 33-yard-line, where they encountered a purple wall. On 4th-and-2, the Bengals split Green to the right. Tight end Tyler Eifert lined up in the backfield, alongside dangerous rookie Giovani Bernard.

Recognizing the formation from a play the Bengals had run earlier -- "Oh, they're running it again!" he remembers thinking to himself -- Ihedigbo floored it in the direction of the running back, arriving less than a second after the ball, forcing Bernard to cut back to his left, into heavy traffic, where Corey Graham wrapped his legs and Ihedigbo -- having popped off the ground and sprinted 30 yards in pursuit -- came in high and very hard, stapling the rookie to the turf with ferocity and finality. Minutes later, the Ravens kicked the game-winning field goal.

For the first time in a month, the Ravens had finished. "You gotta make plays, that's what people remember," said Ihedigbo, who was happy and more than a little relieved. The focus could now be on the plays he made in the game of his life, rather than the one he gave up.

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