As most of you probably know, in my other primary sports watching life I'm a Baltimore Ravens fan. Not the biggest one in the world by any means (that title belongs to my semi-psychotic wife), and certainly not a lifelong one (really only for the past five years that I've lived here/been married to someone from a diehard family), but it's a pretty big deal in our house, and it's become my biggest cultural tie to the city (well, metropolitan area) in which I've chosen to begin my adult life, raise my kids, etc. And as you also are probably aware, the upcoming Superbowl will be the final game of Ray Lewis' career, a fact that's become a very big deal in this city.
You'll have to indulge me a bit of idiosyncratic whimsy here (I promise to tie this back to the Yankees, eventually), because in all honesty this just occurred to me for real yesterday afternoon, and I'm going to struggle to put any other thoughts together until I get this post off of my chest. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not like I just found out that he's calling it a career, or that any of the last three games could technically have been his last,but those games were different. With the exception of the wild card game against the Colts, there were bigger storylines and concerns to those games (because for as much as Ray's retirement has dominated the national conversation, since the one home game it's been all about getting to the Superbowl and redeeming last season's disaster of a finish here). More importantly, there was the promise of one more game (of living to see another Ray, as my wife took to chanting/praying) on an even bigger stage if they won, which was the whole point anyway. This time is different, though. This time there are no more games. Win or lose, this is the last time #52 suits up for the Ravens.
I don't know if I can truly describe the affection that Ravens' fans, the whole city of Baltimore really, have for Ray Lewis. I guess the initial inclination is to compare him to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera as a way to relate it to Yankee fans, but that doesn't really do it justice. Don't get me wrong, Jeter and Rivera are both legendary and beloved players, and I think they're in that rarefied air of players who are legitimately synonymous with their team, but on the other hand the Yankees were already the most storied and successful franchise in the sport well before they were even born. Lewis, by contrast, is the Ravens. He's not merely one of the great players you associate with the franchise, he's the very first thing anyone thinks of when you say "Baltimore Ravens." To wax philosophical on you: he's the very definition of the Baltimore Ravens as a franchise. I suppose Babe Ruth is a good comparisonin an academic sense, but then Ruth retired nearly 80 years ago, so there are exceedingly few fans alive today who ever saw him play even in his twilight. Lewis was a part of the Ravens' very first draft, meaning that at no point has any Ravens' fan ever rooted for a Ravens' team that did not include Ray Lewis. Even knowing that Ray's becoming a shell of his former self in his old (football) age, that's a pretty sobering thought as I suddenly ponder what life is going to be like when he's not there on Sundays.
Well, scratch that, because I'm not really imagining that. Frankly, it's just not within the capabilities of the human brain to imagine that if you live here. Because as much as Ray Lewis is the Ravens, he also is the gameday experience for Ravens' fans. The pregame ritual is the same every week: you file into the stadium right about the time the team is doing warmups, and Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" is playing, because Lewis handpicked it. Then comes the team's entrance which, depending on which unit is being introduced that game, features Lewis either dancing his way through introductions or leading the team out of the tunnel, to the delight of everyone either way. Then, just after the coin toss and before the opening kickoff, the video board show a video of the pregame speech he gave that day (those sometimes not altogether coherent ramblings you see on television) and the tension in the crowd is palpable. You might not necessarily know what he said, but you sure as heck know that you feel like you could jump right down onto the field and run the kickoff back yourself. The idea of a game, of a season, without all of that is just utterly... foreign, to me; like asking me to imagine a world without milk or something.
In a way, this is a deeper version of the same feeling I had watching Rafael Soriano close games for the Yankees last season. Yes, he performed about as well as anyone could have possibly done, Mo included, but it just wasn't the same without Rivera in that role. Something felt as though it was missing all season long, like the experience was not fully complete. That's the way Lewisless Sundays in autumn are going to feel for a long time here, except that we won't have the knowledge that Ray intends to come back next season to hold on to for comfort. It'll just be a long road to adjusting to the new normal, jonesing for that shot of adrenaline that was the raw intensity of those epic pep talks.
But we're not to that point yet, and it certainly doesn't feel as close as it is in nominal terms. Right now, there's one more game. One more dance. One more speech. One more overly emotional sing-along with the national anthem. One more time watching number 52 in the middle of the defense, moving his unit around before the snap. Maybe even one more career defining play. And with any luck, one more postgame speech thanking god and his teammates for a great win. That's a lot of one-mores, and that's a much bigger deal to me than you might think, because we've already beaten some fantastically long odds to get to this point. If this was going to be the last year no matter what, probability says it was far more likely that it all would have ended with a torn triceps in midseason, or another tough playoff loss on the road. Instead, there will be some measure of closure, knowing that the football gods have allowed us to squeeze every possible drop out of this amazing, unforgettable, community defining experience, and that we'll all get a chance to take in the game knowing, with certainty, that this is the end. At this point I don't even care who wins the game*, I just intend to cherish every second of this last game, and to pull every memory I possibly can out of this one final moment.
*(This statement subject to change approximately at the time of the coin toss)