Ray Lewis took the microphone and said one word three times: "Baltimore."
Staring out at thousands of people crowding the Harborplace Amphitheater, most of them holding cell phones or cameras aloft to capture the moment, the second player ever drafted by the Ravens launched into a short speech. The team was making a pit stop Monday on its way to the airport to fly to New Orleans for Sunday's Super Bowl, so these would be Lewis' last public comments in Baltimore as a member of the franchise he has come to personify.
"There is no Ravens without you guys," he said.
Behind him, his teammates also held their phones and cameras out.
"We're not going to New Orleans for nothing else but to bring a ring back to Baltimore," Lewis said.
"That's what I came to hear," said Mike Dawson of Essex.
A few fans had arrived for the Super Bowl Send Off Rally as early as 7 a.m. Others filtered in throughout the morning, ignoring the rain while staking out spots to see the stage or one of several giant-screen televisions. Coach John Harbaugh led the Ravens' entourage off the buses when they arrived to loud cheers at 12:15 p.m. Traffic delayed their police-led caravan on Interstate 695 while making the trip from Owings Mills. No one minded.
Harbaugh called Baltimore fans "the best in the world" and said those who couldn't make the trip to New Orleans would be there in spirit.
Then the players left the stage and gathered, hands held high, as veteran safety Ed Reed — whose career in Baltimore also could be coming to a close, as he will become a free agent — led his teammates and the crowd in a final cheer, screeching out the line: "We've got two tickets to paradise," before imploring the crowd to shout, "Baltimore." Fireworks rose into the air, engulfing the players in smoke as they walked back toward the buses.
"That's Baltimore, man. That city is awesome," Lewis said after the team arrived in New Orleans. "Today's sendoff was absolutely electric. ... I told John [Harbaugh] and I told a couple of other guys, 'This feeling is great. The sendoff is awesome. But there's nothing better than coming home as world champions.' That's what we're here for, to bring a world championship back to Baltimore."
Dawson found an elevated spot to the right of the stage for his three children and a nephew. When the biggest moments came, he lifted his 4-year-old daughter Payton up and propped her on his shoulder. The older kids didn't have school, but Dawson planned to take them anyway.
"This is awesome," said Logan Dawson, 11. "It's going to be a memory I have all my life."
Patrick Starleper, an insurance agent from Federal Hill, maneuvered through the crowd with a long stroller holding his identical twin sons, Brock and Tucker. Born in early October, in the middle of the Orioles' playoff series against the New York Yankees, the boys managed to sleep through the commotion.
"We couldn't miss it," Starleper said. "I'll tell them about it later."
Entertainment began at 6 a.m. at the Tir Na Nog restaurant with radio station 98 Rock. While listening to the show, local artist Donald "Doc. Toonz" Tyson-Bey and his girlfriend, Ashley Bacon, painted their faces in festive Ravens colors. Outside later, Tyson-Bey held out a poster-sized painting of Lewis for fans to look at. Protected in plastic, it showed Lewis in mid-scream.
"I decided to paint it last night," said Tyson-Bey, who has painted several murals in the city. "Took me seven hours. But Ray Lewis, he brings this energy to the city. I only hope he can continue to do it after his career."
Ravens radio play-by-play announcer Gerry Sandusky officially began the rally at 11:30 a.m. and led a discussion with fellow radio broadcasters Qadry Ismail and Stan White.
The trio often turned its attention to the national media, saying they repeatedly had underestimated the Ravens this year. Michael McCrary, a defensive end on the Ravens team that beat the New York Giants in the 2001 Super Bowl, came to the stage for a short interview and said he felt the Ravens would beat the favored San Francisco 49ers because they have "more heart than any team out there."
People packed the balconies around Harborplace for most of the morning. Ravens cheerleaders and the mascot Poe pumped up the crowd. Men and women lugging dufflebags sold Ray Lewis shirts, towels and pennants. The big screens showed a boy who'd had the No. 92 — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's number — shaved into the back of his head.
"It's unbelievable," Ravens center Matt Birk said of the crowd at the rally. "There definitely is a special bond with this city and this team. Driving through downtown on the way to the airport and stopping to see the thousands of people there — the atmosphere was special. We don't doubt for one second that our city, our state and our fans are behind us."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley also spoke to the crowd, at times over a low murmur of boos. Rawlings-Blake played on the Ravens' underdog image, as well.
"Let them keep underestimating our Ravens," she said. "Because that's when we shine the best."
Meanwhile, in Washington, Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin made a Super Bowl bet with their colleagues from California. The Marylanders put up Faidley's crab cakes, Bergers cookies and Heavy Seas beer; Mikulski said she would add a can of hairspray. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein bet Dungeness crab, Napa Valley wine, sourdough bread and a selection of Northern California cheeses.
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The Ravens arrived in New Orleans several hours after the rally, emerging from their chartered plane into sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s. Led off the plane by Harbaugh, the players came out in suits and sport coats, many wearing headphones.