On not watching NFL football in 2017: a longtime Baltimore Ravens fan considers the ethics of fandom in 21st century America. Part 4.
When I was a kid, I had posters of the “Showtime”-era Los Angeles Lakers on my wall. John Elway, then the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, was up there as well. As a tennis player, I loved Andre Agassi, and had the neon, acid-washed gear to prove it.
At first, I didn’t have a favorite player on the Baltimore Ravens. Naming one player as your favorite can feel like a surprisingly big deal, up there with deeming one friend to be your best. It is a very particular act of investment and identification, embodied by throngs of adults with jerseys bearing the last names of people they will likely never meet.
I found my favorite Raven when Ed Reed joined the team in 2002. Over the course of a decade, he became one of the best safeties in the league. Reed’s most notable achievements are tied to intercepting opposing quarterbacks: he still holds records for the two longest interception returns in NFL history, and the all-time record for interception return yards. Reed is among the relatively few defensive players who can truly be called game-changers.
It seems narrow to reduce Reed’s game to a single position. Wherever the ball was, Reed would find it. He studied game film to identify quarterbacks’ tendencies, daring them to throw his way. The smartest quarterbacks rarely tested Reed, even late in his career. Using a phrase that has been applied to a handful of players across several sports, an ESPN announcer once remarked, “water covers 2/3 of the earth’s surface, Ed Reed covers the rest.”
Reed was a singular mix of instinct and intelligence. If he thought he knew where a play was going, he’d gamble. While he was amassing those 1590 interception-return yards, he would frequently make the spontaneous, ill-advised decision to lateral the ball to a teammate who might take it the rest of the way to the end zone. On and off the field, Reed was always true to himself, at once radically independent and profoundly selfless.
We choose our heroes based on affinity and aspiration. We feel a resonance between something in ourselves and something in them, or they represent something we wish to see in ourselves. Most of us aren’t professional athletes, so our admiration operates in the realm of fantasy. Even if I’m just playing catch with my wife, I adopt Reed’s playful, loose-limbed, open-mouthed stance. Sometimes the game becomes metaphor and inspiration, prompting us to carry ourselves in the image of a beloved athlete in our daily lives.
Reed was the photo-negative image of the teammate with whom he is most often associated. He eschewed Ray Lewis’s look-at-me demeanor, but played in such a way that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Lewis was always performing; Reed seemed utterly authentic. The two icons were an object lesson in showing versus telling: Lewis would uproot a chunk of turf to enact claiming his territory; Reed would quietly roam the field like he owned it.
The contrast between Lewis and Reed was especially stark after their final games as members of the Ravens. Lewis conjured, in biblical terms, a powerful narrative, with the 2012 Super Bowl as the capstone to his career. Reed ended his brilliant decade in Baltimore by tunelessly singing Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise,” with his son on his shoulders. It’s a beautiful memory, and a joyous reminder of a football player who still fires my imagination as I leave the NFL behind.