Ravens pain cuts deeper in Baghdad

When the game ended, I saw the fans file dejectedly out of M&T; Bank Stadium.

Later, when my work was done, I left the stadium, too, and walked through Federal Hill, where fan after fan sought solace from a barstool, still trying to figure out what had just happened.


Putting a win in perspective is much easier. There are brackets and trophies. There are more games and more opponents. But the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts was different. And still today, four days later, do you know whom I feel saddest for? Not Steve McNair or Ray Lewis; not the old Colts players or the old Colts fans.

It's a guy named Kevin Hill, a 29-year-old Ravens fan from Eldersburg. He's a specialist in the 324th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit that has been stationed in Baghdad since the football season began.


As the Ravens piled up wins, Hill and I exchanged e-mails, and it was enlightening to see the true reach of a sports team. "I know [when] it gets stressful here and I'm tired of it all, I see that the Ravens are in the playoffs and it makes me smile," he wrote earlier this month.

For a full week in Baltimore, we shined purple lights on our buildings, squirted dye onto our foods and did a pretty good job convincing ourselves that the matchup against the Colts was much more than a game. And maybe it was, but for some people - fans like Hill - the Ravens always have been more than a spot on the weekend planner.

In the heart of a war, where the sun and desert sandblast spirits and hopes, the Ravens were a much-needed respite, a sliver of light that managed to crack through the daily routine.

"You know every one has that happy place in their head, where they go and dream when life isn't going well or their day isn't going well," Hill wrote. "So when I go to my happy place, I think of family, friends, being away from here.

"And I think of watching the Ravens winning."

It's tough to look out over a crowd of 70,000 and remember that each person has his own reason for being there, his own reason for investing his emotions in a football team. It's tougher still to think that there's someone 6,000 miles away living, breathing and bleeding over a game he can't watch. But that's Kevin Hill, in most ways, just a pretty regular guy.

"When I'm not fighting the war on terror, I'm a supervisor for UPS," reads a line in his MySpace profile.

For most of the past 4 1/2 months, he has followed the Ravens on the Internet and through newspaper clippings he receives from his parents in the mail. Hill watched a few games live, and for a couple of others, he'd connect with his family using a Web camera.


They'd put a radio near their computer and with a bit of ingenuity and a high-speed connection, Hill listened to the games in real time.

Early in the season, his mother had sent him a large Ravens flag.

The only time Hill took it down from his wall was when he visited one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces and plopped himself on the deposed leader's throne, the flag proudly draped behind him.

If you can get past the gun and the fatigues, Hill looks content, and the throne seems like a pretty cozy spot for a football fan, an emperor's La-Z-Boy. "I do wish I could just put on my Ravens hat and jersey, flop right in front of my TV [with an] ice cold beer and watch the game," Hill once wrote.

It's funny because I would assume that a tour through a war-torn region would teach someone how unimportant a football team can be. Instead, Hill kept insisting otherwise.

I received one e-mail the day after Christmas, and Hill said his unit had been on lockdown. He said they couldn't go to chow hall and that food was shuttled in and served in a green tent. Christmas away from friends and family was hard enough without the increased restrictions. But he was writing that day because the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Eve, clinching their first playoff spot since 2003.


"It really brightened my Christmas here," he wrote. "It helps me get through the holidays knowing that my team is in the playoffs and has a shot at a bye week for the playoffs."

That's what winning does. And now, a few weeks and one big playoff loss later, we try to understand what losing does. It's sad to consider.

"Like a lot of people here or back home," Hill wrote last month, "when life isn't going right or you have stress, come Sunday when football starts and your team wins, you forget all about your troubles for a few hours."

It'd be nice if for once the DVD his father recorded didn't make it to Baghdad. If Hill didn't have to watch the Ravens lose to the Colts. If, for fans like him, the season didn't have to end.

Sunday after Sunday, I came to appreciate the importance behind a Ravens win. And in just three quick hours last weekend, I was left pondering the devastation of a single loss.