Our last dance with Ray Lewis

When I heard the news that Ray Lewis was retiring at the end of this season, I cried. Ray Lewis has an emotional hold on this community, state, and fan base — and on my family. He has been, for 17 years, a leader, an inspiration, a sign of hope. A constant.

I was a daddy's girl, but inside there was always a yearning to be one of the boys. I was the middle child, a "rose between two thorns" as my mother said, with a brother on either side. I was always wanting to be one of the guys but never quite fitting in. When the Ravens came to town, that all changed. Our town had been devoid of a football team for my entire lifetime, so I had never paid much attention to the sport, despite my father's wistful stories about Johnny Unitas and his "golden arm." When the Colts left town, my father tried to embrace other teams in neighboring cities, but nothing really stuck. But then we heard there might be a Baltimore football team — one of our own. My family was in.

True Baltimoreans, my parents tailgated for every game, but I was away at college and missed the craze that had taken hold of my family. When I was home in White Marsh for winter break one year, my dad asked me if I'd like to attend a game. Daddy's girl said yes, of course.

I instantly fell in love with tailgating; in Baltimore, that came easily. The passion of the fans in their colorful garb, faces painted and stacks of beads lining tables and necks; the sheer mass of people and vehicles as far as you could see. Tailgating was its own sporting event in our family. My dad had bought an old 15-passenger van, had it painted black and purple, and carpeted the floor with Astro-Turf. The vanity plates read: GAMEDAY. That day, there were oysters being shucked, steamed crabs being picked, and all kinds of meats on the grill.

As always, my father gave his ceremonial cheer: In emulation of Ray Lewis' famous chant, he'd bellow, "WHAT TIME IS IT??" and everyone would shout "GAME TIME!!" in response. Then we trekked into the stadium. When we got to the gates, my dad stopped, put his arm around me and looked up. "There she is," he said softly under his breath. We stood there for a few minutes. Then we entered the gates.

I'd seen the Ray Lewis introductory dance on TV before, had seen fans imitate it. But I soon learned that nothing could compare to the deafening sound of the crowd, the women screaming "Ray Ray," the men thumping their hands on the chairs in front of them, everyone stomping their feet and clapping, as he came out of the tunnel. The rumbling was so thunderous, I thought the entire upper deck might come crashing down.

The first quarter of the game was overwhelming. I didn't know the game, didn't understand any of the plays, any of the penalties. Through all my dad's steady focus and cheering, and nervous wringing of his hands between plays and mumbling to himself and to the refs, I could see him occasionally steal a glance over at me to see how I was doing. Sometime in the second quarter, he handed me his binoculars and said, "Look into these and tell me when you find number 52." I tried to focus around the field, scanning, scanning, for a big "52" on the back of a purple jersey. "I see him," I said. "Good," my dad said. "Now watch him. Watch his eyes. You'll see where the ball is going." And he was right. Every play, the rest of the game, I watched Ray, watched his eyes, his body movements, the rapid burst of speed when he took off, the hard hits he planted on the opposing team. Every time, he was right there, right where the ball was. This is how I learned the game of football.

After that, I no longer complained about the purple Christmas tree. I didn't care when my parents traded in their old couches for ones with the official Ravens logo. The fever had spread to me, and I was completely infected. My parents bought me season tickets and a personal seat license as a gift, near my dad's. I was officially one of the crew. I loved tailgating with my entire family — Dad, Mom, and both brothers. Some of my best family memories are from those Sundays. From my seats, I can see my father and mother every game. I focus on the game but always find myself looking to their seats when we score or make a big play, elated to see my dad high-fiving others in his section. "That's my man!" I could imagine him shouting when Ray sacked the quarterback.

My dad never missed a home game. Of all those games, one stands out to me, a game in which I watched my father the entire game. In 2003, Thanksgiving morning, my older brother Herb was in a terrible car accident on his way home from working the night shift at my dad's machine shop in Baltimore. A helicopter flew him to Shock Trauma. That night, we ate cold cafeteria-grade turkey and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital. We spent several sleepless days on the waiting room couches. We prayed together, and separately. We cried, we held each other, we held onto every glimmer of hope. It was not looking good.

That Sunday, my dad jostled me and my younger brother, Rich, from our sleep on the waiting room floor, and said, "Come on, get up, kids." We were numb by then, didn't ask questions. We followed our dad out into the biting winter air. We walked for a while toward the center of the city before I realized where we were headed. It was game day, after all.

My dad cried through the entire game. I did too. Somehow, that game was some kind of escape from the horror we knew we were about to face, a distraction from our tragedy. I remember standing there, wind whipping at my tears, pleading, "Come on Ray. Come on Ray." If only for a few hours, it was a semblance of life moving on, continuing somehow. Something for my dad to believe in. Something for me to believe in.

Herb died the following week, never coming out of his coma. I can't begin to describe the toll it has had on my family, so I won't try. His 2-year-old son, Dylan, had been taught who "Ray Ray" was almost as if he were a family member. Dylan had mastered the art of imitating Ray Lewis' dance, and this brought my dad so much joy and laughter. For years to come, we had him do his impression of Ray's dance, and we taught him how to chant back when my dad imitated his cheer. I took him to many pre-season games but was too worried about the rowdiness of the crowd or the cursing of passionate fans to take him to a regular-season game.

It took me a while to decide who to invite to today's game. A playoff game is a big deal; I needed to bring someone who would focus on the game, not want to chat during plays, and understand that bathroom breaks were limited to one per half. Once I knew this might be Ray's final game, the stakes were even higher. Inevitably, I will cry at some point. Who can I take who will understand that? Who truly knows what Ray means to this sport, this team, this city, this family?

I decided to take Dylan, now 11 years old. This will be the first and perhaps last time Dylan sees Ray live — sees him dance and play and thrill us. I cannot wait to see the look on Dylan's face when he finally sees his idol take the field. I know I won't have to tell him how special it is. He will feel the passion and the inspiration that Ray brought to Baltimore. He will hear the crowd cheer for their hero one more time. He will know what time it is.

Annie Middlestadt lives in Fells Point and is the executive director of an online education management organization located in Harbor East. Her email is anniemiddlestadt@gmail.com.

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