Edward Reed was a mess.
Jeanne Hall — the woman the Ravens safety calls a second mother — can't find any other way to put it when she thinks back to the classes he missed and the assignments he disregarded as a freshman at Destrehan High.
But he was such a charming, clever mess — a kid who wrote romantic poems at the same time he played football like no one the school had ever seen. "You're either going to be a comedian or a preacher," she used to say on the many nights he stayed at her home, trying to get his world in order.
Though Hall has worked with thousands of Destrehan students and hundreds of football players, there's a reason she keeps Reed's picture on her desk beside snapshots of her biological children.
"You know Edward, everybody's not blessed like you, the talent you have," she would tell him. "So you can waste it or you can do something good with it. And he chose to do something really good with the talent."
That's why Super Bowl week in New Orleans has been such a proud time for Hall and others who helped Reed emerge from this place. He has returned not only as an all-time-great player but as a son who fulfilled their fondest hopes.
Much of the Ed Reed we know from Baltimore — the player who discerns patterns on a football field with rare genius, the mentor who shares his wisdom with teammates and youngsters, the mercurial personality who'll disarm you with offbeat humor one day and withdraw completely the next — can be traced back to this town of 8,122, located hard against the east bank of the Mississippi River.
Though he spends most of the offseason with his son in Atlanta, Reed keeps Saint Rose close to his heart. His parents and siblings still live here, and Hall still works at Destrehan High, from which Reed graduated in 1997. Every summer, Reed comes back to hold a camp for hundreds of local kids, running with them on the same fields he trod as a youth star.
When Reed, 34, sang "Two Tickets to Paradise" after the Ravens won the AFC championship, he wasn't just commenting on the glory of reaching the Super Bowl. He was celebrating the fact he'd be going home to do it.
"You can't take this out of him," said Hall, who speaks with him at least once a week and frequently travels to watch his games. "He's small-town Edward. He'll always be small-town Edward."
All week in New Orleans, Reed has played belle of the ball, merrily holding court with the writers he often avoids during the season.
He remembered coming to the Superdome as a teenager during Super Bowl week, his reward for winning the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Visions of that experience flashed in his head as the Ravens prepared for this year's AFC championship game. Were they a portent of a trip home for the Super Bowl?
"Before we played the Patriots, I started seeing those images, but I wasn't saying anything about it," Reed said. "It was just like, 'Lord, for real? Is this real?' I knew we had to play this game, and it's just awesome."
A loving mother
Here, they still call him Edward.
Saint Rose wasn't the toughest place to grow up. It's an increasingly middle-class suburb of New Orleans, with nearly equal black and white populations. It has gentrified some since Reed's childhood.
His father, Ed Sr., was a welder and his mother, Karen, kept the house and tried to keep five sons full on baked chicken, macaroni and cheese and jambalaya. It was a loving home by all accounts.
Karen Reed has not given many interviews, but she came to Destrehan this week to talk about her second son, who surprised her with a new house in Saint Rose when he had earned enough NFL money. She wore hand-sewn purple Ravens boots, an AFC championship T-shirt and purple nail polish.
"It means a lot," she said of her son's attachment to Louisiana. "He loves working with the kids here."
Karen grew up an only child, raised by her mother and grandmother, so Ed and his brothers became everything to her — in her words, "my sons, my daddy, my brothers."
The family has experienced its share of pain, most notably two years ago, when Ed's younger brother, Brian, leaped to his death in the Mississippi River after an encounter with a local sheriff's deputy. But she dwells on the happy side.
"God is good," she said. "Blessing me with all them boys and then one of them is an NFL player. I couldn't believe it."
Saint Rose was a place with enough temptations that a boy could idle his life away.
And Reed seemed to be drifting off track when Ben Parquet, a longtime student advocate for the St. Charles Parish school system, got a hold of him. Parquet's wife, a middle school teacher, had spotted the boy's intelligence and charisma. Even then, Reed's athletic skills drew others to him. But he missed classes and rarely focused on his work.
"He was a mischievous kid but with a lot of potentials," said Parquet. "I saw him as a kid who could do something with his life. We just had to corral his energy and move it in a positive direction."
Parquet told Reed his talent would amount to nothing if he didn't become more serious. He would slap the teenager in the chest and say, "Hey man, I need your attention."
One afternoon, when Reed was still in middle school, Parquet took him up to Destrehan to watch a few athletic practices. He wanted to get him excited about something that lay ahead.
Reed moved up to the high school without completing middle school. He was too old to remain with the younger kids.
The switch didn't flip right away, but he was headed to the place where he'd find himself.
'Best athlete I've ever seen'
Sports were never the problem.
Destrehan has produced a string of NFL players, including receiver Damaris Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles and punter Mike Scifres of the San Diego Chargers (Reed swears he taught him to kick).
But to this day, the coaches haven't seen anything quite like Edward Reed. They get to cackling in a hurry as they let their minds wash back over the things they saw him do.
"He was the type of kid where if you gave him something, he could pick it up and do it right — right away," said Reed's track coach, Ulysses Frontha.
In football, he returned kicks as a freshman, played quarterback from the Wing-T formation as a sophomore, served as the team's kicker and still had time to earn player of the year honors as a defensive back. No matter where he lined up, he always knew what to do when the ball came near.
One time, Frontha and Reed's basketball coach, Charles Griffin, watched from the sidelines as Destrehan played rival South Lafourche. It was fourth down late in the game, and South Lafourche lined up to punt.
"Coach and I were like, 'I hope they don't punt this to Ed Reed, because he's going to bring it back,' " Griffin recalled. Sure enough, Reed streaked by them seconds later, on his way to the winning touchdown. He would tell the coaches later that he heard their sideline conversation and didn't want to disappoint.
"That was Ed Reed," Griffin said. "He could do things other people couldn't do."
He always showed up late for basketball because the season overlapped with football. But he started from the minute he arrived, and he was so good that he could ruin practice drills by stealing the ball over and over.
In track, he was the long jumper and triple jumper, ran in both sprint relays and threw the javelin. As a senior he wanted to add baseball.
"Edward, baseball is not a sport where you can just leave it for three years and pick it right back up," said the team's coach, Stephen Weber, now principal at Destrehan.
But Reed defied that logic as well, starting at third base and serving as the team's relief ace, though he had little formal training as a pitcher. He hit three home runs in one game and turned an unassisted double play to clinch the league championship in another.
Reed really amazed coaches on the afternoons when the track and baseball teams competed at the same time. Give one up? Heck, no. Reed simply scooted back and forth, running in a relay one moment and hurling fastballs the next.
"If Ed Reed had decided at age 12 that he was going to play Major League Baseball, he would've played Major League Baseball," Weber said. "He's the best athlete I've ever seen."
It wasn't just his athletic talent. There was something different about him, the effervescence with which he played and practiced. Frontha remembered watching Reed as they drove to a summer track meet, bopping his head to the music pouring through his earphones.
"Man, what you listening to?" Frontha asked.
Reed laughed and slid the earphones onto his coach's head. "He was listening to gospel," Frontha said. "That made me realize right then and there that this kid was special."
He also saw early evidence of Reed's affinity for mentoring. A younger student named Tron Smith came out for the team and showed talent as a leaper. So Reed resolved to teach him the triple jump. In a year, Smith was jumping 48 feet to his instructor's 45.
"Ed said, 'Coach, you can let him jump now,' " Frontha recalled. "So he had basically worked with this one kid until the kid was better than him."
As great as he was at play, Reed didn't get the work part down until midway through high school.
"I don't think he really thought he could do it," Hall said. "Edward had never tried. He had never applied himself. He'd do enough to get by and hey, that got him on the field, so that was enough."
Just as he is now, Reed was moody, Hall said. He cared about his endeavors so deeply that he'd get very quiet at times. And then he'd sort it out and be the lightest jokester in the room.
Reed knew he needed more discipline and sought it by moving in with the Halls during the school year. To this day, Jeanne Hall wakes at 3:30 every morning and texts prayer messages to her kids, including Reed, at 4 a.m. So this warm, no-nonsense woman had no problem get Reed to school by 8 a.m.
She remembers clearly the night she noticed a change. Reed was at her house, working through math problems after his usual 12-hour day of school and athletic practices. And she leaned over his shoulder to check his work.
"Mrs. Hall, I've got this," he said. "I know it. I don't need you to check it."
After all the gentle and not-so-gentle pushes from his mentors, Reed had clicked into a self-awareness of his potential.
"I think he woke up one day and said 'I could go places,' " Parquet remembered.
By the time he left for the University of Miami, Reed was a "sponge" for learning, Hall said, the preview version of the guy revered by Ravens teammates for his masterful study of game film.
'Just tell me what you need'
The atmosphere at Destrehan is welcoming. Students greet teachers and coaches warmly as they pass in the halls, and banners encouraging this year's Wildcats teams brighten every wall.
As cozy as it is, when Reed comes back, he tells the kids not to limit their horizons.
"They call us crabs in a bucket," he said. "We tend to want to pull each other down. You can say that about anywhere, but they really say it about here, being in Louisiana and what not, how tough it is in our city."
So when he talks to kids from his town, it's all about expanding their worlds. He wants them to see in themselves what Parquet and Hall helped him see in himself.
"We tend to want to stay here in Louisiana as Louisiana people," he said. "We've just got to be mindful that there are other things out there, and we really need to open our kids' minds to get them to go to college. Get them to get away. Then come back and help the next ones behind us."
A few summers ago, while he was home for his camp, Reed sidled up to Frontha and said, "Coach you never ask me for anything. … Just tell me what you need."
Hall followed up a few weeks later, and Frontha allowed that he'd like to take his athletes to Dollywood while they were in Tennessee for a track meet. Two days later, he had a check in his hand from Reed to cover the trip expenses for 45 kids and their parents.
Super Bowl, here we come
Karen Reed made the trip to Foxborough, Mass., last year to watch the Ravens in the AFC championship. She felt the pain first-hand as Billy Cundiff's kick sailed outside the upright and her son fell a step short.
So for the rematch, she stayed in Saint Rose and busied herself with other tasks, only staring at the game out the corner of her eye. As the seconds ticked down and the Ravens' win seemed secure, she asked herself, "Lord, is this really for real?"
"She TiVoed it," said her daughter-in-law, JaVona Sanchez, who's married to Ed's eldest brother. "And she's just been watching it over and over."
Now, Karen is knee deep in grandsons, all counting down the seconds until they get to watch Uncle Ed play the biggest game of his life, right down the road. Every time Sanchez's little boy, Winston, got in the car this week, he asked "Are we going to the Super Bowl?"