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Football did not return easily to Baltimore in 1996. The team was somebody else's, pilfered from Cleveland with almost the same absence of shame that Indianapolis showed in stealing the beloved Colts a decade before. The name was strange: Ravens. The uniforms looked like nothing worn by the rest of the NFL. This new franchise seemed very much like a second-rate imposter.
But from the south there arrived, in that first year, a man who would define the Ravens. Muscles oozed from his purple jersey. He appeared on the field in a dance of his own making, with flames shooting from all around. He threw back his head. He screamed to the heavens. And while the white helmet and blue horseshoe of the Colts never fully left Baltimore, Ray Lewis gave a new face to football in his adopted city.
Maybe it is fitting he announced his pending retirement during a week the Colts come back to town. Nobody did more to make Baltimore forget them these past 17 years.
When a sports franchise has a true superstar, a larger-than-life presence, it usually takes that player's identity. This is how the Colts long lived in the image of Peyton Manning or the Patriots have molded to Tom Brady. Often these are offensive stars, rarely dirtied, beautiful in their style of play. Lewis did nothing with beauty. Instead he gave the Ravens a defensive heart, a throwback, in a way, for a blue-collar city that doesn't mind rough and bloody.
Whenever new players arrived in Baltimore, they quickly sensed the structure of their locker room. Power emanated from one stall. It radiated off the walls until every molecule in the room felt charged with his fury. Even in those quiet times before games when each player disappears into himself, summoning his own motivations for the battle outside, the Ravens watched the giant man on his little locker stool. He was strangely quiet, a dormant volcano slowly coming to life, simmering bit-by-bit until it was game time and they all stood in the stadium tunnel waiting for kickoff.
"And it all just explodes," wide receiver Derrick Mason once said of Lewis.
The Ravens have become a model of stability. Their owner (Steve Biscotti) is the right mix of engaged and detached. They build and rebuild the right way, through drafts and wise free-agent signings. Their two-most recent head coaches, Brian Billick and John Harbaugh, have been allowed great freedom in keeping the machine running.
But none of this would have been possible were it not for Ray Lewis. Because no matter how strong or efficient or brilliantly-managed the Ravens have been, their stability has come from the man who seemed the most volatile.
No, Lewis never had the quiet dignity of Johnny Unitas. He was charged with murder and plead guilty to obstruction of justice. He was once the scorn of the league, a man who was seen as everything that was wrong with what football had become. To some, it never mattered that he wasn't convicted. In later years, he started quoting the Bible and there were folks who believed it to be an act of an athlete scrubbing a sullied image. He came from the University of Miami and for lots of fans that fact alone tells them all they need to know.
And yet around the Ravens, his speeches are can't-miss theatre. He shouts and rages, his fists pound his palms, his neck stiffens. He is a holy-roller in shoulder pads and the locker room stools are his pulpit. And they all listen to Ray Lewis if for no other reason than it makes them all closer.
Once, a couple of years ago, he and I talked in the hallway leading out of the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium. He was 35 at the time and the first whispers had come suggesting he wasn't the same player anymore, that his career might soon be winding down.
"I will credit the organization for keeping me here so long," he said that day. "Every coach that has come in has told me 'you control it; we put in the game plan but you control it.' "
As if they would suggest anything else.
Then he began to talk about opportunity. He said he had to play every game as if it was his first in the league because the chance to win goes so fast. At the time it had been 10 years since the Ravens lone Super Bowl. He could see the window closing. He could sense the chance to experience another night like that one in Tampa was slipping away. His voice started to rise, his eyes grew wide. His hands shook.
"These moments will never be again," he said.
He was asked if he was talking about football.
"No!" he shouted. "Moments in life! The time clock stops for no one. Every moment of our life keeps ticking down. If you don't approach this opportunity we have right now, you'll never have it back again."
Then he was gone, out of the stadium, into the happy crowd that gathered outside in the streets of the city. His city.
Now comes one last chance to seize one of those moments. In all likelihood Sunday's game will be his last at home. The Ravens have missed him in the weeks he was away with a triceps injury. As the weeks went on, the defense frayed. The offense couldn't ignite. Something wasn't right. The Lewis who returns probably won't be as dominant as the one of a few years ago. He hasn't been the same player in several seasons. But it is not his speed or strength the Ravens need most now. They need him to throw back his head, holler to the skies and pound his chest and be himself.
Because once he is gone, the clock will indeed stop and Baltimore will have to consider life without the man who came at just the right time to turn a new, stolen football team into a civic asset.
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