Dark humor is kind of a Baltimore thing. So are overcoming low expectations. So what do you call it when a city attacked four months earlier by the president of the United States as a place “where no human being would want to live” and “rat and rodent infested mess” becomes the December darlings of the National Football League and perhaps even the favorite to win the Super Bowl? How about this: a spectacular turn of events. Of all the deadly sins associated with Charm City, who knew that it would become a major exporter of envy? But with the Ravens’ eighth straight victory this weekend over yet another top-tier opponent cementing its position astride the NFL power ratings, the story line is inescapable: Lamar Jackson is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
And here’s where it gets really good. How do Ravens fans honor this 22-year-old wunderkind, this Most Valuable Player candidate? Oh, sure, there are the usual ways. The cheers, the fan clubs, the “MVP” chants during games. But our favorite is the pitch-perfect line that’s already made it onto countless t-shirts, sweatshirts and other sportswear that can be seen from Bel Air to Annapolis to Westminster and everywhere in between: “Not bad for a running back.” That’s because before he was drafted by the NFL last year, Lamar Jackson was viewed by some talent scouts as a better fit at running back than quarterback. The pass-first, run-second QB was so against that label he declined to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and it’s one reason the Louisville star fell to the bottom of the first round allowing the Ravens to draft him.
So what we have now is a marriage of a city with a chip on its shoulder to a star quarterback with something of a chip on his. It’s too much to expect this young man from Florida to carry the expectations of an entire metropolitan area on his shoulders. But it’s not too much for a city to see the limitless possibilities of what hard work, drive and ambition have done for Lamar Jackson and carry him on theirs. As manifest as Baltimore’s problems may be from concentrated poverty, racism, job losses, homicide, inadequate schools and government corruption, the biggest would be for its residents to give up and accept how others see us. Ignoring potential? Conceding defeat? That’s what losers do. That’s not what the Ravens “running back” does.
Baltimore has a reputation for “toughness,” it’s a point the sports announcers seem to be fond of making as if “The Wire,” a fictional TV series that wrapped up 11 years ago, was somehow more representative of the city than the reality of Johns Hopkins University, Fort McHenry, Under Armour, University of Maryland Medical System, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the National Aquarium, New Psalmist Baptist Church, eating steamed crabs on a summer evening and all the rest. Critics claim to be doing everyone a public service by ignoring these things and pointing out West Baltimore litter. Or pronouncing the city’s latest crime plan DOA before it’s even had a chance at success.
Spare us. Baltimore has been around for 290 years. Its residents know its shortcomings just as Lamar Jackson knows his. That’s why Baltimore posts rat bumper stickers on its cars and drinks coffee from “I love my disgusting rat and rodent infested mess" travel mugs. It’s going to make the city’s journey forward all the more satisfying. This is no time to give up hope despite the day-to-day struggles. This is not the moment to despair. A year ago, the Ravens were seen as a so-so team picked by ESPN to not even make the playoffs. Look at the team now. One person can make a difference. Just as they can in the classroom, in the State House, on the beat, in the board room. It might take a little more time than Lamar Jackson’s rise, but the day will come.
Did Baltimore need this ray of hope, this champion in the most gladiatorial of team sports? You bet it did. But not just for entertainment, not just as a distraction, not just to be Super Bowl eligible. Lamar Jackson is living proof that what other people think of you means nothing. Not if you set your mind and heart to proving them wrong.