Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Friday, August 7, 2009

Army vet hopes combat experiences translates to battles on the field with Ravens

The bursts of ammunition fire, the explosions of bombs, the smoke and the extreme danger of a sand-strewn battlefield are no longer Tony Fein's daily reality.

Fein was a recon scout in the Army, an infantry man who was traditionally the first one to check out potential areas to attack or avoid before reporting back his findings to his commander. He was the eyes, ears and first line of defense for his unit.Shortly after graduating from high school, Fein's existence was defined by the mortal danger of combat. And he was entrusted with the grave importance of being responsible for his fellow soldiers' lives.

Now, the Iraq veteran is a 27-year-old undrafted rookie linebacker trying to make the Baltimore Ravens' roster."Being in the military really was a life-changing experience," Fein said. "It makes you grow up fast. It teaches you a lot about teamwork and doing your job. "It's kind of similar to football. Everyone has to do their exact job. It's the same thing in the military. The Army is the ultimate team, and that falls right in line with football."

The aggressive mentality and the rare awareness of playing linebacker come naturally to Fein, but the opportunity to step onto an NFL practice field certainly didn't.His road to the NFL has been an arduous, winding path filled with twists and turns.Fein enlisted in the Army at age 19 after graduating from high school in Port Orchard, Wash. He served in the Persian Gulf primarily as a Delta scout before being honorably discharged after a three-year enlistment.His goal was to earn some money to attend college after a short stint as a roofer.

In Iraq, Fein witnessed destruction as well as hungry people without the necessities most take for granted like electricity, food and running water."I thought the military would allow me to serve my country and see the world," Fein said. "It's been tough, but I wouldn't trade it for anything else. I love what the experience did for me.

“It means a lot to me. It really puts things in perspective. You take nothing for granted. It's part of my life that I'm very proud of."After his Army stint, Fein attended Scottsdale Community College (Ariz.), and emerged as a junior-college All-American selection.

Ranked second nationally at his position, Fein chose Ole Miss over Michigan State.The former high school quarterback finished second on the team in tackles as a junior, but was benched for a short period. Then, Fein was nearly booted off the team by new Rebels coach Houston Nutt before eventually winning over the coaching staff with his work ethic.

It was Fein who recorded a pivotal tackle in the Rebels' upset victory over then top-ranked Florida prior to a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech last season. Fein also won the Pat Tillman award, which is presented to a college athlete who has fought on a battlefield like the late Arizona Cardinals safety who was accidentally killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

However, Fein went undrafted after not being invited to the NFL scouting combine. At Ole Miss' campus Pro Day, Fein opened some eyes when he bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds and registered a vertical leap of 37 1/2 inches and a 10-1 broad jump.

"I think my Pro Day helped me to get my foot in the door here," Fein said. "Physically, I know I can compete at this level, but it's all about the mental game. I'm doing good, but I'm a little behind some of the other guys."

Fein was the only one from a group of 10 tryout players to be signed by the Ravens in June. Now, he faces an uphill climb to make the roster. Tough and physical, he has to harness his aggressiveness by honing his understanding of the game and instincts.

"We got him late in the offseason, so he was behind mentally," linebackers coach Vic Fangio said. "He's been behind mentally compared to the other guys because he hasn't had as many reps. "We've got him playing Mike and Will, and he's doing a good job of picking up the system. I think as he gets more comfortable in his assignments, he'll do even better. He's a very tough kid."

With heavily tattooed arms, the ink tells Fein's story.One has the words, "One life, one love, one shot," surrounding a picture of a football. Another has the saying, "Until I'm the best, until I know I'm the best, then and only then can I become civil again."

"They're just mottos that I live by," Fein said. "They're all meaningful to me."Very few of his teammates are aware of Fein's military experience except for offensive tackle Michael Oher and fullback Jason Cook, his former Ole Miss teammates and fellow Baltimore rookies."No one has really asked me to relive the Army stuff,” he said. “I'm just glad to be here.”

The rigors of training camp are a grind, but Fein views it all as a prime opportunity.

There’s nowhere else he would rather be than using his body as a battering ram on the practice fields at McDaniel College.

For Fein, playing in the NFL is yet another battle to be won.

"Football is a game, an important game," Fein said. "The military is life and death, but there are parallels. You work hard, you sweat, you get dirty. I have never forgotten that mentality because that's what got me here. "Being in the military let me know how important football was in my life. I want to make this time count, I want to make it last."

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