I was 13 years old when the Ravens came to Maryland. Prior to that time, my National Football League exposure came largely through my family's allegiances (Eagles) and local television (Redskins). Naturally, I became a fan of the 49ers.
However, my fandom for a team across the country should be taken with a grain of salt. Kids are front-runners and the 90s were when the Bay Area team put on for their region. Also, as anyone who doesn't have a local team (As with a majority of people from the Baltimore-Metropolitan area, I do not consider Washington, D.C. teams local. There are too many, semi-logical reasons to be detailed here) can tell you, another cities champion can never really truly be yours. There's nothing compares to a team gaining national recognition with your hometown on their banner. For the past 17 years, Ray Lewis has done that and more.
I don't remember the day, but I remember the year I shed my San Francisco-loyalty. It was 1999. The 49ers were in decline and the Ravens, despite not making the play-offs, had begun to sway my loyalties. The cause for the purple and black was aided by my father having purchased season tickets to their brand-new, downtown stadium the previous season. However, there was one, singular factor directly forcing me to re-think who I wanted to root for on Sundays. That reason wore #52.
There is something about watching a game in person that is impossible to capture in the television experience. The game is faster, the players are bigger, and the hits are more explosive. Even with all the noise and speed, it was clear to see that Ray Lewis was playing a different game. 131 tackles. It was the first of seven times he would make an All-Pro team. It was the third of seven, consecutive pro bowl seasons. Despite all the accolades and stats, the thing I most remember from that year was the introduction of the dance. You know what I mean. This, this, and this.
Over the years, the dance has been the constant. The teammates have changed, the owners have changed, even the divisions have changed, but, Ray has always been the same. The whole stadium rises up, even the opposing team's players turn to watch. Everything goes quiet. Then the Nelly song starts up and Ray gyrates and kicks and 70,000+ people get goose bumps simultaneously.
But, in hindsight, what has mattered most to me was what it all meant. Ray may be from Florida, but he was Baltimore. His workman-like consistency (he has played in 12 or more games in 14 of his 17 seasons), his hard-hitting tough guy demeanor (Baltimore is a blue-collar town), and his infectious charisma (Baltimore is Charm City, by the way). Baltimore, the other city by the Bay, has gained notoriety over the years, but our adopted, favorite son has always been the guiding force pushing and driving the Ravens to continued relevance (oh, Ozzie Newsome has been awesome, too). It was our identity, and not just with football. When I travel throughout Europe and tell people that I'm from Baltimore, more often than you would expect, they mention Ray Lewis.
With the announcement of Lewis' pending retirement, there has been a lot of conversation about the best moment of his career. While the idea is largely subjective, as is his place among the other greats, there is one moment that will forever be my personal symbolism of the experience, the honor, of watching him play.
December 3, 2007.
Week 13 in the last year of the Brian Billick Era. The Ravens had lost five straight and starting quarterback Steve McNair was injured, allowing the epically forgettable Kyle Boller to start against the undefeated New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. To add to the drama, it was the first game played after Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor had been murdered. You see, as part of Lewis' legacy, he was a mentor, a leader of men. Not just for his teammates, but for guys throughout the league, especially those who played on defense and graduated from his alma mater, The University of Miami. Taylor fit both categories and had formed a close bond with Lewis and, as such, his untimely passing had an effect on the man. Lewis willed the defense, inspired them through action and words, and they pushed the Patriots to the limit, ultimately falling a couple yards short of a stunning upset. The one moment of that game that is frozen in my mind was a scene captured in pre-game as Lewis is rallying his fellow Miami alums, Ed Reed and Willis McGahee to shut out all the other distractions and honor their fallen comrade.
In always seeking to bring out the best in others, in his team, in his chosen city, Lewis made himself one of the best. I am grateful for the experience. I could not imagine how my experience with football would have progressed without him. I would probably be wearing a Colin Kapaernick jersey right now.