'D,' as in Ravens defense - and duende

The Baltimore Sun

I think what I have missed in life has been the duende. I am always looking for it, but have not seen it lately. Not in years, in fact. The duende is not something you can appreciate in the virtual world. It must be clear and present. You must live within the duende's atmosphere to experience it, and I think we are seeing it right now, as a high-duende system moves into the Baltimore region.

Call me the duende meteorologist. Or at least allow me to indulge this duende business again because it has been years for me since I last mentioned it in this space - and what I see happening with Baltimore's professional football team ... I think this is the duende.

I am not talking about winning.

Winning has something to do with it but not everything to do with it. To say duende is about winning is to belittle the word.

And about the word, please allow me to pull from some earlier columns so that you might better understand. Duende is not a word to be used casually and, from what I have seen in the American press over the years, it is not - and probably because it takes too much explaining each time.

Let me try again.

Duende is a potent elixir of charisma, passion, panache, flair, chemistry, soul, style, grace under pressure and star quality. Duende, wrote the late jazz critic George Frazier, "is heightened panache, or overpowering presence ... that certain something."

We look for it in the arts and in sports because duende is a living thing, a spirit that dances in the imagination and ignites the soul.

Duende is what separates talent from genius. It is probably what lived in Mozart. Frazier heard duende in the horn of Miles Davis. A sports fan, Frazier once put it this way: "[Duende] was what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run."

It is what Muhammad Ali had even in defeat.

We are in the realm of the metaphysical, friends.

While the literal Spanish definition of duende is "hobgoblin" or "ghost," the Spanish expression tener duende means "to have what it takes." Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and author of Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter, called duende the "energetic instinct" that no flamenco dancer or matador could be without.

"To help us seek the duende there are neither maps nor discipline," Garcia Lorca wrote. "All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles."

I am not sure the Ravens defense meets those criteria, but there is something going on with them that talent alone does not explain. It is mystical. I became convinced in the last minute of the game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 12.

The Ravens had rallied to a 27-26 lead, but the Titans had a chance for a game-winning field goal from 43 yards out. As I watched this, I sensed the duende. I thought something magical was about to happen. Let me go further to say that I knew for certain that the Ravens would block this field goal.

And they did.

Trevor Pryce got his hand on the kick, and there were 43 seconds remaining on the clock, and the Ravens won.

That was a moment of high duende.

Then, this past Sunday against the Steelers, the Ravens defense was "an overpowering presence," sacking the Pittsburgh quarterback nine times. Just when the Steelers seemed to be finally moving toward a score in the third quarter, Ben Roethlisberger stepped back to pass again. The Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy stormed into the pocket and stripped the ball from Roethlisberger. The large linebacker Adalius Thomas picked it up at the 43-yard line and ran off to a touchdown, on a sprained ankle he had aggravated earlier in the game. The Ravens won, 27-0.

But, as I have been careful to say, this isn't about winning.

And it's not about Steve McNair, though he is a wonderful quarterback with flashes of the duende.

While the duende is usually found in the individual - a talented and passionate dancer, a singer with gobs of star power, an overpowering pitcher with a 95-mph fastball, a quarterback who can rally his team from apparent defeat to victory - I cannot say that this spirit has settled into any one particular Ravens player for the long term. I'm not saying Adalius Thomas has the duende, or Corey Ivy, or Trevor Pryce, or Ray Lewis, or Bart Scott, or Ed Reed. I'm saying the Big D lives within the Big D. The defense has the duende, and it flashes in McNair's hands and feet.

It is a great thing to see, a welcome change in the atmosphere around here. Let us rejoice and be glad.


Hear Dan Rodricks on Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM), and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks

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