As the 2019 football season kicks into high gear, we are closing the chapter on Ray Lewis’ great run to the Hall of Fame and looking forward to the next superstar rising up in the Raven’s organization. After attending Ray Lewis’ enshrinement ceremony two weekends ago in Canton, Ohio, I am already looking forward to Ed Reed getting in on the first ballot next year.
If you’ve ever taken kids on a trip to Disney World in the summer you have some idea what it is like at a Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. Except, instead of photo ops with Mickey Mouse, you might get to snap a picture of one of the new Hall of Fame inductees or media stars in attendance or, for my family, one of the Ravens, and especially, of course, Ray Lewis.
After looking at the packed schedule of weekend events in sunny and very hot Canton, I realized that to get voted into the Hall of Fame, stamina is a major criterion. Members of the Class of 2018 were feted, followed and photographed for days leading up to the ceremony Saturday night. Ray and his classmates spent time with the “Gold Jackets,” former inductees like Jonathan Ogden and Ozzie Newsome, no doubt learning the secret Hall of Fame handshake and talking smack. They were gracious and accommodating throughout the weekend though they must have been emotionally and physically drained by the outpouring of adoration. Their sheer joy, however, seemed to give them boundless energy.
On Friday night, the second day of festivities, the honorees attended an emotional ceremony at the Canton Civic Center. After walking through a gauntlet of 140 Gold Jackets who lined the way to the stage, they were presented with custom-made Haggar jackets that they modeled for the sell-out crowd. This part reminded me of a beauty pageant except instead of pretty women with well-coifed hair and moist eyes waiting to see who was going to be named Miss Congeniality, we saw tough strong men crying tears of joy. It was beautiful.
More events were scheduled leading up to Saturday night’s enshrinement. If this were Disneyland and I were their mother, I would have made sure they stayed out of the sun that day to avoid heat stroke and took a nice nap beforehand. This would no doubt provide energy for impassioned speeches and the patience to answer inevitable questions about how the moment felt and who the bust really looked like. It could also help endure the people in green Eagles jerseys making the most of their Super Bowl bragging rights before the new season begins by incessantly — and very loudly — chanting their team’s fight song.
Highlight films on the stadium screens showed fiercely competitive players rocketing across playing fields to take on enemy combatants, but once they were on stage and their busts were revealed before a raucous live audience and millions of television viewers, we saw different sides of these men. Many recounted very personal journeys of growing up in poverty and facing adversity, raised by extraordinarily strong mothers, mentored by father-like coaches, loved by and loving teammates who were like family, and chip-on-their shoulder attitudes that made them the successful and competitive players they were. We were most privileged to witness very personal and tearful moments when they thanked their moms for their sacrifices, some working two or three jobs to take care of their kids, or when they were courageous like Brian Dawkins in revealing his history of depression.
The celebratory fireworks at the end were a fitting close to a transcendent experience. Natural talent, hard work, passion, fervent fans and the class and excellence of the Ravens organization brought Ray to this moment. The most transformational moment, however, was when he stepped from squirrel dancer to preacher mode during his 33-minute speech. I was personally hoping he’d break Brett Favre’s Hall of Fame speech record of 35 minutes, but it wasn’t meant to be. If the Eagles fans could have interrupted him for a few minutes to sing their fight song a few times I am sure he would have made it. I hope Ed Reed has started preparing for his shot at the record.
Toby Gordon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, with joint faculty appointments at JHU's Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine.