If you take a half step back and say it out loud, the scenario sounds preposterous.
A player of uncommon passion with a studious nature and an uncanny ability to translate the pictures in his head to furious action makes his way from the University of Miami to Baltimore. He’s drafted lower than his production seems to merit, but he redefines his position for the modern NFL, becomes a role model to teammates and forges an eternal bond with his adopted city, on and off the field.
Six years later, another player who fits the same description — beat for beat — makes the same college-to-NFL trek. He’s equally underestimated, yet forges his own indelible legacy as a leader and unique force in the modern game.
These men, who hardly knew each other before they became co-workers, grow as close as brothers. Their relationship becomes more complicated over the years, but they’re eternally linked. And as it shakes out, the older man goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018 and the younger seems lined up to follow in 2019.
That’s the tale of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
They played together for 11 seasons in Baltimore — Lewis the vocal leader and roving hit man in the middle of a mighty defense and Reed the wise-hearted raptor patrolling the back end. They combined to make 17 Pro Bowls in that span, won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year trophies in 2003 and 2004, and taught several generations of Ravens what it meant to be a professional. If Reed is elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility next winter, as many expect, they’ll share that honor as well.
“The things we’ve done will never be replicated,” Reed said. “Back-to-back Defensive Players of the Year. And then Ray goes [into the Hall of Fame] this year and if they so happen to bless me and put me in the year after that, who does those things? Who does those things?”
Given the reputation of the Miami program — the mighty U — many observers assumed Lewis had mentored Reed for years when the Ravens drafted the safety in 24th overall in 2002. That was not the case.
“Miami was in a different place at the time,” Reed recalled. “Those guys were older and dealt with a lot of stuff. They were kind of pushed away and didn’t want to come around at the time. So I didn’t know Ray.”
Once Reed arrived in Baltimore, however, they recognized each other as kindred spirits in ways that ran far deeper than their shared alma mater.
Those who played with both men, such as current Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, still speak with awe of Lewis and Reed’s shared devotion to offseason conditioning and, especially, in-season film study. They guided defensive teammates through nighttime film sessions. But Lewis and Reed also held their own film sessions, just to prepare for those wider team gatherings.
“Ain’t much when it comes to football he wasn’t going to do,” Reed said. “Ray was a Hall of Famer when I met him, man. It was like, wow. I was blown away at how he studied tape and what he thinks about football. If he could have gotten all 53 guys to work out with him in the offseason, he would have done that, to make sure if there was anything he could do, he did do it. If he could still do it right now, he’d do it.”
Rather than feel daunted by Lewis’s obsession, Reed was drawn to it.
“They were extremely close, especially early in Ed’s career,” said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ senior vice president of community and public relations since the franchise moved from Cleveland. “Ed almost lived at Ray’s house. It’s like, why do movie stars marry other movie stars? Because they understand each other.”
They nicknamed one another “Sugar Ray” and “Quick” after the Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy characters in the film ”Harlem Nights.”
After Reed’s rookie season, the pair traveled to Jamaica for a series of workouts that Lewis said defied belief.
“That was when our relationship kicked off to the point he realized, ‘Big bro don’t want nothing but to make me great,’” Lewis said. “I said we’ve got to eat a certain way, we’ve got to live a certain way, we’ve got to pray a certain way, we’ve got to read a certain way. …We looked at each other every day, and I know every day he didn’t like me. I know every day he didn’t smile and say, ‘I’m glad I’m out here with bro.’ Because every day was a day of pure work, grind.”
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti still finds the relationship between the two men fascinating.
“You think, ‘Was Ed Reed always that way? Did Ray teach Ed that or did Ed come with it and found a partner in arms?’ ” Bisciotti mused. “They weren’t in school at the same time, even though it’s the same school. So then you have to ask, ‘Why was Ed the same as Ray?’ And I don’t have a clear answer.”
There was no question they shared a commitment that other players, even really good ones, could not match.
“To sit there and watch 20 hours of film to get 10 percent better against your opponent that week. They weren’t sitting at home playing video games,” Bisciotti said. “That was their video game. They were studying six hours of film to try to find one tell, maybe the toe of the left guard could show whether it was run or pass. The detail they would study was fascinating, and they would come back and tell the coaches things the coaches didn’t even pick up.”
This affinity was especially interesting because Reed and Lewis were different people and if anything, grew more different over time.
“Ed is a very reserved, quiet man. He’s a passionate leader, but he doesn’t articulate it quite the way Ray does,” said Brian Billick, who coached Lewis for nine seasons and Reed for six. “And their personalities in their personal lives are very different. It just shows you, football is a bonding experience that can go past that sort of thing. But they are very, very different people from very different backgrounds.”
Together, Lewis and Reed created a culture that persisted even as their careers wound down. Suggs, for example, has said there’s no way he’d be entering his 16th season as a productive player if he had not learned from them.
But Billick said it was natural for them to separate over time, even if they trusted each other as twin pillars of the defense all the way until their triumphant final game together in Super Bowl XLVII.
“At some point, little brother and big brother, no matter how close you are, the little brother at some point says, ‘I got it. I’ll take care of it from here and be my own man,’ ” he said. “That’s a natural evolution.”
Reed sees the relationship as a familial one in which disagreements and unspoken tensions are part of the story.
“We had something very special. And it could have been even better if you don’t have outside things trickle in,” he said. “Me and Ray had the same financial adviser. I fired them people, and he kept them. It’s just little things where you would think people would be on the same wavelength, mindset, frequency, but we wasn’t. There’s a lot he was helping me with, a lot I could have helped him with, but you’ve also got to be willing to accept things when you have a team, a friendship, whatever it might be.”
He acknowledged that he and Lewis don’t often speak or interact these days, but he said that doesn’t detract from the importance of their union. They visited with each other recently at a camp Lewis ran in Florida, sharing cigars as they marveled at the accomplishments they share.
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“At the end of the day, you’re still my brother,” Reed said. “So, of course, you had times when we butted heads or it didn’t seem like we were eye to eye. But if Ray needed me today to come and help with something, he knows he could call me. And vice versa. I feel like I could call him if I needed something.”
“That’s what’s so beautiful. We saw so many things so different. So many things. But, when it came down to work, we saw it through one eye lens. And that was giving it everything. … It was the science of these two brains, that think somewhat alike, but then they think different, but then they work together and they have to figure out how to keep working together.”
Neither man will abide any criticism of the other as a player.
“You talk about a gift to play with as a player?” Lewis said. “Ed Reed, to my career, was a gift.”
Said Reed: “You’re talking about a guy who dedicated his time, his effort, his time away from his family, his body for the game of football. There’s not many people — only really the great ones — who realize what they were born to do. God gives you talent to nurture. God gives you talent to be something. Some people realize it and some people don’t. Ray knew he was a great football player, and he became a great artist at playing football.”
Words that could only be uttered by another artist of the same rank.