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.
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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.
Of course, if you have to be stuck somewhere for a mobbed, week-long party, New Orleans is probably the No. 1 choice in the United States. Give me some Cajun rabbit and dumplings from Cochon, brass band music spilling from the clubs on Frenchman Street and the ability to carry my Abita from one locale to the next, and I’m a happy man.
Meanwhile, the hubbub around the Ravens waned as the week went on and they traded media obligations for detailed game prep.
On Friday, the Harbaugh brothers — opposing coaches and stars of the week’s most remarkable yet beaten-to-death storyline — sat for a joint press conference.
Watching the two brought out the amateur psychologist in many of us. Older brother John sure seemed looser. He had even made a prank call to his parents on a media conference call the previous week. Would his comfort transfer to his team? Or was Jim’s tightly wound intensity the better approach?
Saturday, the Ravens and 49ers briefly cleared the stage for their forefathers as the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its 2013 class. The weekend shaped up as a real culmination for the Ravens, with the franchise’s first No. 1 pick, Jonathan Ogden, on the Hall of Fame ballot and Lewis, the guy selected 22 slots later, playing his final game. General manager Ozzie Newsome admitted he’d held far-fetched hopes that it would come together that way.
“I don't think any of you guys could have written that script,” Newsome told the Baltimore media.
If it’s possible for a 6-foot-9, 345-pound ex-All-Pro to remain inconspicuous among thousands of football fans, Ogden pulled off the trick in New Orleans. Even on Bourbon Street, where he stood out like an elephant grazing among sheep, the former Ravens offensive tackle generated relatively little fuss. Which is exactly how he likes it.
Ogden was hardly anonymous to the voters, however, cruising into the hall on his first try. He was only sorry that late Ravens owner Art Modell, a fellow finalist, did not join him.
Passing, panic, then a party
From the moment Ogden learned of his induction to the first minutes after halftime the next evening, hardly anything could have gone better for the Ravens.
As fans filed into the Superdome, the greater size and volume of the Baltimore contingent became obvious. And as the game itself got underway, it became equally obvious that Flacco wasn’t done with his historic playoff hot streak.
Over and over, he threw downfield, gobbling up chunks of yardage without courting disaster against a swift 49ers defense.
Jacoby Jones capped the first half when he caught a pass from Flacco while on his back, popped up and evaded one last defender with a move that presaged his work on “Dancing with the Stars.” Jones doubled down after he caught the opening kickoff of the second half.
The team’s other Louisiana native ran so fast that he hit the end zone before the crowd could even grasp what was happening. After a few seconds, you could see a simple truth registering on the faces of Ravens fans throughout the building: It was really going to happen. A season that seemed lost during a December swoon was going to end with the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
And then the lights went out.
I don’t how it felt to those watching on television. But inside the Superdome, the now-infamous 34-minute power outage registered not as an outrage but as a profoundly odd experience. The auxiliary lights came on, so it wasn’t like we couldn’t see. I’m sure some people wondered about terrorism. The Super Bowl is a paranoid extravaganza to begin with. You couldn’t drive anywhere near the venue on Sunday, and every bag received a once-over from the bomb-sniffing dogs.
There was no obvious panic, however. We all looked bemused, contemplating the absurdity of sitting there in the half-light, surrounded by lord knows how many wires, television trucks, network technicians and corporate wizards.
The players, too, wandered the outskirts of the field in a collective haze.
When the power flicked on, section by section, I sensed that it came just before anger took hold of the crowd. But who knows really?
What we do know is that the Ravens and 49ers seemed to swap spirits during the outage. Suddenly, the team in red seemed so much faster at all points of the field, a great wave that swept over the Ravens. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked like the best kid at a middle-school recess game, zigging and zagging wherever he darn pleased. In slightly more than four minutes of game time, the Ravens’ lead went from a comfy 28-6 to a deeply unsettled 28-23.
The remaining 18 minutes became an exercise in desperate clinging. Anyone with an interest in the Ravens could hardly escape the thought: They’re going to be remembered as the team that lost the blackout game.
That feeling extended all the way to the 49ers’ last drive, which brought them to the Ravens’ seven-yard line with less than three minutes on the clock. One stuffed run and two incomplete passes later, Kaepernick lofted a fourth-down throw to receiver Michael Crabtree, who was engaged in fierce hand-sparring with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.
As the ball sailed harmlessly beyond Crabtree’s grasp, a question lingered: Would a yellow penalty flag follow?
When it did not, thousands of Baltimore guts unclenched.
The indelible images came in a hurry from there. I remember a beaming Reed saying he was ready to lead a second-line parade through downtown New Orleans. And I believed he just might. I remember walking over mounds of confetti, taking in the vastness of the Superdome from field level as the celebration finally calmed. I remember greeting a victory-dazed Michael Phelps on the street outside the Superdome.
The next day, Flacco jetted from a groggy press conference in New Orleans to Orlando, Fla., where he rode next to Mickey Mouse in a red Corvette, and finally to New York for an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
The day after that, the Ravens partied on the streets of Baltimore with 200,000 eager well-wishers. Reed, one of many players who would soon be on their way to other teams, walked the Lombardi Trophy into the throng so regular folks could touch it.
And Lewis offered these last words for a city that had supported him through his most uncertain moments: “Baltimore, I love you, forever and ever and ever and ever.”