BALTIMORE — The swagger came out at dinnertime. Mark Andrews, maybe 8 or 9 years old, was talking about soccer, about where he stacked up in the sport he loved. The details of the boast that would come to define Andrews’ life are hazy now, lost to the years, but his conviction cuts through the fog of memory like a beacon.
Charlie, the younger of Mark’s two older brothers, remembered Mark looking up from his plate and announcing to his family, “I’m probably top in the state.” They could tell he wasn’t kidding; this was Mark’s matter-of-fact appraisal of youth soccer in Arizona. “Worst case, top five.”
Over the years, as Mark evolved from a star forward in soccer to a Pro Bowl tight end with the Ravens, his top-five mantra would become something of a running joke with the family. He was top five in soccer, top five in basketball, top five in golf. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t actually that good. It didn’t matter if he didn’t know whether he was any good at all.
“It was that audacity that he had so much confidence that he’d be the best at something,” said Jack, his oldest brother, “even though he had never even done it.”
Mark joked Wednesday that he doesn’t love too many things, “but competition is one of them.” At his first soccer game, he did push-ups during a break in the action. As a kid, he’d race to brush his teeth before his two brothers and older sister, Annie. By the end of middle school, he’d gotten so good at backyard boxing that Jack, then in college, no longer wanted any part of him.
Asked about the Ravens’ wild-card-round game Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, Mark said “a fire” had been lit under the team. For Mark, though, it might as well be an inferno, an all-consuming passion that stokes his top-five drive, those close to him say. He is hard-wired to believe greatness is inevitable. He is humble enough to accept that he can’t reach it alone. And he is unwilling to accept being No. 5 when he could be No. 1.
“He doesn’t go out to do anything half-assed,” said Martha, his mother. “I mean, he’s going out full-bore. And if he’s not good right now, he’s going to be the best. ‘Top five’ is his acknowledgment that there may possibly — he doesn’t believe it — but there could possibly be somebody that could be better than him. Then he puts in more work and he puts in more effort.”
Her son’s ambition didn’t start with that childhood proclamation. And it didn’t end with that story, either.
In eighth grade, Mark was becoming more and more of a target in soccer. A foot taller than most defenders, he was scoring a lot, and having to defend himself a lot. Opponents had started going after Mark, Martha said, taking out what they could not stop. And when Mark would react, he’d get in trouble.
“He couldn’t do anything,” Martha said. Mark was nearing his breaking point. In one game, an opponent “attacked” him, Martha said, and was ejected. Mark, fuming, “ran across the field and took the kid out with kicks.” As Mark left the field, he told his parents, “I’m done with this.” He couldn’t just play the game anymore.
A good friend, Kyle Allen, had asked Mark to consider football, a sport where he could weaponize his size. In pads, on the field, he could protect himself. Mark was convinced — he would play, and he’d be darn good at it, too. “He had no doubt in his mind,” Martha said. “None, whatsoever.”
The first time Mark’s high school football coach, Tony Tabor, saw him around the team, he had his doubts. He could tell Mark hadn’t done any weightlifting that summer. Then he watched Mark pick up a basketball and dunk it at a pickup game, easy as could be. Not long after, Mark asked Tabor whether he was good enough to play football at Oklahoma.
“I said, Mark, I think you’re good enough to play on Sundays.”
Tabor has coached for Desert Mountain and against Desert Mountain, so he knows the Scottsdale school’s reputation: white-collar, well-heeled, a bit of a pushover in football.
“I think there’s a term for that: kind of soft,” said Tabor, who in 2006 inherited a Wolves team that had won three games over the previous two seasons. “Well, Mark Andrews wasn’t part of that soft bunch.”
Desert Mountain didn’t win a game in 2010. In 2011, with Mark starting as a sophomore, they went 4-6. In 2012, they won eight of 10 regular-season games. That postseason, they took on Mountain View, where Tabor now coaches, in the first round.
It was a dominant night. There was one play, Tabor recalled, where Mark tossed a defensive back so violently, it looked from the sideline like he’d slapped him. On another, he caught a tipped Hail Mary pass for a 48-yard touchdown from Allen, a future blue-chip recruit and current Washington Football Team quarterback. He finished with 10 catches for 151 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout win.
“He wanted you to know that, ‘I’m better than you, and I’m going to make you like it,” Tabor said.
Mark could’ve enrolled at any local school he wanted to for football, Tabor said, but “he stayed at home and played ball.” The Wolves’ season would end a game later, in the state quarterfinals. They haven’t been back since.
