The way Jay O’Brien saw it, the trouble with the tune wasn’t one of recognition. This was Baltimore. This was Omar. Where else but M&T Bank Stadium would you play a nursery song whistled by Michael K. Williams?
The more pressing issue as the Ravens’ home opener approached last month was one of timing. Everything about the team’s pregame operations is scripted, “measured down to the second,” said Brad Downs. And two days before the Ravens would face the Kansas City Chiefs on “Sunday Night Football,” O’Brien, the team’s vice president of broadcasting and game-day productions, and Downs, the team’s senior vice president of marketing, worried that there was no time to spare.
Less than two weeks earlier, on Sept. 6, Williams, the Emmy-nominated actor who’d risen to fame as the beloved scarred, shotgun-toting, stickup man Omar Little on “The Wire,” had been found dead in his New York home. The Ravens, in their first game at full capacity in over a year, wanted to honor him. All O’Brien, Downs and their team needed were a few more seconds. They had to be timed just so. If no one heard the warning, no one would know who or what was comin’.
On a night that ended with a dramatic fourth-down conversion and breakthrough Ravens win, no moment might endure more than the 10-second clip of Williams’ Omar whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” Ravens officials had expected it to be a one-night tribute, a nod to the actor who’d embodied one of Baltimore’s most beloved characters. Then the moment hit home, went viral, millions of people seeing their love for Williams or the show or the team reflected in a pregame homage.
The script has since changed.
“Traditions come from things you only think you’re going to do once,” O’Brien said. “Every tradition starts the first time. And then if it resonates the way that it does, then I think you’ll certainly consider doing it again, until you feel like it gets to that stale part. So it’s a challenge, right? Because to some people, great traditions are stale to others. But with this, I haven’t seen one comment other than: ‘You guys better do this forever.’”
O’Brien has worked for the Ravens since 2004, when the third season of “The Wire” aired on HBO, but never collaborated with Williams on a team production, though not for a lack of trying. About five years ago or so, he recalled the team reaching out to Williams one summer about voice-over work for a season-opening trailer. “We just couldn’t get the scheduling to work out,” O’Brien said.
When Williams, 54, died of an accidental drug overdose last month, Ravens officials started having conversations about how they could pay tribute. Despite the cultural impact of “The Wire,” Downs can remember the Ravens’ marketing operations acknowledging the show only once in his nearly two decades with the team. Appropriately, it was Williams-inspired: “Ravens comin’,” a knockoff of the oft-quoted “Omar comin’ " warning.
Downs and O’Brien, who’d both watched the series, didn’t want to wait to honor Williams. As part of a committee tasked with game-day entertainment, they set out to determine not only what was possible for the Sept. 19 showdown but also what would be respectful. The whistle, everyone agreed, made the most sense. Fans of “The Wire” would recognize it as Omar’s. Everyone else, they hoped, would have some familiarity with the melody. “It was just a cool whistle,” O’Brien said.
The trouble, Downs said, was figuring out when to play it. “A lot of the discussion was based around: do we have time to do it? Where could we work it in? How could we pull this off? And after some initial discussions, it kind of sat out there for a while. And we were talking about it, and we’d have an idea, and we’d come back to it. And then, well, the timing won’t work, or that’s not the right moment.”
One possibility was playing the whistle before quarterback Lamar Jackson was introduced pregame. But one of the night’s showpieces was a 90-second hype video played before the Ravens’ defense stormed out of the stadium tunnel, and by then, O’Brien said, it would be too loud to hear anything subtle.
On Sept. 15, two nights before the home opener, Downs and O’Brien joined Steve Groff, the team’s director of broadcast technical operations, and Brittany Jorge, one of its motion graphics designers, for a pregame test run at M&T Bank Stadium — calibrating lights, checking video, finalizing the schedule. All they needed, Downs recalled, was six more seconds.
At one point late in the night, Jorge had an idea: why not play the whistle after the Chiefs run onto the field, but before the lights go out and the introductory video comes on? “It would probably be the quietest that the stadium would ever be,” O’Brien said. They’d found their moment.
“I don’t think we were going to leave there without finding a way to make that work,” Downs said. “That was definitely the mentality of the four of us that were kind of hashing this thing out. We’ve come this far, and it was bouncing all around, but we weren’t going to leave there without it working out.”
The buildup to kickoff was intense. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens hadn’t allowed in even 5,000 fans for a game last year. They were expecting 70,000-plus for the first time since January 2020. “As an entertainment professional, to go for a year of not having any fans,” O’Brien said, “was just really hard.”
He worried over the timing, which had to be “so perfect” close to kickoff. The Ravens still had to account for the national anthem and a moment of silence for Darren Sanders, the team’s longtime security director who died in July. Then Kansas City’s team jogged onto the field earlier than expected, about 12 minutes before kickoff, and a “dead silence” overtook the stadium, O’Brien recalled. Audio of Williams’ whistle, pulled from an episode of “The Wire,” played on the speaker system for a nearly packed house.
“To hear those couple of notes,” Downs said, “and then to hear the instant kind of roar of the crowd in acknowledgment of it, was special. It was outstanding.”
O’Brien, watching from a booth in the stadium, listened as the field-level reaction came through his headset. “You could feel like there was an experience,” he said. He could sense fans excitedly asking one another whether that was the whistle. Oh, indeed. After the anthem and the coin toss and the opening kickoff, O’Brien radioed in to Downs with a self-evident question.
“Was that awesome?”
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“This place has never been louder and more into it,” he recalled Downs telling him.
The gesture seemed to transcend even the prime-time stage. According to a Ravens spokesman, a video of the moment had been viewed over 2.1 million times across the team’s social media platforms as of Wednesday morning. Among the thousands who’ve retweeted the clip are begrudging Pittsburgh Steelers fans (“Pretty dope”), stirred-up Ravens fans (“I’m gonna need the Omar whistle for every home game this season”) and actor Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William “Bunk” Moreland on the show (“For Michael K. Williams”).
“Heard the sound of Omar whistling ‘Farmer In The Dell’ from the stadium while walking across the Ostend Street bridge to the Ravens opener and thought I’d lost my s---,” David Simon, the creator and showrunner of “The Wire,” tweeted during the game. “It’s the little things that are gonna get me, I guess. But Michael gonna last.”
So will his whistle, it seems. The Ravens have found tradition in unlikely spots before. The summer before the 2011 season, the team embraced the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” as its pump-up song. After the Ravens stomped the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers in their opener, they had a new anthem.
Last year, when the Ravens painted the “MO” in “BALTIMORE” gold in their end zone to honor the life of superfan Mo Gaba, team officials didn’t know how long the redesign would last. “We’re still doing that now,” Downs said. “We listen to our fans.”
And they have told the team, almost unanimously, to keep Williams’ spirit alive. Monday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts will be the Ravens’ first since their opener. Jackson will lead the push for a fourth straight win. But before another three-plus hours of football, Downs said, there should be time for another 10 seconds of whistling.
“I’m not committing to forever,” O’Brien said, “but I don’t think fans have heard their last whistle in our stadium.”