St. Louis Rams' Billy Bajema surprises at tight end

By Jim Thomas

In life, as in football, it's always good to have a backup plan. Billy Bajema certainly thought so growing up in football-mad Oklahoma.

"I always wanted to play in the NFL," Bajema said. "But I wanted to have a backup plan if it ever didn't work out."

His backup plan was more ambitious than most football players at Oklahoma State, or anywhere else, for that matter.

"My degree was actually in business, but I did the pre-med program in college," Bajema said. "Initially, I was interested in orthopedic surgery. I thought it'd be fun to work on athletes and go that route. But I'd rather be playing than working on 'em."

So instead of having a Dr. in front of his name, Bajema has a TE as in tight end. Originally a seventh-round draft pick by San Francisco in 2005, Bajema (pronounced BADGE-uh-muh) signed a three-year free-agent contract with St. Louis at the end of March.

To say that Bajema is the Rams' backup plan at tight end behind Randy McMichael would be selling him short. Two tight end sets are commonplace in the NFL, and if the Rams are truly serious about running the football, Bajema could be on the field a lot. He had 11 starts last season for the *****, all in multiple tight end sets with usual starter Vernon Davis.

Bajema, 26, came to St. Louis with a reputation as a blocking specialist, and he already looks like an upgrade over Anthony Becht, who had that role last year. The surprise has been Bajema's pass-catching ability. No one will confuse him with Tony Gonzalez or even teammate McMichael on that score. But he's displayed good hands as well as some yards-after-the-catch ability so far.

"Everybody wants to say Billy's a blocking tight end, but Billy can get down the field," McMichael said. "He can catch the ball really well. ... Billy can play ball. A lot of people didn't really get a chance to notice him in San Fran with Vernon (Davis) and everything, but Billy's a very good player."

Granted, it was against the second- and third-stringers of Atlanta's defense, but Bajema's pass-catching skills were on display Friday at the Edward Jones Dome.

"He was making catches out there," coach Steve Spagnuolo said after the game. "And what I thought was impressive is what he did after he caught it. He got a lot of positive yards. He's a big guy, and I'm sure the guys that tackled him will be a little bit sore tomorrow."

Bajema finished with three catches for 42 yards against the Falcons, including receptions of 17 and nine yards on a fourth-quarter field goal drive. Overall this preseason, Bajema has four catches for 51 yards, second in both categories to Laurent Robinson (seven for 117) on the team.

That's a lot of action for someone who had only seven catches in 61 games with San Francisco.

"I had five (catches) my rookie year, and then I had two years where I didn't even get a ball my way," Bajema said. "And a couple last year. So yeah, it was a lot of fun getting some balls thrown my way.

"I've had confidence in my hands and receiving ability, and continue to feel like I've improved on it throughout my time in the NFL. It's just that in San Francisco, that's not what they used me for."

Bajema, 6-4, 256 pounds, began his football career throwing passes, not hoping for the occasional opportunity to catch them. At Westmoore High in Oklahoma City, he was a quarterback, defensive end and safety.

He played well enough at quarterback that Stanford and Texas Christian showed some interest. But at the end of the day, Bajema got no scholarship offers from colleges interested in him at QB.

Oklahoma State gave him the option of defensive end or tight end. He took one look at the Cowboys' well-stocked depth chart at defensive end and chose tight end.

"I thought I had a chance to get on the field a little earlier that way," Bajema said. "So I've been a tight end ever since."

But even as a tight end, Bajema brought some defensive mentality to the position.

"I've been a guy that's enjoyed the physical nature of the game my whole life," he said. "Yeah, I like to hit people. I like to get in the trenches and block and do those things. I love that part of the game."

Bajema did more than hit the opposition in college; he hit the books. He made the Big 12 Conference Commissioner's Honor Roll six times and finished with a 3.7 grade-point average.

Following his senior year, he was the inaugural recipient of the Bobby Bowden Award, a national honor by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes recognizing achievement on the field, in the classroom and in the community.

"Fellowship of Christian Athletes is something that's always been a big thing with me, and I was really involved with in college, and still am," Bajema said.

With the Rams, Bajema plans to be involved most with blocking. And if an occasional pass comes his way, all the better. That backup plan med school has never looked so far off.