In Arizona, teenagers can’t obtain an instruction permit until they’re 15 1/2 and a driver's license until they’re 16. At age 13, Mark considered himself, well, not quite ready to take the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway, but at least on his way.
“You know, he was nowhere near having a driver’s license or learning permit,” Jack said, “and he said he would probably still be top five of driving in the state for his age.”
At 16, Mark was finally allowed on the road. “You know, I am probably, in all seriousness, the best 16-year-old driver — top five — in the country,” Martha remembered Mark announcing. “Mark,” she reminded him, “you haven’t even driven yet.”
After a game at Oklahoma several years later, Mark was at the wheel, chauffeuring his parents back to his home. They got stuck in traffic. “That’s not his thing,” Martha explained. As he zipped through campus traffic, his parents covered their eyes in fear, Martha’s husband lying prostrate in the back of the car.
Martha joked that they don’t let Mark drive anymore. “He thinks he did a great job,” she said. “We were terrified. He’s actually not a bad driver. He just, you know … he does it his way.”
Mark arrived at Oklahoma as a four-star wide receiver prospect, a top-150 recruit whom Alabama had wanted. But Tabor didn’t see him lasting out wide for long.
When he’d explained Mark’s limited basketball potential to Martha, he put it bluntly: “He’s a 6-[foot]-5, 6-6 white guy. He plays center.” And when he considered Mark’s future in football, he saw it heading elsewhere, for much the same reasons.
“I kept saying, ‘Mark, you’re going to play tight end,’ " Tabor recalled. “He said, ‘Nuh-uh, Coach. I’m going to play receiver.’ "
As Mark redshirted his freshman year, Tabor heard from his friend Tim Kish, then the Sooners’ inside linebackers coach. Mark wanted to switch positions after all. He’d seen the light — “I go, ‘Well, thank God’ " — and his goals had changed.
“He wasn’t a receiver — not an NFL receiver. I know he’s a tight end,” Tabor said. “But he just wanted to be one of the best tight ends in the league.”
A year after the Ravens had waited until the third round to draft college football’s most productive tight end, months after they’d watched him set franchise records for receiving yards and touchdowns by a rookie tight end, Mark started to block his brother.
He was back home in Scottsdale, working out and preparing for Year 2. He needed the reps. For all that Oklahoma’s coaches had asked of Mark in college, he’d rarely had to put his hand in the dirt and square up on a 260-pound outside linebacker. Charlie, four years older and only a couple of inches shorter, would have to be his stand-in.
Their first workout started innocently enough, with Charlie throwing passes to Mark. Then Mark asked Charlie to line up over him. When Charlie woke up the next day, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so bruised and battered. “I felt like I just played a football game, you know?”
Charlie was struck, sometimes almost literally, by Mark’s attention to detail. He obsessed over his footwork as if he were running routes, every step needing to be perfect. His hand placement had to be precise. Charlie had never played football beyond the high school level, but to Mark, he might as well have been Pernell McPhee.
When their offseason workouts ended, Charlie told Mark he wouldn’t subject himself to that kind of punishment again. So Mark had the Ravens send his brother some blocking pads. “I feel a little more protected,” Charlie said, chuckling.
When Mark’s NFL career began in Baltimore, Martha happened to glance at the lock screen on his phone. It looked different. Curious, she asked Mark what he’d changed.
“Well, those are my goals,” he told her. Mark didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t ask him to. Martha knew his ambitions — “To be the best” — hadn’t changed. And Mark knew what that would mean.
It would mean competing as a rookie with a first-round pick (Hayden Hurst), a former second-round pick (Maxx Williams), a top blocker (Nick Boyle), one practice squad player with Pro Bowl potential (Darren Waller) and another practice squad player with back-up-Travis-Kelce potential (Nick Keizer). “Mark should’ve been fourth or fifth on the depth chart,” Jack said.
It would mean catching 10 touchdowns in his second year, more than any other tight end in the NFL, his connection with quarterback Lamar Jackson so unique that Jackson likened it to “street ball.”
It would mean playing through an ankle injury in a stunning playoff loss to Tennessee, the pain so intense that he’d later have to ask his brother to slow down at the airport. His brother had only been walking — “a brisk pace,” Charlie called it.
And, more than anything, it would mean not settling for top five, not that Mark ever has. At the top of every to-do list that Charlie’s seen is an unambiguous goal: Super Bowl champion.
“It’s something he looks at 100 times a day,” Martha said. “That means a lot to me, that he knows what he wants to do. And he’s going to get there.”