NEW ORLEANS — Bryant McKinnie stood in the middle of the Superdome and marveled at the spectacle that surrounded him.
Behind the Baltimore Ravens giant left tackle, several of the team's most notable stars were seated individually at raised tables. Each space featured huge name plates and was surrounded by a blockade designed to keep the throng of interviewers at a reasonable distance. It was, after all, media day at the Super Bowl.
McKinnie looked over his shoulder in amusement. His assignment Tuesday was to simply to stand among the masses and field questions from people who crowded in with microphones held high to catch a few words from the 6-foot-8, 354-pounder.
Those who kept their arms raised long enough to hear McKinnie tell the story of his season were rewarded with quite a tale, one that began with a pay cut and ended with a starting role in his first NFL championship game.
"It's been a long, strange journey, but I like the way it's ending so far," McKinnie said. "One step farther, I can complete it with a ring."
Before starting his 11th training camp in the NFL, McKinnie was asked to accept less money because the Ravens needed to clear some salary-cap space. After a good bit of grumbling, he was OK with an incentive-laden contract.
But McKinnie's run of 60 straight starts ended in the opener, when coach John Harbaugh opted to start Michael Oher at left tackle and use McKinnie solely as a backup.
In his unaccustomed role off the bench, McKinnie hurt his hip in a game against Dallas on Oct. 14. When right tackle Kelechi Osemele got hurt the following week in Houston, McKinnie got the chance to steal away a starting spot. But he aggravated his hip injury and ended up back on the bench. One week after another went by without the opportunity to start.
Finally, before the season finale against Cincinnati, McKinnie was told by Harbaugh to prove he was healthy.
"The coach was like, 'Show me that you're healed. Show me that you can move,'" McKinnie recalled. "In the Cincinnati game, he said, 'I'm going to let you play, show me you're back healthy.'"
McKinnie came off the bench and played well. In that game, left guard Jah Reid hurt his toe and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. So, in the playoff opener against Indianapolis, the Ravens put McKinnie back at his old left tackle spot, moved Oher to right tackle and plugged Osemele into Reid's spot.
It proved to be a winning combination. Now 3-0 with McKinnie as a starter, the Ravens look to complete their run Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
"This is a great reward," McKinnie said. "I waited for my time and was able to step in there and help the team go to where it wants to be."
Funny how things work in the NFL.
"What's Bryant been through can't be overstated," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "All year, to sit and wait and wait. To his credit, he kept himself ready, kept himself in shape. He kept himself mentally ready to go. He didn't play all year, and here's (Indianapolis end) Dwight Freeney. The next week, here's (Denver's) Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The man's done a great job. It's a tribute to his attitude and work ethic."
Maybe it's because of Reid's toe, or perhaps it was just McKinnie's time. Whatever the reason, Baltimore's offensive front is better than it's been all season.
"McKinnie has played well for them, and it had a domino effect," San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "They put Oher at right tackle, who's playing right tackle better than the guy they had in there. They moved (Osemele) to left guard and he's playing that position better than the guy they had in there."
The 33-year-old McKinnie, meanwhile, is feeling the benefit of limited playing time from September through December.
"I'm fresher than anybody else," he said.
His task in the Super Bowl will be to help neutralize 49ers right tackle Justin Smith, a 12-year veteran playing with a partially torn left triceps.
"McKinnie has been a good player in this league for a long time," Smith said. "I think the run they've been on, he's out there playing real good football. The mix of their offensive line right now is really working for them. They're playing the best football when they need it."