How 'What's our name?' became cry of the Ravens

January 15, 2009|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,

"You see this right here?" Derrick Mason asked, holding up a black shirt. Printed across the front were the words "What's our name?"

"You see that? They're going to realize what's coming at them," the Ravens wide receiver said. "Quickly. Everybody out there, the teams that are left, they're going to realize the Ravens are coming."

As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh, their season-long slogan has never seemed quite so poignant. You see it on T-shirts in the locker room and flashing in lights on the stadium scoreboard. Fans yell it in the stands, and players scream it in the huddle. It has been the team's rallying cry since before Week 1, but the back story and the exact significance have been mostly kept under wraps. Even this week, at his regular Monday news conference, coach John Harbaugh didn't offer many clues.

"I'd rather not get into that," he said. "But it's something that's been special to me my whole life, because it's something that our dad taught us when we were growing up."

Jack Harbaugh was a coach himself for years. Before the Ravens had played a single regular-season game this season, John Harbaugh asked his father to address the team.

"I really was reluctant," said Jack Harbaugh, former head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky and now an associate athletic director at Marquette University. "To be honest, I was in awe. To stand up in front of this team, these guys - this group that I really admired so much - and to think that I could possibly have anything to tell them?"

The subject was one with which the Harbaughs were familiar. Jack Harbaugh would often use the story of Muhammad Ali as a teaching tool. He would tell his sons how Ali never quit against Joe Frazier, how he outsmarted George Foreman. And of course, how he repeatedly asked a heavyweight fighter named Ernie Terrell, "What's my name?"

Jack Harbaugh had told the story of Ali-Terrell once before to a football team. It worked out pretty well then, so it was worth telling again, he figured.

The final game that Jack Harbaugh coached was the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA national championship, in which his Western Kentucky Hilltoppers faced McNeese State. Western Kentucky was the 15th seed in a 16-team tournament. McNeese State had thumped them earlier that year. No one even talked about the Hilltoppers as a contender in the tournament.

But Jack Harbaugh told them about Ali-Terrell. And the Hilltoppers won it all, beating McNeese State, 34-14.

As he prepared to address the Ravens in August, the story again seemed appropriate. Another team everyone was discounting. Another team searching for respect. Another team that could take inspiration from Ali.

So Jack Harbaugh told them how Cassius Clay had changed his name in 1964 after converting to Islam. And how nearly three years later, Terrell still refused to call him Muhammad Ali. He told them how the two squared off in the ring and that their fight wasn't about money or some championship.

Jack Harbaugh told them how Ali kept punishing Terrell but wouldn't put him down for good. At 69, Harbaugh is still light enough on his feet, and he started shadowboxing in the locker room, calling out Ali's words.

"What's my name?"

Pop! Harbaugh threw a jab.

"What's my name?"

Boom! A hook.

"What's my name?"

Bam! An uppercut.

Jack Harbaugh had been tentative about addressing the team, but suddenly all eyes were locked on him.

"So many of these guys had heard it all. In that format, there's no new message you can give. I was truly amazed," Jack Harbaugh said. "They listened."

He concluded by telling the players that they had to earn their name and start demanding respect. And for the past 4 1/2 months, that's exactly what they've done.

It was the perfect message for the Ravens, and before long, it was inescapable. Jack Harbaugh remembers tuning in to a game on television from his Milwaukee home and seeing footage from the locker room. He saw the players come together.

"What's our name?" someone asked.

"Ravens!" they all responded.

John Harbaugh repeated it in his locker room speeches and in the season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "What's our name?" appeared in big, glowing letters on the scoreboard. Before long, the phrase was stripped across the front of shirts, hung, tagged and priced for sale at the team store.

But more important than any marketing strategy, the cry of "What's our name?" still resonates with Ravens players. It got them this far - one win away from the Super Bowl, a place few foresaw back in August - and they're intent on riding it further.

"We wanted to make everyone understand that we are the Baltimore Ravens and each and every time you play us you're going to realize that," Mason said. "You're going to know who's coming to town or you're going to know whose town you're coming into - and that's the Baltimore Ravens.

"And we preach that every time we step out of that locker room: What's our name? We make sure everybody understands and realizes that this team you're about to fight, you might not want a piece of 'em."

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