They lined up three rows deep and waited as Ed Reed slowly snaked his way toward the east end zone. It was almost like watching one of his unforgettable interception returns on slow-motion replay as he meandered across the M&T Bank Stadium field.
A swarm of cameramen chased him, and at every turn, the Ravens icon and Houston Texans free safety bumped into another former teammate or coach who made a beeline to him after the game's final whistle. He briefly chatted with Ravens' Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb, took a knee in a prayer circle of players from both teams then finally broke free from the pack.
As he approached the tunnel he had sprinted through so many times, hundreds of Ravens fans, who waited several minutes after the blowout victory and filled that corner of the lower bowl, bellowed out "Reeeeeeeed!" Reed raised one arm to show his appreciation before his No. 20 jersey disappeared into the darkness one last time.
"It was awesome, man," Reed said later. "When I first ran out, the whole stadium yelled my name. There's so much love and memories that I have here in this city. It's like family, man. That will always be there. That's something you cherish as a player. Not everybody gets that welcome when they come back."
Reed, who signed with the Texans weeks after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, made his return to Baltimore and his Texans debut in the Ravens' 30-9 win Sunday. Reed missed the first two weeks of the season with a hip injury, but Ravens players said all week that there was no way that Reed would miss a chance to play against his former team, in front of the fans who supported him for a decade.
Reed started but was mostly a non-factor for the Texans. He usually lined up deep in the middle of the field and was not tested by quarterback Joe Flacco, who said he purposefully tried to not pay too much attention to Reed as he patrolled the secondary. Reed said it was Houston's plan to line him up like a centerfielder and eliminate all throws deep down the middle of the field.
"If you're a playmaker," Reed said, "there's not going to be that many chances coming your way."
Reed made three tackles before taking a knee on the sideline in the final quarter. Put on a snap count by Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, Reed kneeled, helpless and motionless, on the 40-yard line with his head resting on his fist as the Ravens ran down the clock in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't [notice] him out there until the end of the third," Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones said. "I was like, 'Is Ed Reed playing? What's going on?' It was so weird to see him in a different uniform, without the Ravens uniform. I told him that I loved him after the game and that he will always be a brother to me."
Reed was Baltimore's first-round draft pick in 2002. The 35-year-old was selected to nine Pro Bowls during his Ravens career, was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and started in Super Bowl XLVII. In 11 seasons, he picked off 70 passes, including the playoffs, and led the NFL in interceptions three times. He scored 13 career touchdowns.
He also made an impact off the field through his work in the community and his mentorship of many young Ravens players, including Webb, who wishes his idol was still with the team.
"It was good to see how the fans and everybody welcomed him back," Webb said. "They love him around here, and they should because he did some special things around here in Baltimore."
After the game, Reed stripped off his white Texans jersey in the visitors' locker room and threw on a blue Texans baseball cap before heading to the interview room. His hat pulled down low, his black hair poofed out the sides as he sprinkled kind words about his former team in between clichés about discipline and execution.
Reed got a little emotional, though, when asked about the Ravens fans who chanted his name before the game and waited for him afterward to say goodbye and give thanks one last time.
"This is home, man. It's still part of my life and always will be," Reed said. "There's a lot of great things that I did here, a lot of great people that I met."
twitter.com/mattvenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun