Tunnel vision

Before introductions, emotion builds in the dark

behind the scenes

Ravens Extra

January 14, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

The howling and barking begin before the double doors swing open to unleash the Ravens for their short walk down the concourse and into the darkened tunnel.

It's game time, and the team that has reached the playoffs on emotion as much as timely offensive plays and crunching defense is filling its tank.

The biggest men, helmets already in place, lead the way, the clatter of their spikes lost beneath the wave of sound that rolls from the locker room and is met by a wave of sound from the field and the stands.

Behind them are the players the fans know by number: Lewis, McNair, Heap, McAlister, Reed, Stover.

Police officers and stadium workers punctuate the walk with shouts of encouragement, but few of the players acknowledge any sounds but those of their own making.

"Oh yeah. All right now," a player shouts and is answered by unintelligible but emotional sounds of support.

The noise grows as the Ravens bunch in the tunnel, at the entrance to their workplace. Wispy smoke from a special effects machine curls at their feet and builds to a blanket, reaching their knees, their hips, their shoulders.

"Let's hunt," someone shouts, as players howl in reply, slapping helmets and pads and bouncing lightly from side to side, perhaps to stay loose, perhaps to show impatience.

Only kicker Matt Stover - arms crossed and leaning against the tunnel wall like a commuter waiting for a bus - and a helmetless Steve McNair in the back of the pack seem unmoved by the turmoil around them.

Their opponents are already on the sideline. Some players are in their own world, wrapped up in their own rituals. Others are looking toward the Ravens' pitch-black tunnel, where two menacing eyes perched above the hole look back and Oz-like plumes of fire frame the opening.

The noise is deafening. The vision is surreal. It's meant to be.

If the Ravens look within for their spark, they complete the emotional circuit by connecting with the fans.

"Our player introductions are special," says team spokesman Kevin Byrne. "We're always looking for a way to get the fans up and let them feel involved.

"First, we want to focus the attention on that corner of the field. You don't need a lot of words. The fans know."

NFL rules muzzle stadium loudspeakers, scoreboards and message boards when the visiting team has the ball and requires teams to "exert proper control" over mascots, announcers and cheerleaders. Even public address announcer Bruce Cunningham has to watch his inflection.

What the Ravens can't do electronically they do organically, tapping into the emotion of fans in the 70,100-seat stadium who fill the bowl with a sound as deafening as the racket in the confines of the tunnel.

The players eat it up.

`Lion in a cage'

"Your passion about the game just comes out, and you have that feeling, something like goose bumps because you know it's about to happen," fullback Ovie Mughelli says. "You see the lights outside, you can hear the fans getting loud, and just the anticipation for the explosion that's about to happen. It's the greatest feeling in the world, actually. I'm like a lion in a cage. When you open the cage and let us out, we're going to go out there and make things happen."

Using emotion is a balancing act, says Sean McCann, the head of sports psychology at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"With a sport, there's an optimal level of arousal. What's good for a defensive lineman or Ray Lewis may not be good for the quarterback or kicker," he says. "The crowd can be valuable. The crowd can give a team hope and confidence."

When the fans are on top of their game, good things happen at M&T Bank Stadium. In the past seven regular seasons, the Ravens are 42-14 at home.

"Our players and coaches are into it. They know how to play to the crowd," Byrne says. "They get people up. They wave towels. They play to the cameras."

During a win over San Diego in October, the roaring crowd helped cause two Chargers false starts in the fourth quarter deep in their own territory.

Afterward, coach Brian Billick acknowledged the fans' contribution: "We talk about how the crowd can have a tangible effect on a game, and that sounds awfully cliche. But at the end of the game, the miscommunication, the jumping offsides, them being pushed back, [not] being able to hear the signals, that had a tangible effect on the game. Anybody there can see that."

Wiggling hands look otherworldly as they reach down from Sections 115 and 117 through the smoke to break the shafts of light from the banks of stadium lights. If they are a distraction, the players don't show it.

"Whooooow," howls guard Ikechuku Ndukwe, his head tipped back, his upper body shaking.

Good vibrations

Fingertips pressed lightly on the tunnel wall pick up a thrumming vibration generated by stomping feet and fireworks paying tribute to the team.

McNair moves quietly through his teammates, his face expressionless. There's a word for Mughelli, a pat on the back of free safety Ed Reed.

Tackle Haloti Ngata prays silently, a mountain of serenity in the chaos.

Linebacker and self-proclaimed team general Ray Lewis is all motion, stalking the tunnel, staring into the eyes of his teammates.

Finally, just as it seems the cement might start to crumble, the introductions start.

With her headset and clipboard, Patti Holtery plays traffic cop. Even the most snarling of Ravens pays attention to the tiniest person in the tunnel as she holds her palm toward them and unleashes them on cue.

At 6 feet 6 and 320 pounds, tackle Tony Pashos looks like a massive mobile billboard for No. 79 as he rumbles by.

Running back Mike Anderson thumps his chest and points heavenward before dashing out.

Todd Heap and McNair disappear into the smoke as the noise intensifies and Lewis stands alone.

Then, his number called, Lewis goes to work.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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