XLV: B.J. Raji dancing his way to stardom
January, 25, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireB.J. Raji's interception return for a touchdown Sunday proved to be the game-winning score.B.J. Raji crossed into the Soldier Field end zone, glanced at the side judge to confirm he had just scored his first NFL touchdown and then made a startling realization.
He had nothing planned.
The Green Bay Packers' budding showman resorted to instinct, rolling his hips like a belly dancer while celebrating the score that proved the final margin of victory this past Sunday in his team's 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. Listed at 337 pounds, Raji officially became the biggest man to score a postseason touchdown in NFL history, based on records kept by the Elias Sports Bureau. (You can watch the video here.)
"Football is a game of reactions," he said. "I just reacted and had fun with it."
American sports culture has long had, uh, a soft spot for large men who do surprising things. Exactly 25 years ago, William "The Refrigerator" Perry stole the show in the Chicago Bears' run-up to Super Bowl XX. Raji has better teeth and more of a nuanced personality, but otherwise the man who is calling himself -- yes -- "The Freezer" is set to emerge as one of the fresh personalities on the scene of Super Bowl XLV.
"The guy has some style," marveled Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
Before we get too carried away with the style, however, let's be clear about the substance: Raji had an exceptional inaugural season as the Packers' full-time nose tackle after making the move from defensive end. He ranked third among NFL interior linemen with 6.5 sacks and proved his durability by playing on nearly 85 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps, according to the trackers at Pro Football Focus. That percentage, based on a total that includes plays wiped out by penalty, was the third-highest in the NFL among defensive linemen.
AP Photo/Amy SancettaB.J. Raji has drawn comparisons to William "The Refrigerator" Perry, who burst onto the scene during the Bears' run to the Super Bowl XX crown.
Raji literally served as the rock of a defensive line that was otherwise debilitated by injuries to four players expected to play significant roles. Cullen Jenkins (five games), Ryan Pickett (two), Mike Neal (14) and Justin Harrell (15) were all sidelined for significant segments of the season. Raji, on the other hand, missed only an average of five plays per game.
You could attribute part of that durability to Raji's young legs. At 24, he is only two years removed from Boston College. But it should also dispel any notion that Raji is just a top-heavy, if lovable, big man. He is obviously well-conditioned and, despite the extensive workload, has appeared as spry as ever during the Packers' stretch run. In the Packers' past six games, in fact, Raji has four sacks, has knocked down three passes and intercepted a fourth.
"He's played tremendously for us [in that stretch] and been a real key factor," defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters on Sunday.
In fact, the Packers were so confident in Raji's conditioning that they recently added a Fridge-like role to his repertoire. In each of their past two playoff games, Raji has entered the game on offense as an extra fullback in the most jumbo-sized goal-line package you'll ever see. (It also includes reserve offensive lineman T.J. Lang as a tight end and fullbacks Quinn Johnson and John Kuhn as the other men in the backfield.)
Both plays have resulted in touchdowns. The first instance came in the Packers' Jan. 15 divisional playoff game at the Atlanta Falcons, a game for which Raji happened to be mic'd for NFL Films. If you haven't watched the resulting video, it's worth your time.
You'll see Raji admitting that "I didn't block nobody" after bursting through the line ahead of Kuhn on the result. Later, a Packers staff member approached Raji on the sideline and suggested he looked like the Fridge.
"I'm the Freezer," Raji responds.
Personally, I'm partial to "The Garaji" as a nickname, but I'm guessing "The Freezer" has already taken off.
"I was making a joke, just making light of the situation and having a good time with it," Raji said.
The same could be said of his post-touchdown celebration Sunday, which he said has generated "a slew" of offers for lessons and other suggestions to improve for the next time. Coach Mike McCarthy joked (I think) that he gave Raji "two minuses" on his grading chart on the interception -- one for holding the ball away from his body during the runback and another for the dance.
"The dance is a little bit undesirable," McCarthy said.
So what's next for Raji? Most importantly, the Packers are counting on him to anchor their defense against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that scored 37 points on them during a 2009 meeting. Bleah. That alone would be so boring.
Will Raji get a handoff out of that goal-line set? How about a play-action pass? Clearly he has the skills. And this week marks the 25th anniversary of Perry's 1-yard scoring plunge in the Bears' Super Bowl XX rout of the New England Patriots. At a listed 318 pounds, Perry had the record Raji now owns, according to Elias.
"B.J.'s a very good athlete," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "He's the kind of guy that despite his size, he's a pretty good basketball player, that sort of thing. He's blessed with a lot of God-given gifts."
I'm betting that includes the capacity for a better post-touchdown celebration.
"Who knows?" Raji said. "You'll have to see."
The world is waiting, B.J. The world is waiting.