In the field of generosity, Ravens prove a winner


June 06, 2008|By MILTON KENT

From one end of the dusty, pockmarked field at Mervo to the other, there were smiles across the faces of giant football players, tiny cheerleaders, coaches and teachers alike, owing little to the approach of summer and their freedom from each other for three months.

The collective happiness among the Mustangs, and the dignitaries assembled this week, was about the hope that field would yield when fall comes and the dirt and weeds are replaced by a new artificial turf surface.

In what is seemingly becoming a regular occurrence, the joy was caused by an action of the Ravens, who have become the best friend a Baltimore City school athlete could have.

Already, the team has performed a similar stadium reconstruction project at Poly, as well as outfitted all of the city's football teams, along with the boys and girls basketball squads at all of the high schools.

The Mervo project, which will cost an estimated $1 million, was aided by contributions from Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, owner Steve Bisciotti, the team's community foundation and the NFL Youth Football Fund. It will replace the grass field with a turf surface identical to the ones that the Ravens practice on and play on at home.

In addition, the team will construct new bleachers as well as build a new ticket booth.

Separately, Bisciotti and linebacker Ray Lewis have purchased helmets for each high school football team, while safety Ed Reed and tight end Daniel Wilcox, among others, have donated their time and funded projects at schools.

"This [the Mervo renovation] is just a continuation of all that," said Ravens team president Dick Cass. "We want to see Baltimore City high school football become successful. If kids are playing high school football, they're in school."

Sure, community involvement is part of the price big-money sports teams should pay for appropriating the identity of a city or state in their own name. Usually, that kind of participation begins and ends with the kind of "grip and grin" ceremonies that happened Tuesday, where a player or a team official brings a big check, shakes a few hands and smiles for cameras.

But the Ravens have gone past the symbolic to provide real help to a school system in desperate need.

"The Ravens have figured out that it's important for them to be good civic citizens," said Brian D. Morris, chair of the city's Board of School Commissioners for the past three years.

The Mervo stadium, which is already lighted, will join Poly's as a spot where all the city's schools will have a chance to host night games, allowing more parents and adults to attend.

Indeed, the Ravens estimate that the Lumsden-Scott Stadium at Poly has grossed more than $100,000 in the three seasons it has been opened since the renovation.

The Mervo renovation also does the city a serious solid, as the kids would say. The school's football field was closed for four years, while the city and contractors battled over construction costs. In the process, the team had to cross busy Hillen Road to practice, only to have to play 51 straight road games.

When the field was finally opened three years ago, it was still plagued by drainage issues, and in such bad shape that Cass said it was "inadequate and unsafe." That will all change once the construction, set to begin as early as next week, is completed.

The Ravens are understandably wary of being seen as the rich uncle for the city's high school athletics program, ready to write a check at the drop of a hat. All they want to do is extend the brand of football, one field and one uniform at a time.

"We're not the savior at all. We're just helping," Cass said. "We want to promote football. Whatever we can do to promote it, we'll do within reason. We're happy to help."

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