ARLINGTON, Texas -- He was the ninth overall selection in the 2009 NFL draft. He started every game for the NFC's top defense in 2010. He has an engaging personality, a ready smile and a quick wit.
But few football fans probably knew B.J. Raji's name until the 6-foot-2, 337-pound nose tackle dropped into coverage, intercepted Caleb Hanie's pass and ran 18 yards for the touchdown that clinched Green Bay's victory over Chicago in the NFC championship game and put the Packers in their first Super Bowl in 13 years.
With that surprisingly athletic play and his subsequent celebration dance, the 24-year-old son of a Nigerian immigrant father was a celebrity. Raji was dubbed "The Freezer," a play on the nickname of hefty defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears. T-shirts were printed that read "The Freezer Keeps My Cheese Safe" and "Teach Me How to Raji," as well as a more risque other one.
"I can't endorse that one," said the smiling Raji, whose parents are both Penecostal ministers in New Jersey. "My mom's excited about all this. The Daily News, The New York Post and ESPN are coming to my house in Jersey. Guys that are close to me, they have the right to give me some (grief), but most people are excited for me. I don't go dancing a lot, but I can move a little bit."
Not that the big play by the big man didn't prompt teasing from his teammates. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins said that Raji's rumble to the end zone caused an earthquake akin to the ground-shaking reaction by the Seattle fans after Marshawn Lynch's touchdown run that sealed the Seahawks' upset of defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the wild-card round.
Raji just laughed when he heard what Jenkins had said, but Packers defensive line coach Mike Trogovac is intent on making sure that his pupil's newfound fame doesn't go to his head.
"B.J. has the potential to be one of the best in the league, but he has to keep doing the things that don't get noticed and not focus on the kind of play he made against the Bears," Trgovac said. "He didn't realize how close he came to losing the ball the way he was holding it. B.J. has taken a big step forward this year. He played a completely different defense in college (a 4-3 scheme at Boston College).
"He held out for a long time as a rookie and then he hurt his ankle in our preseason game at Tennessee which set him back for a while. And he was moving back and forth between end and the nose during the season. When we started work this offseason, we told B.J, 'You're the nose' and he went to work. He has played well."
Indeed, Raji was credited with 66 tackles, the most by a Packers defensive lineman. His 6.5 sacks were the most for any NFL nose tackle and were fourth among all interior linemen. However, Green Bay's ranking of 18th against the run shows that the former All-ACC pick isn't a finished product quite yet.
"This is my first year starting," Raji said. "Anybody can have one good season. It takes time. I know I have great ability, but I'm constantly working on my craft. I feel like I'm versatile. I don't think we can win (Sunday against the Steelers) if I'm not playing well.
"That means they're getting movement, they're getting to the second level on our linebackers. It can't be good for us if I don't get penetration, if I'm not getting push on the pocket and sustaining double-teams."
Backup nose tackle Howard Green, who has been bouncing around the NFL for nine years, said that Raji is more athletic than players were at the position when he debuted in 2002 and is also understanding the mental aspect of the game ahead of schedule.
"B.J.'s a young talent and he's starting to get it in just his second year," Green said. "You still want a big guy, but it's becoming a hybrid position with 340-pound guys who are more agile and can rush the passer. I tell the young guys, 'You've got the physical tools. The game is mostly mental.' The game is played in your mind before it's played on the field. If you can anticipate what's going to happen out there, it makes you that much faster."
On his signature play at Soldier Field, Raji both anticipated and ran faster than expected. But although the position has evolved from the days of pure space-eaters like Tony Siragusa, the nose of the Baltimore Ravens' feared Super Bowl champion defense a decade ago, as Trgovac said, the basics remain.
"There have been changes, but it's still about being physical, occupying blockers, doing the unselfish things and letting the other guys make the plays," Trgovac said.
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