Few people could possibly understand what it feels like to be Lamar Jackson — 23 years old, engine of a potential champion, prince of a troubled city.
Cal Ripken Jr. has some idea.
Baltimore’s first great No. 8 was the same age when he won his first Most Valuable Player award and helped lead the Orioles to the 1983 World Series. He remembers exactly how it felt when the city fell in love with him and his daily life ceased to be his own.
“There’s an excitement level that goes through the area that you don’t know, you’re not familiar with,” recalled Ripken, who’s become an ardent Jackson fan watching from his suite at M&T Bank Stadium. “You’re appreciating it, but these are all new experiences, and you don’t know what you’re capable of and what you’re not, or what the future holds. ... The cool part about Lamar is he’s living in the moment and he has perspective, but he’s also finding out exactly how good he can be.”
Jackson who’s expected to win NFL MVP honors Saturday evening in Miami, already has Baltimoreans talking about him as the next in a line of transcendent athletes who have connected with the city on a higher level. The names — John Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Ripken, Ray Lewis — are as familiar as the Inner Harbor or the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.
Despite a stunning playoff loss that ended the Ravens’ record-setting season, Jackson is the most thrilling player ever to pull on the team’s uniform. He has lifted a franchise and fanbase at a time when bleak headlines — another mayor felled by allegations of corruption, 348 homicides in 2019 — predominate. His refusal to be held down by the low expectations of others makes him a powerfully appropriate hero for the youth of his adopted home.
“People in Baltimore know what it’s like to be told you’re not good enough,” said former NFL first-round pick Aaron Maybin, who grew up in the city and now teaches art at Matthew A. Henson Elementary in Sandtown-Winchester. “I actually think Lamar bleeds through in his relatability to people like that, because he was looked over and he was marginalized. He was told that he would have to change positions. And since he’s come into the league, he’s slapped every single one of those doubters in the face with his play. … He is the guy every kid in Baltimore can see themselves in.”
Maybin grew up revering Lewis and earned his own chance at the NFL. But he retired when he was just 25 and grew increasingly detached from pro football as he watched the league turn its back on activist quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Jackson has brought him back. From the barbershop to his classroom, the precocious quarterback is all anyone wants to talk about.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it was about anybody other than Lamar Jackson,” Maybin said.
"As far as getting ready for games and these teams, he has increased his film study," said Orlando Brown Jr. when ask about Lamar Jackson.
As the emeritus director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, Mike Gibbons has spent much of his life studying and celebrating Baltimore’s greatest athletes. He doesn’t hesitate to place Jackson in that line.
“Though I never saw Babe Ruth play in person, I expect that the best correlation in terms of athletic superiority would be in comparing what Lamar demonstrates on the football field to the Bambino’s home run prowess,” Gibbons said. “No one had ever seen a ball powdered the way Ruth connected. No one has ever seen the kind of skill set Jackson brings to the gridiron.”
Lewis said he recognized Jackson’s potential to lift team and city on his shoulders the first time he conversed with the young man on his back porch, shortly after the Ravens drafted their new quarterback in 2018.
“I’m sitting there telling the kid, ‘Your time is coming. Guess what young boy? This city will love you. We’ve been waiting for this,'" Lewis recalled. "And it’s just beautiful to watch him live it out. I tell people all the time there’s no amount of money that could make me trade out the legacy I have in Baltimore. And this young guy has a chance to add on to that and become the Johnny Unitas or the Ray Lewis or the Michael Phelps.”
Jackson has always showed deep appreciation for the great athletes who went before him.
“Legendary," he murmured as he posed with Ripken’s statue at Camden Yards last summer. The two have since swapped sets of autographed No. 8 jerseys.
“That’s dope,” Jackson said recently, when asked if he’d appreciate being linked to names such as Unitas, Ripken and Lewis. “That definitely would be, because this is only my second year. Those guys have been legendary for years. I have a long way [to go] to catch up, and I just have to keep grinding, trying to keep getting better. I have to bring my own championship here, so I don’t really want to really set on that like, ‘Yeah, you’re one of the greatest.’ Not yet, I don’t see that.”
It’s a response the other men on the list likely would appreciate.
Unitas was the Jackson of a different age — master of the forward pass when it had yet to become the primary weapon in professional football and with his crew cut and black high tops, a visual representation of self-made American determination.
Bill Curry played center for the Colts when Unitas won his third and final MVP award in 1967. Though he went on to a long, successful career as a player and coach, he never experienced greater exhilaration than standing on the field at Memorial Stadium, waiting for the crowd to greet their quarterback.
“The announcer would say, ‘And ladies and gentlemen, from the University of Louisville, No. 19,’ and that would be the last thing you would hear,” Curry recalled. “It was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. By the time he waddled out to the 50-yard line and stuck his old, broken nose in the huddle, we were all crying.”
Jackson can’t yet match the career production of the figures to whom Curry snapped the ball: Unitas and Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers. But he evokes similar feelings.
“When those magicians take the ball, if you’re one of us, meaning somebody who’s experienced football at the deepest level for a long time, you can’t help but be drawn to them,” Curry said. “I’ve seen grown men tear up watching John Unitas on film. And Lamar, the styles are so different, but he’s just incredibly gifted. You almost sit there and hold your breath, thinking, ‘What’s he going to do this time that I’ve never seen before?”
A sports hero was something different in the 1960s. Every Friday afternoon, the Colts drank beer beside fans at The Golden Arm, Unitas’ restaurant on York Road. Many of them made similar salaries to the steelworkers sitting on neighboring stools.
Nonetheless, after Unitas died in 2002, people lined up to glimpse the hearse carrying his casket as if they were observing a state funeral.
On the Orioles side of the fence, Brooks Robinson made his reputation as an unfailingly friendly, patient public figure who could be approached in almost any setting. Combine that with his sorcery at third base and no athlete ever earned a warmer place in the hearts of Baltimore fans.
His fellow Robinson, Frank, was a more intense figure but made the city feel big-time when he won the Triple Crown and led the Orioles to their first world championship in 1966. No Baltimore athlete, not even Jackson in 2019, has put together a better single season than Robinson did that year.
As a sports fan growing up in Aberdeen with a father who worked for the Orioles, Ripken was too young to fully appreciate Unitas. He emulated Brooks Robinson and the Colts’ next MVP quarterback, Bert Jones.
“Brooksie always felt like he had time for everybody,” said Ripken, who’d later linger for hours signing autographs as he approached Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.
“You’re trying to Christmas shop and you become the Christmas present," Ripken said. "But to me, it was fun. Part of the dream of being an athlete is to be successful, and somebody asking for your autograph is another level of that.”
Ripken was still king of Baltimore when Lewis arrived in 1996, along with a new NFL team. The young linebacker hungered to be the face of a new football era in the city.
“It was clear there was no guy; the guys were Cal Ripken and Johnny Unitas,” Lewis recalled. “It was untapped, and I remember saying to [teammate Jonathan Ogden], ‘I’m going to take over this city.’”
He did, bringing the Ravens’ first Super Bowl to Baltimore in his fifth season and giving the franchise a defense-first identity. To this day, you can’t attend a Ravens game without seeing scores of No. 52 jerseys.
Now, Lewis finds himself watching a similar evolution from a different perspective. He knows the great pressure Jackson must feel but also the liberation that comes from winning the crowd.
“I know what Lamar’s living,” he said. “You’ve got to be a confident something. You’ve got to be humble as all outdoors. And you’ve got to be passionate about freakin’ football. That’s what Lamar Jackson brings to the Ravens, and it’s so freakin’ special.”