Our last dance with Ray Lewis

He didn't know it, but the Ravens' star brought great joy to our household during our best times, and needed healing during our worst

January 06, 2013|By Annie Middlestadt

When I heard the news that Ray Lewis was retiring at the end of this season, I cried. Ray Lewis has an emotional hold on this community, state, and fan base — and on my family. He has been, for 17 years, a leader, an inspiration, a sign of hope. A constant.

I was a daddy's girl, but inside there was always a yearning to be one of the boys. I was the middle child, a "rose between two thorns" as my mother said, with a brother on either side. I was always wanting to be one of the guys but never quite fitting in. When the Ravens came to town, that all changed. Our town had been devoid of a football team for my entire lifetime, so I had never paid much attention to the sport, despite my father's wistful stories about Johnny Unitas and his "golden arm." When the Colts left town, my father tried to embrace other teams in neighboring cities, but nothing really stuck. But then we heard there might be a Baltimore football team — one of our own. My family was in.

True Baltimoreans, my parents tailgated for every game, but I was away at college and missed the craze that had taken hold of my family. When I was home in White Marsh for winter break one year, my dad asked me if I'd like to attend a game. Daddy's girl said yes, of course.

I instantly fell in love with tailgating; in Baltimore, that came easily. The passion of the fans in their colorful garb, faces painted and stacks of beads lining tables and necks; the sheer mass of people and vehicles as far as you could see. Tailgating was its own sporting event in our family. My dad had bought an old 15-passenger van, had it painted black and purple, and carpeted the floor with Astro-Turf. The vanity plates read: GAMEDAY. That day, there were oysters being shucked, steamed crabs being picked, and all kinds of meats on the grill.

As always, my father gave his ceremonial cheer: In emulation of Ray Lewis' famous chant, he'd bellow, "WHAT TIME IS IT??" and everyone would shout "GAME TIME!!" in response. Then we trekked into the stadium. When we got to the gates, my dad stopped, put his arm around me and looked up. "There she is," he said softly under his breath. We stood there for a few minutes. Then we entered the gates.

I'd seen the Ray Lewis introductory dance on TV before, had seen fans imitate it. But I soon learned that nothing could compare to the deafening sound of the crowd, the women screaming "Ray Ray," the men thumping their hands on the chairs in front of them, everyone stomping their feet and clapping, as he came out of the tunnel. The rumbling was so thunderous, I thought the entire upper deck might come crashing down.

The first quarter of the game was overwhelming. I didn't know the game, didn't understand any of the plays, any of the penalties. Through all my dad's steady focus and cheering, and nervous wringing of his hands between plays and mumbling to himself and to the refs, I could see him occasionally steal a glance over at me to see how I was doing. Sometime in the second quarter, he handed me his binoculars and said, "Look into these and tell me when you find number 52." I tried to focus around the field, scanning, scanning, for a big "52" on the back of a purple jersey. "I see him," I said. "Good," my dad said. "Now watch him. Watch his eyes. You'll see where the ball is going." And he was right. Every play, the rest of the game, I watched Ray, watched his eyes, his body movements, the rapid burst of speed when he took off, the hard hits he planted on the opposing team. Every time, he was right there, right where the ball was. This is how I learned the game of football.

After that, I no longer complained about the purple Christmas tree. I didn't care when my parents traded in their old couches for ones with the official Ravens logo. The fever had spread to me, and I was completely infected. My parents bought me season tickets and a personal seat license as a gift, near my dad's. I was officially one of the crew. I loved tailgating with my entire family — Dad, Mom, and both brothers. Some of my best family memories are from those Sundays. From my seats, I can see my father and mother every game. I focus on the game but always find myself looking to their seats when we score or make a big play, elated to see my dad high-fiving others in his section. "That's my man!" I could imagine him shouting when Ray sacked the quarterback.

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