The speeches were over, City Hall was starting to clear out, and Mayor Catherine Pugh had cued the music from the Ravens’ marching band when the early-Saturday party in downtown Baltimore — Ray Lewis’ party — played one of the hits.
“Let me get my dance music,” Lewis interjected. “No, I need it different. Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on.”
He wanted Nelly. He wanted “Hot in Herre.” At the end of a celebration of Lewis’ Hall of Fame NFL career, after a speech in which he embodied the vices and virtues that have made him perhaps Baltimore’s most compelling public figure, all that was missing was the squirrel dance. The band took heed, and he obliged, one more signature shimmy at City Hall for the thousand or so fans who’d come to fete him.
Ahead of the Ravens’ game Sunday against the Denver Broncos at M&T Bank Stadium, where Lewis will be presented at halftime with a 1.75-carat diamond Ring of Excellence for his Aug. 4 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lewis was treated as few Baltimore athletes have been.
A downtown parade was held in his honor, and Pugh presented the legendary linebacker an engraved key to the city, proclaiming Sept. 22 as Ray Lewis Day in Baltimore.
“Baltimore, I've got so many mothers out in the crowd,” said Lewis, standing next to his Hall of Fame bust on the balcony of City Hall. “I've got so many sisters. I've got so many brothers. I've got so many children. And to hear every word that came out of everybody's mouth was, 'I love you, Ray,' — well, guess what, Baltimore? I love you, too, man. I love you.”
The love stretched more than a mile long. Over the parade’s 1.1-mile route, starting at Key Highway and Light Street, winding through Pratt Street and Commerce Street and finishing at Holliday Street, Lewis beamed and waved as he and Pugh were driven past passersby in a light blue Cadillac DeVille convertible.
It was not hard to get a good look at Lewis, dressed in a polo and jeans, the early-morning sunshine reflected in his shades. The barricades along the route were never filled more than one or two onlookers deep.
Some of those in the crowd looked surprised to see the procession of police, marching bands and Ravens cheerleaders marching down the street, Lewis at the rear. Bricen Tate, 29, of Mount Vernon, a Texas native and Ravens fan of nearly two decades, didn’t know about the parade until too late Saturday. He arrived at City Hall after Lewis’ speech but stayed long enough to see him re-emerge from the building to cheers and applause.
“Any chance to support a Ravens Hall of Famer,” the former Morgan State football player said, “I'll go for it.”
As the parade inched along to its destination, fans came up to Lewis’ car for selfies, handshakes and excited exclamations. “You can go up and shake his hand!” one woman yelled repeatedly. “You gave us your heart, Ray!” one man said.
It was a wide-eyed glee rooted not in the chance to see Lewis but in the opportunity to get close enough to have him hear the gratitude.
“He helped the whole city come together,” said Abbott Bolte, 61, of Anneslie, holding a “You made Baltimore proud” sign. “We started watching him when my kids were young, in elementary school, and it brought us together as a family to watch Ray, to root for Ray.”
She called him a “unifier,” a label that would have lacked consensus outside the parade route. Last season, a national-anthem demonstration with some Ravens players in London led over 80,000 people to sign an online petition to have Lewis’ statue at M&T Bank Stadium removed.
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But while Baltimore’s feelings about Lewis might have changed since his last snap, in Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013, his public persona has remained larger than life. Perhaps the only surprise about his speech Saturday was that it lasted just nine minutes. Otherwise, he addressed the crowd with a preacher’s vim and vigor.
He said he was a “19-year-old child when I walked into this city.” (Actually, he was closer to 21 when the Ravens drafted him in 1996.)
He asked his supporters to hug a stranger next to them; they obliged, and he laughed giddily over a rare 20-second wordless stretch.
He swore he would never wear another team’s jersey, no matter who asked, no matter how much money they offered, omitting the fact that he had briefly tested free agency in 2009 before re-signing in Baltimore.
He told kids to obey their parents. He urged others to “pick up a Bible,” even spelling the word at one point. He called on the city to lower its crime rate, to clean up its streets.
“Baltimore, you've given me everything I could ever ask for in life, and I owe it to you to give you my life in return to make this city a better place,” he said. “Baltimore, I love you forever. Baltimore!”
A minute later, the lectern was moved to the side, and he started to dance.