Sportswriters inevitably get the question: How do you cover teams you once loved as a fan?
The standard answer is that you stop rooting for the jersey and start rooting for the best story. That's true to a point but incomplete. It's near impossible to cover a team and not become fascinated with some of the individual personalities. You don't exactly root for them, but you are drawn to them.
And that brings me to Ed Reed and his departure from Baltimore after 11 mesmerizing, mystical, confounding and deeply entertaining seasons.
Reed is the most captivating athlete who has passed through the city during my time as a writer. And for that reason, I'm unashamed to say I'll miss him.
The first time I had the pleasure of writing about him, during the 2009 playoffs, he had puzzled everyone by idly remarking that he might try baseball. He had manned third base and closed games for Destrehan High School, just outside New Orleans. And with the daily realities of NFL pain management tugging at his mind, he spoke whimsically of a career change.
Mind you, he was in the middle of perhaps his most spectacular stretch, having intercepted 10 passes and scored three defensive touchdowns in the previous seven games. In the previous weekend's playoff game in Miami, he had raced past everyone to intercept an overthrown pass and had then reversed his momentum and cut through the entire Dolphins' defense on his way to the end zone.
The play was pure Reed, like Willie Mays playing football. He zoomed out of nowhere to make a play that defied the normal rhythms of an NFL game. And instead of stopping at one remarkable feat, he kept pushing, determined to paint a masterpiece.
Moments like that allowed us to forgive Reed his kooky laterals. The man wasn't content with being ordinary.
Anyway, what struck me during that 2009 reporting experience was not anything Reed had to say. He was in one of his frequent man-of-few-words phases.
No, what came through was the reverence teammates shared for his acumen. Fellow safety Jim Leonhard told me that every week, Reed did something that made him say, "I've never seen that."
Domonique Foxworth, as smart an athlete as you'll ever meet, couldn't believe how much Reed gleaned from a few hours of watching film. Years later, Foxworth would tell me he had never seen Reed's equal in outguessing the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Safeties tend to be relative afterthoughts in NFL game planning. But not Reed. He weaponized the position. You could hear it in appraisals from the NFL's brightest minds — Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning. Reed was the guy they feared in preparing for the Ravens.
Sure, Reed occasionally exhausted the patience of fans and team officials with pronouncements that seemed just as offbeat as his movements on the field. He talked often of retiring in recent offseasons as shoulder and neck injuries gradually diminished his playing abandon. There was the famous scene after the Ravens lost the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Instead of fielding questions about his future, Reed serenaded the locker room with a bit of Teddy Pendergrass.
But come training camp last summer, there he was, sporting his familiar samurai beard with the tinge of gray. And there I was, back to write about him and Ray Lewis as they prepared for one more ride. This time, I found an expansive Reed as we stood in a hallway near the team cafeteria and talked for 30 minutes.
Most veteran pros have mastered the art of blandness, but Reed, if you catch him on the right day, is an interesting listen. He speaks in elliptical passages that wander away from the question only to wind back to the essential issue.
He couldn't help but wrestle with his football mortality, he told me, and yet after a summer of soul-searching, he felt he had more to give — to his younger teammates and to the game itself.
Again, I was struck as much by what others said as by Reed's own words. The outside world regarded Lewis as the Ravens' leader, one of the most dynamic front men in all of sports. But when I discussed mentoring with younger Ravens such as Jameel McClain and Lardarius Webb, they couldn't stop talking about Reed. They saw him as far more than some football Zen master. They could talk to him about life — family relationships and the art of keeping football in its proper context.
The team needed his wisdom as injuries and ugly losses cast doubt on the fate of the season. Lewis again became the story as the playoffs opened, announcing his impending retirement days before the Ravens began a stretch of unexpected inspiration.
But just as fervently as his longtime teammate, Reed saw a perfect ending on the horizon, a Super Bowl to be contested in New Orleans, 20 miles from his hometown of Saint Rose, La. When the Ravens arrived, Reed embraced the spotlight like never before, beaming as he answered dozens upon dozens of questions about coming home.
On my favorite afternoon of that week, I spent a few hours at Destrehan High, speaking with Reed's mother, Karen, and the teachers and coaches who mentored him. Karen Reed was shy of questions but proudly showed off her hand-sewn purple Ravens boots and purple nail polish. The coaches remembered the way Reed listened to gospel on long bus trips and his folk-heroic mastery of anything athletic, from kicking a football to throwing the javelin to hitting home runs. His second mother figure, Jeanne Hall, described the way his charm and depth showed through even before he had his life together. She was convinced he'd become a comedian or a preacher.
Everyone at Destrehan still called him Edward. And Reed's boyish exultation proved to be one of the genuine pleasures of the Ravens' victory.
When he spoke of leading a "second line" through the downtown streets to the team hotel, it wasn't hard to picture him actually doing it. During the victory parade, it seemed he might disappear into a crowd of Baltimoreans, the Lombardi trophy tucked under his arm like an intercepted pass. In the weeks that followed, we even saw him as a red carpet reporter at the Oscars, chatting up George Clooney.
Business interceded as it usually does in pro football. The Ravens held to their discipline, refusing to overpay Reed now that he's no longer a core asset. And he did the sensible thing, squeezing the last, best payoff from a sport that grinds down the bodies of its greatest practitioners. No need for bitterness on either side.
And yet, a touch of sadness seems in order. One of our indelible characters is gone and his like shall not pass this way again.