Chapter 17: The Last Ride of 52

July 02, 2018 | Nestor Aparicio

do. I’ve been blessed in the profession to be around some really special people. I don’t know if there is anybody more special than Ray.”

While everyone in the media and many teammates were focusing on the spectacle of what Ray Lewis’ final dance and day would be like in Baltimore, quarterback Joe Flacco was thinking more about how to put together four consecutive wins and go back upstairs to see Steve Bisciotti about that contract offer and challenge.

“We feel all the urgency in the world, and we want to go out there and win a Super Bowl this year, just like we wanted to last year, just like we wanted to the year before,” Flacco said. “Having said that, I hope this isn’t my last year of football. I hope I play 15 or 20 years. The window is never closing. We are going to be here for the long haul, but yes, if you want an answer. We need to have some urgency, and we definitely feel that sense of urgency that we need to go get it done this year.”

And while Lewis’ “Last Dance” was the draw for the fans, all of the hoopla would mean nothing on Sunday if the season ended with a loss. “People try to make a big deal about the playoffs and the extra intensity that goes into it,” Flacco said. “I try not to buy into that stuff, but five years down the line, you definitely have more experience than you did Year One. Not just in terms of playoff games, but just in terms of games, in terms of seeing defenses, in terms of being comfortable with your offense, comfortable with the guys around you. I think we are all a little bit more experienced than we were last year.”

And in addition to all of the other major NFL storylines here: Ray Lewis’ last game in Baltimore, Chuck Pagano coming back to Baltimore after leukemia, and the obvious residue of Colts v. Baltimore and Irsay’s ancient history, there was one additional storyline at the bottom of the list – newly-appointed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell would be facing his old team as well. He was the head coach of a Super Bowl team in Indianapolis, but his low-key profile amidst the other larger storylines suited his personality just fine.

“You don’t spend 10 years in a place and walk away from it and not have a sense of [emotion]…particularly some of the guys you coached – those guys laid it on the line for you when you were there. Obviously, you are going to look at things a little bit differently.”

Asked about how it might’ve been different for him had Peyton Manning not gotten injured in 2010, Caldwell answered in his usual humble tone. “It doesn’t even cross my mind – not one second, not one second,” he said. “I think for the most part I believe that the good Lord has a plan for us. Often times it’s not as picturesque as we might like it. It may not unfold exactly the way that we had it planned, but it unfolded in which He wanted it. I’m satisfied with that. In due time, it usually sort of presents itself and shows what he had in mind and why. Coming here [to Baltimore] was a blessing for me. It was a great opportunity, and like I said, I’m certainly glad to be here.”

For Ed Reed it was one more chance to square off against his old college teammate at The U, Reggie Wayne, in yet another knockout game. Reed was 0-for-2, losing in 2007 and again in 2010 to the Colts. “I hate playing him,” said Reed, who told the media stories about the two of them getting their cars washed together every Saturday when they were best pals at Miami. “I think he feels the same way, because we text each other like, ‘Here we go again.’ It brings you back to those [Miami] Hurricanes days. Reggie is like a brother who taught me how to cover. Me and him used to run a lot of one-on-ones. When guys were gone, me and Reggie used to go against each other, sometimes without a ball. Catching the ball also, he was always harping on me like, ‘How are you my roommate and can’t catch.’ It’s brother going against brother. It’s a great moment.”

On game day, the emotions were real and raw. For Baltimore fans lucky enough to be holding tickets, they knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see something special, something historic in Ravens lore. Ray Lewis was truly larger than life – he had been there for everything the franchise had ever done. From the first phone call when he asked Ozzie Newsome what the team’s name would be to this, his final act on the local stage. Of course, the goal was four wins in a row but this would his last chance to play in front of his adoring city of Baltimore.

On Sunday morning, Lewis drove to the stadium with fellow linebacker veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo, who wanted to document Ray’s day on video. Ayanbadejo said he had never seen Lewis as nervous as he was that morning on the way to the stadium.

And then the moment arrived. Lewis, who was wearing a microphone for NFL Films all day and recorded every step of his day for posterity, took a knee in the tunnel as the smoke gathered and the crowd rose to the thunderous strains of “Nelly” and “Hot In Herre.” Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay bellowed from every corner of the stadium.

Pagano had intimate knowledge of what Lewis’ “Last Dance” would look like and wanted to prepare many of his young Colts players, many whom had only seen it on television all of their lives.

“As soon as we heard the news that he was coming back and this would be his last ride, I tried to paint a picture of what we’re headed into – and that place is tough as hell to play regardless,” said Pagano said of his former home in Baltimore. Pagano used music at his practice in Indy all week to try to replicate the environment. “I tried to do the best Ray Lewis dance I could do and have fun with it. I knew exactly what we were headed into.”

Pagano remembered the first time he saw it on the Cleveland Browns staff with Butch Davis in 2001. “Some teams have chosen to not watch it over the years,” he said. “I would always think, ‘How can you not wanna see it?’ If it doesn’t make the hair on back of your neck stand up then they should just bury