Boston College's Raji eyeing ACC title after taking long road back
B.J. Raji missed last season after a miscommunication regarding required classes
Raji is leading Boston College with four sacks and six tackles for loss this season
BC (5-1) battles North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday
WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Upon meeting B.J. Raji in 2007, Jeff Jagodzinski, who had left the Green Bay Packers to return to Boston College as head coach, sized up the NFL prospect and said his weight -- which was 350 pounds at the time -- was unacceptable. Wanting his top lineman to shed 25 pounds, Jagodzinski charged strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo helping Raji reach that goal. When the 6-foot-1 defensive tackle downsized to 330, Jagodzinski had him wear a 12-pound vest during a summer workout. "I thought I was fine for this level," Raji says, "he put things in perspective."
Ready for a run at the professional ranks last season, Raji -- who leads BC with four sacks this year -- never got out of the blocks. During the final days of training camp in August, Raji was informed that he may not be eligible for the opener. Though an associate dean in the college of arts and sciences had assured Raji that he needed to take two courses over the summer to fulfill the NCAA's "satisfactory progress" rule, the truth was that he needed three. Just before going on the bus to the local hotel where the team stays the night before home games, Jagodzinski called Raji into his office and informed him that he could not play.
"I guess after the prayer in the locker room would have been the only worse timing to find out," BC defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani says. "It was pretty devastating for the guys."
Ruled ineligible for the season, he could still practice on the scout team. Word spread quickly that Raji, masquerading as the opposition, was giving the first-team offensive linemen fits, but his gamedays were different. For the opener, he stood as a fan in Alumni Stadium, but thereafter, unable to handle the atmosphere of waiting, he watched each game, both home and away, on television. While the team started 8-0, Raji was in the weight room by six o'clock on Friday and Saturday mornings, lifting with fellow redshirts, injured players and walk-ons. "All I wanted was to play on Saturdays," Raji says. "I'd complete all of the regular workouts and then have to do extra. It hurt not to be out there."
The redshirt look was en vogue in Raji's dorm room. Brian Toal, a starting linebacker who grew up 10 minutes away from Raji in the white-collar town of Wyckoff, N.J., had undergone surgery on his right shoulder the previous winter and was out for the season. Playing behind Raji, Toal, who entered BC as a more highly-touted recruit than Raji in the same freshman class, had benefited from the double teams the wide-bodied tackle attracted. Now they were left to motivate each other. "We should have had an armed guard protecting their room like a vault," says Spaziani, whose defense keyed an appearance in the ACC title game. "Those were two high-priced investments in there."
Bill McGovern, BC's linebacker coach who spearheaded Toal and Raji's recruitments, identified Raji's blue-chip potential before his stock took off. As a freshman and sophomore at Westwood (N.J.) Regional High, Raji played basketball, but one day a coach told him that his prospects were limited for playing at the college level. "I guess reality struck when I stopped growing," Raji says. "I wasn't going to be Allen Iverson."
The son of two Pentecostal pastors, Raji concentrated on football. As a freshman, Westwood won the state title, and, in working with J.T. Turner, a former New York Giant who assisted with the linemen, Raji developed and received offers from Rutgers, Wisconsin and BC. With a solid verbal commitment intact, McGovern asked to drop by the Raji house the week before national Signing Day to go over the letter of intent in February 2004. Calling ahead, he tried first for a Tuesday appointment, but the mother said the family would be hosting other folks that day. McGovern then tried for Wednesday. Again, the mother said there would be visitors. Growing suspicious of other suitors making a last-minute push through the family's door, McGovern, asked, if they didn't mind telling, who was coming in.
"Nike on Tuesday, Adidas on Wednesday and Converse on Thursday," the mother said. Not in line to see B.J., foot soldiers from the shoe companies wanted to land his younger brother Corey, who is now a 6-foot-6, 214-pound sophomore forward in BC's basketball program, for their AAU team. "There's always people coming and going in our house," the mother says.
When informed of his ineligibility last August, the older brother came across his sibling outside the school's athletic complex, and started to cry. Later, when he told his mother what happened in the nearby hotel parking lot, he asked, "Why are they doing this to me?"
Standing nearby, the father, who migrated from Nigeria and is studying for a doctorate in theology and divinity, comforted his son. "From now on we are going to call you Joseph," the father said, referencing a biblical character. "He went through struggles only to find a blessing in the end."
Last Saturday, Raji, whose first name, Busari, is Nigerian for bliss, witnessed another setback. Toal, who had come back in the best shape of his career, broke his leg on a first quarter play where the former roommates combined for a tackle against Virginia Tech. A day later, it was announced that the fifth-year linebacker's season was over.
Staring down a Toal-less road, Raji, who entertained the idea of going pro last season, still thinks the Eagles are ready for another run at the ACC title. "We're three points from being undefeated," says Raji, who will lead BC at North Carolina on Saturday. "The title game in Tampa's the end of the line right now."