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BILLS' RITCHER COMES OF AGE, BOTH ON AND OFF THE FIELD VETERAN GUARD HAVING BEST SEASON OF 11-YEAR CAREER

IT IS ALMOST unthinkable.

Jim Ritcher eating a wine glass? Jim Ritcher breaking a tooth while chomping on a beer mug? Jim Ritcher taking his stance during a practice drill with a mouthful of worms?

Surely, there is some mistake. This can't be the same quiet, unassuming, super straight-laced Jim Ritcher who plays offensive guard for the Buffalo Bills.

Can it?

"I'm afraid so," he says, reluctantly confirming these outrageous scenes from the early days of his 11-year National Football League career.

Back then, Ritcher was a first-round draft pick struggling to find a regular spot on the offensive line.

Through the years, he would undergo some significant changes -- as a person and a player. Glassware was eliminated from his diet. And the struggling was confined to defenders who lined up across from him.

Marriage and the birth of the first of his two sons went a long way toward adjusting Ritcher's behavior.

Ex-linemate Joe Devlin strongly influenced Ritcher's development as a blocker.

"Joe, out of anybody, was probably my biggest supporter back then," the 32-year-old Ritcher recalls. "We had some coaches here who were fine for the older veterans because those guys already knew what was going on. But for a young guy coming in and not knowing the system at all, it was very hard to learn. And Joe pretty much took me under his wing.

"When other people said I wouldn't make it, Joe always had confidence that I would. He always believed in me."

Today, as he nears the end of his eighth consecutive season as a starting left guard, Ritcher has a number of believers in the Bills' dressing room. Despite his failure to snap a career-long Pro Bowl drought, many of his teammates and other observers feel he is playing the best football of his life.

"He's so strong and compact (at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds)," three-time Pro Bowl center Kent Hull says. "He's a nightmare for linebackers because he's built for butting them right under the chin and giving them a ride. He's just a phenomenal straight-ahead blocker on linebackers. He can rock the best ones.

"He's also a great counter-blocker because he can pull so well. He can outrun a lot of people on this football team."

He can also outlift many of them in the weight room.

Not bad for the second-oldest member of the Bills' active roster (after 34-year-old wide receiver James Lofton) and occasional target of what Ritcher calls "grandpa comments."

But his body wasn't always such a finely tuned machine. Ritcher viewed it as a disaster during his rookie year, when he saw little playing time after disappointing coaches with his inability to convert from a veer center at North Carolina State to a pro-style center in the NFL.

"All through college, I had stayed in great shape, but that first year here, I wasn't playing and I let my conditioning go a little bit. As a result, I became fairly fat," he says. "Then, during the off-season, I got myself in pretty good shape. And I've stayed that way ever since."

Ritcher has been equally consistent in his performance.

"For the most part, I haven't let the things that have gone wrong for me during a game continue," he says. "Any mistakes I was making at the beginning of the year have been worked on and corrected. Like a certain outside move that was getting (the better of) me early in the year. A guy would fake inside, get me to step that way, then he'd grab the back of my shoulder pads and be able to scoot around the outside.

"I was almost overdoing the step inside, getting my momentum going and then being hit with that outside move."

Ritcher also is consistent in being quicker to point out his flaws than his strengths.

"It drives my wife crazy, but it's just the way I've always been," he says. "I guess if I was ever totally happy with what I was doing as a player, it would make me satisfied. This way, I'm never quite satisfied with it, and I'm maybe working to be a little better."

Devlin stressed that corners never be cut during preparation, that going the extra mile would always pay big dividends. With that in mind, Ritcher is a voracious studier of opponents' films. He learned to search for the smallest details among defensive linemen that would serve as clues as to what they would do on each play.

Right down to the positioning of their big toes.

"Every time (former Denver Broncos end) Rulon Jones was going to do a certain move inside, his one knee would be bent a little more than the other," Ritcher says. "Most people probably wouldn't have noticed that. I mean, I could have watched film for another hundred years and wouldn't have noticed. But Joe pointed it out, and the whole game I played against him, I knew when he was going to come inside. Other guys were getting destroyed by that all year, but I was ready."

Now, it is Ritcher who does the teaching.

"I've learned a lot from Jimmy," Bills right guard John Davis says. "Not only is he a veteran player, but he's coaching out there, too, especially the younger guys. For instance, he's played against linebackers for 11 years and, for most of my (four-year) career, I've had a lineman in front of me. So he's told me certain things about how to approach the linebackers -- how to hit them and make sure you cover them up. He's been a big help."

Ritcher still bemoans the off-season departures of Devlin and nose tackle Fred Smerlas, with whom Ritcher roomed and shared crazy escapades when they were single.

"To have the guy who taught me the most about offensive line play and my best friend of the team gone, that's a big adjustment," he says. "I haven't talked to Joe very much, but I'm on the phone with Fred just about every week; sometimes two and three times. Fred helps out a bunch. He'll watch us on TV or see films of our games, and if he notices something that he thinks I'm doing wrong or has a way for me to stop someone, he lets me know.

"But having those guys gone has also helped me in some ways. I've gotten to know a few of the other guys on the team a little better this year."

Hull has known Ritcher since 1986. He has heard all the stories about the glass-eating and worm-tasting. And the shock has yet to wear off.

"It's actually frightening to think that Jimmy might be a Jeckyl and Hyde kind of guy," he says. "Because I've never seen the Hyde side, even on the field. And I don't think I ever want to."

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