I’ve seen some grumbling in the national media (Terry Bradshaw), from current NFL players (Reggie Wayne), and from countless fans of other teams who don’t understand why Ray Lewis’ retiring is such a big deal to Ravens fans. I was sort of surprised at first, but then I realized you have to be a fan to truly understand, and you have to keep in mind the history of Baltimore football–not to mention the history of the NFL.
Once upon a time, the Baltimore Colts won a Championship in 1958, a game that was dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” That single game put the NFL on the map and thrust football into the fabric of American culture forever–and virtually overnight. It also produced the NFL’s first big star, Johnny Unitas. Before Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana there was Johnny U.
I wasn’t alive to see Johnny Unitas play, but his significance has transcended generations and to this day Baltimore fans call him their own–it makes no difference whether he was a Colt or a Raven. As Johnny once defiantly said when asked about his records being part of the Indianapolis Colts history, “I didn’t play for Indianapolis, I played for Baltimore.”
The Baltimore Colts won a Super Bowl early in the SB era, and also lost one of the most famous Super Bowls–or games for that matter–to the Joe Namath led NY Jets. By the early 70′s the Colts had remained one of the NFL’s premiere teams – a big deal for a small city when compared to New York, DC, and Philadelphia. When I was old enough to become a fan in the late 70′s the Colts still fielded a competitive team and a playoff contender. I had no reason to believe the Colts would ever leave Baltimore.
Fast forward to 1984, and the classic scene of the Mayflowers trucks leaving in the middle of that dark, snowy night for Indianapolis.
As a kid I was crushed, but older generations who had been fans from the Johnny U days had their hearts ripped out as they watched their beloved team leave forever. It really doesn’t matter what age you are, when your football team leaves, a team with a once proud tradition, it leaves a hole in your soul and a black cloud over the city.
So what does this have to do with Ray Lewis?
Twelve seasons and nearly 13 years later we got a football team back in Baltimore, and I was ecstatic. But I know many will agree that at first it just seemed strange. New uniforms, new name, and new players that we hadn’t come to love, or even like–yet.
Ray Lewis changed ALL OF THAT!
When the Ravens won the Super Bowl in only their 4th year of existence, the pride came back to Baltimore, and the team and its fans adopted the personality and spirit of its most passionate player, #52. He became more than just another great football player, he was the most inspiring and uplifting player we had ever seen. Please try and name ONE other player who has had more of an impact on his teammates, his fans, and his city. You can’t, because there aren’t any.
Ray Lewis is more than his skill on a football field, which by itself is worthy of a first ballot Hall of Fame Induction. He’s the voice in the huddle before the game; he’s the dance coming out of the tunnel; he’s the emotional leader of the Ravens and has been the face of defense in the NFL since he entered the league.
Ray made us proud to be Ravens fans, and more important than the mascot name, he made us proud to be BALTIMORE fans again. First there was Johnny Unitas, then there was Ray to UNITE US once again.
Baltimore was back on the map, and has been there for his entire 17-year career. And thanks to one man will remain there long after he retires. As a fan we all owe him a sincere debt of gratitude. It has meant much more than wins and losses, though fortunately there have been many more wins.
So here we are at the AFC Championship once again.
There’s no question that Ray’s return after his injury has provided the spark that the Ravens needed to get to this point, when no one (outside of Ravens fans) thought they would make it this far. Of course the storybook ending would be the Ravens beating the Patriots and then ultimately winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans and sending Ray out the right way.
But honestly, the story is already written.
Football is back in Baltimore and that’s where it will stay, and it will reach far beyond the outcome of this season.
I know there are/were MANY great people involved who brought football and joy back to Baltimore, and as a father of two sons I am eternally grateful for the excitement and memories that that will create throughout our lifetimes. But there’s really been ONE MAN who made all of this possible, and Sunday could very well be his last game.
Here’s hoping you’ve got two more wins left in you Ray.
But either way, the biggest victory has already been ours.
Editor’s Note: Here’s another of Dave Tieff’s talents…enjoy!