As kickoff approaches on Sunday and the anticipation builds for what will likely be the last time Ray Lewis emerges from the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium, I can’t help but to think back to Cal Ripken Jr.’s epic 2131 game on September 6, 1995.
Cal was MLB’s poster child. His perseverance and mind boggling streak of consecutive games combined with a well-crafted wholesome image was a needed distraction for a league coming off a strike-shortened season during which the Fall Classic, the World Series was canceled.
Originally I didn’t have a ticket for that game but late that afternoon, I received a call from my brother-in-law asking me if I’d like to join him because my sister was a bit under the weather. And so naturally I agreed.
Cal would officially break Lou Gehrig’s legendary streak no later than the bottom of the fifth inning. The weather was clear so Mother Nature did not pose a threat. Even she seemed to respect what was about to unfold.
No one knew what to expect really. Of course we knew the zero in 2130 would unfurl into a one but other than that the sold out crowd could only stand and wonder with starry-eyed anticipation what might happen next.
To my dying day, I will never forget Cal’s trot around the stadium, waving to his adoring fans, shaking their hands all accompanied by the powerful vocals of Whitney Houston. One Moment in Time for me will always be synonymous with, and usher in memories of 2131.
Cal, while clearly the most popular Oriole, was never really a take charge leader nor was he that intimidating force that inspired opposing teams to game plan around. He was simply a talented, lunch pail kind of player who had a perfect attendance record and consistently performed at an All-Star level.
But make no mistake about it, as great as he was for the city and as good a player as he was during his 21 seasons, Cal Ripken, Jr. was no Ray Lewis. It’s not his fault really. He’s just not wired the way Ray is. And for that matter few, if any are.
Ray Lewis is a leader among leaders. He’s the guy in the room that captivates the rest of the room with his inspiring stories. He’s the guy who gets you to believe in yourself when even you don’t; the guy who demands that you check your ego at the door reminding you there’s no “I” in “Team”. Ray Lewis galvanizes all parts of his organization – from the front office to the custodians, from the weight room to the boardroom.
This is a man who has been the constant through all the years since Baltimore’s return to the NFL after a disheartening 12-season span that steamrolled the collective pride of the citizens of Baltimore and our illustrious football heritage. And how ironic is it that Ray’s last dance in Baltimore will take place against the team whose ownership ripped out our collective heart, leaving us to deal with mocking suggestions to build a new museum instead of a new stadium to ease our pain.
More than anyone else, Ray Lewis eased our pain. The late Art Modell and William Donald Schaefer may have been the enablers but Ray was the deliverer. Ray Lewis, more than any one individual, put Baltimore back on the NFL map.
How lucky are we to have experienced him? How might our world here in The Land of Pleasant Living be different without him?
How lucky are we that he slipped to the 26th pick of the 1996 NFL Draft while players like Lawrence Phillips, Tim Biakabutuka, Alex Molden, Regan Upshaw, Ricky Dudley and several other, less than household names were taken before Ray?
And as one fan so eloquently reminded me, how lucky are we, the sports fans of Baltimore, to claim that the greatest QB and the greatest defensive football player in NFL history belong to us. They belong to Baltimore!
Now it’s time to say goodbye and it won’t be easy. But just as it has been so often throughout his career, either with his actions or his words, Ray Lewis’ vision, preparation and timing are impeccable.
He knew earlier this season that this would be his last, yet he kept it from even those closest to him. His injury threw him for a loop but in the steely-eyed determined way that few can imagine, Ray rehabbed and trained an injury that is usually a seasonal showstopper and set his sights on a postseason return.
So here we are.
Everyone is 0-0 and the Lombardi is up for grabs with 12 teams in contention.
The stakes are high and the emotions even higher.
Sunday promises to be a red-letter day in Baltimore’s sports history and with a win and with all due respect Cal Ripken, this one, even more so than 2131, will echo in eternity.