On any given Saturday, you can find Valarie Wideman upstairs in the Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills. She will be sitting on the floor with her receptionist’s headset on, surrounded by stacks and stacks of letters, postcards and packages.
Sorting through a week’s worth the Ravens’ mail can be monotonous. Wideman, a Ravens receptionist for the past 11 years, rips open so many envelopes and weeds through so much junk mail, “I don’t even check my mailbox at home,” she said.
The 8-4 Ravens, who could move closer to a third consecutive playoff berth with a win over the 5-7 Houston Texans on Monday night, are the hottest ticket in this football-crazed town. And the easiest way for fans to connect with them is through old-school snail mail.
Every afternoon (except Sundays, of course), the mailman and delivery drivers drop off packages and clear plastic bins filled with letters from elementary school students, autograph hounds, charities, convicted felons and not-so-secret admirers. The flow is steady even in the offseason, when the fan focus shifts to Orioles, and it reaches its pinnacle in November and December.
“[The mail bins] are heavy, especially around the holidays,” Wideman said, trying her to best to quantify how much mail comes in.
The players also get bombarded with mail from companies trying to sell them stuff -- boats, houses, cars, time shares.
“Unfortunately, it’s become like it is at home -- about 90 percent is junk mail,” center Matt Birk said. “We weed through it because if people take the time to write you a personal letter, you certainly try to take care of them and honor their request.”
On this day, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the mailboxes for Joe Flacco, Michael Oher and Ed Reed are crammed. Letters and small packages are spilling out of the two cubbyholes for Ray Lewis. Then there are the empty boxes -- unless you count dust -- for rookie long snapper Morgan Cox, punter Sam Koch and the team’s eight practice squad players.
“I can count on one hand how many pieces of mail I’ve got,” Cox, who as a long snapper wants to stay anonymous, said later.
Does Cox wish he could spend hours tearing open letters like Lewis?
“No way,” he said, chuckling.
Besides the junk mail, most prominent are autograph requests. The players are sent items such as trading cards, hats, footballs and pennants. “If they put a return, self-addressed envelope in there, I send it right back,” linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. “You get some nice letters in there and you appreciate it. The fans go the extra mile.”
Birk said the players can relate. When he was a kid, he and his brother wrote to Major League Baseball players, and he remembers what it meant to have teams such as the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants reach out to them with autographs. “We got a huge kick out of it,” he said.
Wideman said the Ravens are pretty good at cleaning out their mailboxes. She rarely has to nag players to sort through them.
“It’s not that hard [to go through the mail], and it’s pretty considerate” of fans to send something, said Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, one the Ravens’ most frequent receivers of fan mail. “It’s no burden or anything.”
Still, it can be difficult during the grind of the season for the players in big demand -- think Ray Lewis and Ray Rice -- to handle the hundreds of requests they receive each month. Safety Haruki Nakamura said those players try to respond as promptly as possible, but “it’s just hard for some guys to get to all of it.”
Occasionally, the postman carries some pretty strange items into the Castle. Photo requests from prison inmates. Voluminous movie scripts. Threatening letters (those go straight to director of security Darren Sanders). Even floor mats with ballerina dance steps for bulldozing running backs.
A decade ago, when the Ravens were closing in on their first Lombardi Trophy, a fan wrote Jamal Lewis because she wanted to teach him dance steps so he would be lighter on his feet.
The playoff hero laughed it off when Wideman told him about the letter (and no, he didn’t end up putting on any ballet shoes).
And then there are the letters from admirers-- allegedly. “Not to brag,” Birk said in a playful, mock-macho voice, “but I’ve had a few females writing me interested in a date.” When Nakamura was asked about Birk’s claim, he laughed for a few seconds before responding, “I don’t know about that.”
When the mailboxes become overstuffed, Wideman bundles the mail and puts it in plastic bins for the players. Her second-floor desk is covered with crazy Ravens knickknacks, from a collection of bobbleheads ranging from Matt Stover to Gary Baxter to an unwanted third-place bowling trophy given to her by another former Raven, Chris McAlister. A half dozen of those bins are stashed underneath her long, mahogany desk, and her cabinets are crammed with more letters and items to be autographed.
“A lot of players aren’t able to respond until the season ends,” the shy but friendly receptionist explained. “They appreciate it. They know I try to make it easier for them so they can think about work.”
Every once in a while, the players receive something that really touches them. For Ngata, it was a photo of himself at training camp with a pair of young fans (it hangs in his locker room stall). For Ayanbadejo, it was an invitation to appear at an event for Equality Maryland. And for Nakamura, it was a surprising gift he received in the mail in late November.
In high school, Nakamura wore a Japanese headband his father gave him when he ran out onto the field, then he would give it to one of his favorite coaches. After his team played in the Ohio state championship game, he never got it back. Six years later, the coach mailed him the headband with a personal letter.
“My heart just warmed up, man,” he said. “I almost had tears in my eyes. It just meant so much to me.”
For the Ravens fans who connect with their favorite athletes, the feeling is mutual.