What Ray Lewis means to this Baltimore fan

January 03, 2013 | Paul Hoke

I consider myself a tweener.

Old enough to remember going to Baltimore Colts games, but too young to have been a part of the “real” Baltimore Colts of my father’s generation.  Old enough to remember the Colts rolling out of town that gray day in March of 1984, and the subsequent years following without a local NFL team to follow.  But too young at the time to really appreciate why everyone from the Mayor of Baltimore to my father were crying over our Colts fleeing the city in the middle of the night.  In the coming years, I would learn an appreciate what it meant, having alledged myself to the Buffalo Bills because of Jim Kelly, and suffering through the four Super Bowl losses that followed.

But it was different.  The Bills were my team, but not my team. They didn’t belong to me no matter how long I wore my #12 Jim Kelly jersey.  Partly because I could still remember whay it was like to have an NFL team call Baltimore home.  To know what it felt like on Sundays at my beloved Memorial Stadium.  God I miss that old girl.

I was 8 years old when the Colts left.  And as I grew more and more into a true NFL fan, and football fan, for that matter, I began to appreciate more and more what it felt like to have a team in the city that bore and bred me.  I was Baltimore through and through.  Growing up in Clifton Park, just minutes from Memorial, and only knowing of the Baltimore way, I have that sense of civic pride that can only come from growing up and living in this city.  Yes, even with all it’s problems, I always puff out my chest and proudly claim to be a Baltimoron.  Or, City Rat, as I’m called.   I can bad-mouth Charm City, but don’t let me hear of any outsider doing it.

So when the Baltimore Stallions of the CFL came a calling, I was on board…sort of.  Yes, it was football, and the two years they spend on 33rd Street not only rekindled feelings of magic from the Colts glory years, but also brought to Baltimore another professional football championship.  Thank you Grey Cup.  But there was still something missing.  The CFL is fun, but the field is 8 miles long and they only play 3-down football.  It’s not the NFL.  Grey Cup Sunday isn’t exactly a national holiday.  But there was enough pride in that team that I felt a connection to this team that I never felt with Buffalo.  This was My Team.  From My City.  And this was after the tease of the “NFL Expansion Derby” of the early 90’s.  When the NFL put on a bogus expansion race to hide the fact that they had already intended on expanding to the Carolina and Jacksonville markets.  How’s that going by the way, NFL???  How’s that team in Jacksonville doing???  Hmmmm, interesting, they are remaining silent.

The expansion fiasco pissed me off, I’m not going to lie.  I can remember coming home from work to have my father tell me that Jacksonville got the team.  I can still remember to this day just how pissed off I was.  It was that day that I had given up on Baltimore ever making it back into the NFL again.  This was a few years after the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers flirted with the idea of coming to Baltimore, only to rebuke Charm City with the Bucs staying put and the Cards heading to Phoenix.  The idea of the NFL returning to my home town seemed dead.  Even after a 1993 preseason game between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins filled Memorial and added an element of hope.  All seemed lost.

Then came November, 1995.  I remember sitting in the den at my father’s house, watching football, when I saw a little blurb come across the ticker on the bottom of the screen.  “Cleveland Browns to move to Baltimore for 1996 season.”  I stood there for a second, taking it all in.  Was this true?  Was professional NFL football really coming back to Baltimore.  I followed the relocation controversy closely, watching each side volley back and forth, and the ultimate settlement being reached which stated that Cleveland would keep everything, and return again in 1999, while the current Cleveland team would become a pseudo-expansion team and be named the Baltimore Ravens, to start play in Memorial Stadium for the 1996 season.

As sorry as I felt for the fans of Cleveland, having known what it felt like to be robbed of your team, I couldn’t help but think of the sweetheart deal that we weren’t given, but also, more importantly, the NFL was returning to Baltimore.  I turned 20 in 1996, and welcomed my new team with open arms.  I still have the Inaugural Season 1996 Baltimore Ravens t-shirt I bought just prior to training camp that year.  My loyalties to the Bills eroded, although to be honest, I still carry a small torch for them.  My second favorite team, so to speak.  But they were a memory.  My city had a new team.  All the years of having the Redskins, Steelers, and Eagles shoved down my throat were about to result in me finally being able to puff out my chest and show off my Baltimore pride.  And then came the famous words of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue during the 1996 NFL Draft:

“With the 26th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens select linebacker from the University of Miami, Ray Lewis”

He wasn’t the first pick in Baltimore Ravens history, but he was by far the most significant.  Considered undersized, Ray Lewis came to a team with no colors, no tradition, no history, and no identity.  After sitting through Bob Costas’ stupid pregame rant against the newly formed Ravens just before their first ever game in September of 1996 against the Oakland Raiders, I watched the game unfold.  It included a Ray Lewis interception of Oakland quarterback Billy Joe Hobert in the endzone, and ended with a 19-14 Baltimore win in their triumphant return to the NFL.  From that moment on, Ray Lewis’ stamp would be put on this team, this organization, and this city.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure what was more significant.  Watching the first NFL game involving a Baltimore team with my Dad since 1983, or witnessing the future of what Ray Lewis would mean to this team.  As a 20 year old at the time, I assumed it was the time spent with my Dad.  But sitting here, approaching 37, and thinking back on everything Ray Lewis has meant to this team, the city, and me over the past 17 years, I might have to rule in favor of Ray.

Just like with Cal Ripken, Jr., when every moment of my life from August of 1981 through October of 2001, included Cal Ripken being a part of the Baltimore Orioles, and therefore, my life.  Every moment of my life from the April 1996 draft to right now, includes Ray Lewis being a part of my Baltimore Ravens.  And sappy or not, that means something to me.  It means something that when Ray first took the field in my beloved Memorial, where I spent most of my childhood with the Orioles, Colts, and eventually Ravens I was a kid.  A 20 year old kid who thought he knew everything.  Watching him over the years, from the rough 1996-1997 seasons, to respectability when our defense finally began to take roots in the 1998-1999 season, to the Super Bowl Championship, which I would enjoy with my 9 month old son, to the decade of dominance, Ray Lewis etched his way into my life as my favorite player of all time.  He was my adult life’s Cal Ripken.  But unlike Cal, I can have a conversation with my almost 13 year old son, regarding his memories of watching Ray Lewis with his Dad, just like I think back on, way back in 1996.  Ray connects 3 generations of my family, and my team.

That’s what Ray Lewis means to me.  Not the defensive player of the year awards, not the Super Bowl championships.  But a connection with my father, me, and my son.  My son has no recollection of watching Cal Ripken playing baseball.  He can only relive them through my memories, just like my memories of Brooks and Johnny Unitas can only involve my Dad’s stories from his accounts.  But Ray Lewis is part of all three.  I watched him play with my Dad.  And I watched him play with my son.  From beginning to end, from 1996 through 2013, I watched it all.  And the two most important people in my life, not including my wife and mother, were there for some, most, or all of it.

And that’s what Ray Lewis means to me.  He’s more then a football player.  More then an NFL legend.  He’s an icon.  A link to my past, present, and future.  A link that connects my father, and my son.  And to me, a simple cop from Baltimore County.  That means the World to me.

God Bless You, and thank you Ray Lewis.  And as always, Go Ravens!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!