The Ravens' Super Bowl week in New Orleans truly had it all

From controversy to celebration to another controversy and even more celebration, Baltimore fans had quite the experience

December 31, 2013|By Childs Walker | The Baltimore Sun

A good 90 percent of people boarding the Southwest Airlines flight to New Orleans wore some manner of purple.

My favorite was the grandmother from Arbutus, who criss-crossed the waiting area, handing out strings of purple and gold beads shaped like little footballs.

Super Bowl week is no time for subtlety, and Ravens fans seemed ready to seize their place at the center of this American carnival of media, celebrity, gluttony and yes, football. They would ultimately outnumber and outscream their San Francisco counterparts, both in the 24-7 bacchanal of Bourbon Street and in the stands at the Superdome.

As my flight rolled down the BWI Marshall Airport runway that Wednesday morning, the Ravens had already coped with a few unexpected pitfalls in the Big Easy.

The hottest controversy boiled around retiring linebacker Ray Lewis. He had already authored quite a month, abruptly announcing his “last ride” before the Ravens’ first playoff game and then shimmying through his final squirrel dance at M&T Bank Stadium.

The biggest fear going into Super Bowl week was that Lewis would face rehashed questions about his murder trial 13 years earlier. But on Tuesday, Sports Illustrated upended expectations with a report alleging that Lewis, in attempting a rapid comeback from a triceps tear suffered that October, had obtained a “deer-antler” spray containing the banned substance IGF-1.

The story made a minor celebrity of 37-year-old Mitch Ross, who said he’d supplied Lewis from his Alabama business S.W.A.T.S., or Sports with Alternatives to Steroids. It also thrust the linebacker into denial mode on Super Bowl media day.

“I've been in this business for 17 years, and nobody has ever gotten up with me every morning and trained with me,” an indignant Lewis told the assembled hoard. “Every test I've ever took in the NFL, there's never been a question if I ever even thought about using anything. To even entertain stupidity like that, tell him to try and get his story out with somebody else.”

So that was fun.

And the Lewis mess came a day after quarterback Joe Flacco, supposedly the most boring man in western civilization, inflamed Special Olympics supporters by using the word “retarded” to describe the NFL’s plans to put Super Bowls in cold-weather cities.

One thing you notice in covering a Super Bowl is that, in contrast to the restricted access of a typical NFL week, star players are almost too available. They face so many questions so many days in a row that the whole show feels rigged to produce verbal mishaps.

So for a few hours on a winter Tuesday, you get literally tens of thousands of people debating an athlete’s poor choice of words. And a week later, hardly anyone remembers it ever happened.

Busy week in the Big Easy

My boots finally hit the ground in New Orleans around lunchtime Wednesday. From the airport, we drove not downtown but to Saint Rose, a village of 8,122 pushed against the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Long before Ed Reed mesmerized Baltimore with his uncanny disruption of NFL quarterbacks, he put on multi-sport shows for the people of Saint Rose and nearby Destrehan, where he played high school ball.

If there was a happy counterpoint to the media swarms around Lewis and Flacco, it was Reed’s homecoming. He seemed genuinely delighted to be in New Orleans for his first Super Bowl, more open than he ever was during a typical week in Baltimore.

Teachers and coaches at Destrehan seemed equally delighted to reminisce about the unique character they still called “Edward.” He was a mischievous, moody boy, they said, one who didn’t focus until he grasped that football could carry him far beyond from small-town Louisiana. School secretary Jeanne Hall recalled the depth of his personality, while the old coaches remembered spring afternoons when he pulled double duty on the track and baseball teams. They hadn’t seen anything like him, before or since.

And then Reed’s mother, Karen, arrived, shy and soft-spoken but proud as could be in her hand-decorated purple Ravens boots.

“God is good,” she said.

From the quiet pleasures of Saint Rose, we drove downtown, where the true enormity of the Super Bowl became apparent. As all-consuming a television event as the game is, it’s equally striking how it takes over a city.

From the massive banners covering office-tower facades to the sprawling village of television trucks to the packs of well-coiffed patrons spilling from every hot restaurant or club, the spectacle was unavoidable.

Everyone from Channing Tatum to Jay Z and Beyonce to Paul McCartney showed up to remind us that no, it’s not just a football game.

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