It's a gorgeous September afternoon, and students at the SEED School of Baltimore are spending it just like countless peers across the country — donning their home colors to play a game of football.
Classmates drift across campus to watch, sitting beside proud parents. It's a slice of Americana in the heart of Southwest Baltimore.
This scene would not be possible without Ed Reed.
Reed's foundation donated the money to start a football program at SEED, a public boarding school for at-risk youths on the former campus of Southwestern High. He hoped the game might give these kids a nudge to better themselves, just as it did for him.
Reed, whose daring style made him one of the signature players in Ravens history, will return to M&T Bank Stadium as a Houston Texan on Sunday. His visit will offer a chance to reflect on more than brilliant football achievements. Over his 11 seasons in Baltimore, Reed also forged connections of rare depth to several city schools.
At SEED, teachers and administrators say that along with his financial gifts, they'll always remember the attention Reed lavished on students.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, Reed showed up to hand out a truck full of turkeys, gravy, stuffing and pies. For as many as half the families at the school, officials said, that food made Thanksgiving dinner possible.
"You have athletes, actors, other stars who do these things for photo ops," said SEED Principal Khalek Kirkland. "But I saw in Ed Reed someone who was not in it for that. In fact, he seemed uncomfortable with that part of it. His focus was on the kids — helping to pack boxes of food for them, stopping to take pictures with them and their families."
Reed also adopted Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore when he came to the Ravens in 2002. He sat in on classes, gave needy students $150 each for Christmas presents and dispensed Ravens tickets to those who performed well in school.
He did it all with a personal touch learned from the mentors who helped him stay on track during his school days in the New Orleans suburb of Destrehan.
Reed was a mischievous kid who didn't fathom his potential until he reached high school. So he spoke from experience to Baltimore schoolchildren.
"Our students were able to see that he's really genuine," Kirkland said. "And they're not easily fooled."
The SEED School has 400 students in grades 6 to 11 who live on campus Monday to Friday. They come from 13 counties around Maryland, with three applicants for every available spot. To be eligible, students must demonstrate a risk factor for dropping out of school. With a rigorous daily schedule that begins with 6 a.m. wake-up and ends with study hall at night, SEED attempts to offer the structure students have missed at home.
The school was a favorite cause for late Ravens owner Art Modell and his wife, Pat. The main building, newly refurbished for this school year, bears their names.
Reed's Eye of the Hurricane Foundation connected with the school through SEED board member Katie del Carmen Byram.
She remembered an early visit to campus when a seventh-grader, not expecting to see the Ravens star walk through the door, stood and recited Reed's statistics.
"His eyes light up when he's on campus," Byram said of Reed. "He's totally dialed in to the kids he's speaking with."
Football proved an enormous motivator for Reed when he put his own academic career in order. So funding a startup program at SEED seemed a natural step for his foundation. SEED's two teams, one for middle schoolers and one the equivalent of a junior varsity at most other area schools, began play last season.
"The children of SEED School show so much strength and sacrifice to attend SEED School Baltimore, and we know the positives of sports," Reed said in a statement through his foundation. "We were glad to help support this great community and its children through athletics."
Kirkland said the school could not have afforded the sport without Reed's donation, which he said will keep the program running for years to come.
"It's a huge deal," the principal said. "It builds school morale. We can have a real homecoming game with a king and queen. Our kids can sit down at a football game and feel like they're at a real school."
Students must maintain a 3.0 GPA to play, so football has served as an academic motivator and a hook to keep older male students at the school, Kirkland said.
In gratitude for Reed's contribution, players gave him a framed SEED jersey, signed by all of them, at last year's Thanksgiving turkey handout.
"For them, it's definitely personal," Byram said. "They know he's the reason the team exists."
Reed's departure to Houston saddened Byram and Kirkland, though his foundation has pledged to continue supporting SEED and Booker T. Washington, where just this week, Reed funded sports physicals from Pikesville-based Doctors Express for about 60 children.
At his introductory press conference in Houston, Reed spoke of his enduring bond with Baltimore.
"That will never be taken back," he said. "I'll always be in that community, and I'm always forever grateful to my fans, to that city, to my neighborhood, my neighbors, to so many people and so many things — Booker T. Washington School, community things that we've done, Stevenson University, just working with those kids and that community. That's what it's about.
"Football is what we do. It's our job, it's a business. But the relationships that I have with people in Baltimore will never change."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun