If you were five days from the ultimate validation of your life’s work, would you feel a flutter of anxiety in your belly, an untamed velocity in your thoughts?
“Not at all, man,” Ed Reed said after he picked up the telephone Monday afternoon. “I’m just enjoying a cigar and doing some chipping in the backyard. I’m not even thinking about it.”
Just don’t expect Reed to feel unsettled by this impending verdict on his career. For him, it’s not really about standing beside the greatest practitioners of the game he mastered.
It’s more a chance to feel connected to the people who nurtured him along the way: Ben Parquet, his mentor from middle school on; the Hall family, which took him in for a time in high school; his parents, Karen and Ed Sr., who worked so hard to keep their children fed and happy in a one-bedroom Louisiana apartment. And don’t forget the hundreds of teammates, many of whom you’ve never heard of or don’t remember, who meant so much to Reed from childhood through a dozen NFL seasons.
“This is not an individual award,” he said.
Hall of Fame or no, Reed feels secure with the masterpiece he left on his NFL canvas, the vast majority of which he painted over 11 years in Baltimore.
The black ink on his resume is impressive enough: 64 career interceptions (good for seventh on the NFL’s all-time list), 13 touchdowns (not one scored on offense), nine Pro Bowls in 12 seasons, the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, a Super Bowl XLVII ring.
Or think about it this way: The 2018 Ravens defense, which finished No. 1 in the NFL, went seven straight games in the middle of the season without an interception; Reed, in a seven-game stretch during the 2008 season, intercepted 10 passes himself.
In truth, though, you had to watch to appreciate his artistry — the way No. 20 would appear like an apparition in a spot no quarterback could rationally anticipate, the crazy angles and curves he cut when he had his eye on the end zone, the laterals that revealed a man playing without fear or self-consciousness.
Teammates and opponents still speak with bemused wonder when trying to capture Reed, the player.
“You knew where Ray Lewis was going to be, but you never really had an idea where Reed was going to be,” said former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Reed’s fellow Louisianan, college roommate and NFL foe.
Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians referred to Reed as “the raptor.” Wayne asked him why.
“Because the raptor can cover so much ground in a little time,” Arians replied. “You’ve got to know exactly where he is, or he’ll come up on you and change the complexion of the game in a heartbeat.”
That sounds just about right.
The man behind the magician was just as interesting. If Reed seemed like an improvisational genius to the fan watching on Sundays, it was because he spent the six other days in game weeks acting as a meticulous craftsman, astute film watcher and willing teacher still held up as the consummate professional by generations of Ravens who followed.
Some days, he pulled his familiar hoodie tight over his scalp and blocked out the world. Others, he treated teammates and reporters to snatches of song or offbeat soliloquies that never seemed to end in the expected place. He might have confounded coaches at times, but teammates admired his willingness to speak up for even the most anonymous man on the roster.
The fates, it seemed, wanted to cast Reed as a sidekick — the Robin to Lewis’ Batman or, in their own parlance, the Eddie Murphy to Lewis’ Richard Pryor. He followed the great linebacker to the University of Miami, then to the Ravens and numerous NFL honors, and finally to the cusp of the Hall of Fame.
Reed would not be relegated, however. Through his fierce independence as an athlete and a man, he carved out his own space as a football original. Perhaps Lewis overshadowed him in the minds of casual fans. But for those paying attention, and especially for those playing and coaching, Reed existed on his own summit.
“The best defensive player to ever play the game,” said Lardarius Webb, who idolized Reed before he joined him in the Ravens’ secondary. “The way he impacted the game, not just getting those turnovers, but the way he was running them back. … I love Ray Lewis, and that’s what everybody’s going to say: ‘What about Ray? What about Terrell Suggs?’ I love them to death, but I’m going to be biased. You couldn’t game-plan for Ed. You couldn’t.”
Reed arrived at Miami two years after Lewis finished his All-America career, just in time for one of the darkest seasons in the history of that proud program. He broke his ankle playing pickup basketball and had to sit out as a redshirt freshman while the Hurricanes stumbled to a 5-6 mark.
That set the stage for a brilliant renaissance, however, which culminated with a 12-0 record and a national championship in 2001, Reed’s senior season. Some observers consider that the most talented college football team ever, and Reed was its big-play defender, intercepting nine passes and scoring two touchdowns.
Like Lewis, however, he had to wait on draft day as NFL teams favored players at more glamorous positions, and with flashier 40-yard-dash times. The Ravens selected him 24th overall, and Reed wasn’t sure he’d landed in the right spot, despite Lewis’ presence and the Ravens’ burgeoning defensive legacy.
For his part, Lewis saw Reed as a godsend, the ideal partner to step in for Rod Woodson, the Hall of Fame safety who’d left the Ravens after the 2001 season.
“It was the blessing of any linebacker’s career to have somebody like that on the back end,” Lewis said. “It just so fell in place because he was so willing. It was like a perfect marriage from the day he got there.”
The first two offseasons of Reed’s career, he traveled to Jamaica to work out with Lewis, former Miami linebacker Rohan Marley (son of Bob) and trainer Monte Sanders. Both former Ravens point to those trips as fuel for a decade of shared greatness, which began with Lewis winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2003 and Reed claiming them the following year.
“We all wanted to achieve something, as brothers and individuals,” Reed said. “I think that was another foundation being laid for where we’re at in life now.”
Meanwhile, Reed developed a affinity for Baltimore, recognizing similarities between the city and his hometown of St. Rose, La., a suburb of New Orleans. He was touched by the children and families enduring the same struggles he’d endured. Reed rode by four plantations on his way to high school every morning and was acutely aware of racial and class divisions. He’d always felt a powerful urge to speak up for the little man, and that extended to the Ravens locker room, where he became a leader early in his career.
Reed credited O.J. Brigance, the Ravens’ senior adviser to player development, with recognizing that he was more than met the eye. As early as Reed’s second season, Brigance urged him to mentor the team’s rookies.
“He was always a guy who galvanized the players, a players’ guy,” said former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and now served as its assistant director of player engagement. “If he thought something was unfair for one person, he wasn’t afraid to speak up for that person if they didn’t have a voice at the time. If you’re at that platform in your career, some people don’t speak up. They just feel like it’s not their battle. But if there was a burning building, Ed was going to run straight to the smoke.”
When Webb joined the Ravens in 2009, a little-known player from little-known Nicholls State, he could hardly believe he was lining up next to his hero. He quickly learned it took an immense amount of weekly toil to be Ed Reed. But if you were a young player willing to listen, Reed would share the methods behind his mastery, whether on an iPad in the locker room or during tape-watching parties he hosted at his home.
“Everything that I wanted to figure out, I could ask him,” Webb recalled. “He was that kind of guy where you would feel comfortable. He would make you feel comfortable.”
When the Ravens locker room seemed in danger of combusting during the 2012 season, Reed played a leading role in voicing player concerns to coach John Harbaugh but also in holding teammates accountable.
“That’s part of being men,” Reed said. “If you can’t have a conversation and get past it, something’s wrong. … Nobody was bigger than the team, not even the coaches. You might have authority and a hierarchy that you’ve got to abide to, but that don’t mean you talk to people or do things recklessly, treat men as less than men. No, you don’t do that. So I was never going for it. I wouldn’t go for it now.”
That season ended in fantastical fashion, with Reed playing in his only Super Bowl in front of his hometown New Orleanians, intercepting a pass and threatening to lead a traditional “second line” parade through downtown after the Ravens won. It was his final game with the franchise, though he’d play one more NFL season, splitting 14 games in 2013 between the Houston Texans and New York Jets.
As confetti fell and players swarmed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field, Lewis found Reed first. “We beat up, we battled, we been through a war,” Lewis remembered saying. “But guess what? We finished the race.”
Reed was the last player to leave the locker room that night, and he ended up on the same bus as Harbaugh and his family. The coach and star defender had not always seen eye to eye, and they would not always see eye to eye afterward. But in those moments, with Reed clutching a bottle of champagne, they appreciated their relationship in all its complexity.
“Ed Reed — he still is one of the most fascinating people,” Harbaugh said Friday, the day after he signed a contract extension with the Ravens, which Reed had publicly endorsed in November. “I think we laugh about that and joke about it, but there is no ex-player that I’m closer with right now … than Ed Reed and I. We were texting back and forth yesterday, and he is just a really amazing person, and a really great friend. To me, those types of things are forged through a lot of things: triumphs, trials, tribulations, adversity, joyful moments — when his son was born. All those kinds of things are the things that bring you close together.”
Reed summed it up by referring to one of Harbaugh’s favorite biblical references about iron sharpening iron.
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“Sometimes, that iron may cut a little bit,” he said with a chuckle. “But as long as it don’t kill you, it should make you stronger.”