Ravens safety Ed Reed: An Appreciation
A few weeks ago, Ravens safety Ed Reed was talking to the media after practice when someone asked him about the white wrist band he was wearing just above his left hand. There was clearly writing on it. We were curious: What did it say? What did it mean?
"It says 'Once I Get The Ball You're At My Mercy,' " Reed with a bit of a shrug. "That's (Michael) Jordan. You know how Jordan was."
Reed is right, of course. I do know how Jordan was.
I know a lot about Michael Jordan, in fact. Even though I was never a big fan. I think Michael Leahy's "When Nothing Else Matters" is one of the best sports books written in the last 20 years, because it really captures Jordan's gifts as well as his flaws. I've seen his ESPN SportsCentury profile countless times. I've read about his kids, his divorce, his business ups and downs, and his bottomless appetite for competition.
But what I don't really know is how Ed Reed is.
Or who he is.
Of course, I know Ed Reed the football player. I know he's probably the most exciting defensive player of my lifetime. I know he has the hands of a wide receiver, the feet of a ballet dancer, and the football brain of Nobel Prize winner. I know he possesses the rarest and least talked about skill in sports: the innate sixth sense of anticipation.
He sees things unfolding before they ever happen. And when he gets the ball in his hands, the other team truly is at his mercy. No defensive player has ever been a greater threat to score than Ed Reed with the ball in his hands.
But as a person, he's a bit of a mystery. I can count on one hand the number of lengthy magazine profiles that have been written about him. I can't imagine anyone ever attempting to write a book about him. And though I don't know for certain, I suspect Reed likes it that way.
It's probably a little unfair that I think of him this way. Some my feelings, I suspect, are most likely clouded by the fact that he's played his entire professional career with Ray Lewis, a personality so large, and so outspoken, practically anyone would fade into the background by comparison. I feel like I know Ray Lewis because he's always felt a little bigger than life. He dances and preaches and channels that emotion into his profession on a daily basis.
Ed Reed doesn't just play a different position, he's a completely different personality type.
But it's impossible not to compare the two, even if it's just in your head. If Lewis is a little overrated these days, then Reed is still, somehow, underrated, despite the fact that he was the only unanimous all-Pro selection last year.
Recently I was listening to one of the local sports talk shows and I turned up the volume as the host -- who I'll refrain from naming -- and a slew of callers debated the subject of locker room leadership.
"Did we get it wrong all these years?" a caller wondered. "Is Ed Reed the real leader of that locker room and Ray Lewis is just the guy who dances around before games?"
I remember feeling annoyed at how quickly this theory was dismissed by the yammering host, who insisted that Reed was too quiet, too docile, too passive to be a leader, and while it was certainly true that the other players respected him, it was Lewis who inspired them. It was Lewis who they would follow into a burning building. It was Lewis who they looked to in awe.
I always felt like that was a rather simplistic take on the complicated realities of an NFL locker room. Some players respond to grand gestures and raw emotion. Others prefer a steady drumbeat of daily professionalism. A few are loners and self-motivators. No one player has the ear of 52 others.
Whenever people repeat cliches like "Ray Lewis is the undisputed leader of the Ravens locker room," I wonder if it isn't a little bit like declaring John Lennon the most important member of the Beatles. Some guy named Paul McCartney was just as important, but for different reasons.
One of the most amazing things about Ed Reed's career is how little drama has accompanied it throughout his eight years in the league. No arrests, no scandals, no trade demands or threats about holding out. No griping about the coach, or the offense, on his radio show. No boasting about disrespect or perceived slights by enemies unnamed.
Just consistent, soft-spoken brilliance, backed up by 25 hours of film study per week, season after season.
Even last year, when Reed confessed that he'd mulled the idea of retirement because of lingering nerve damage in his neck, it caused little more than a ripple. It didn't become a soap opera because Reed simply kept most of it to himself. It was typical Ed Reed. He approached it the same way he approaches most of the charity work he does -- which includes raising money for cancer research, raising money for Hurricane Katrina victims, and speaking often to high school and middle school kids about the importance of education. (He graduated from the University of Miami with a liberal arts degree, so when he speaks, it comes from a place of credibility.)
Even after writing this excellent profile of Reed and his Louisiana childhood, my Sun colleague Ken Murray agreed that there are tons of different aspects to Reed's life that we, the media, have never really explored.
"Every time I write about him, I feel like I learn something new," Murray said.
Reed doesn't do many lengthy media interviews, though, and when he does, he doesn't freely offer up anecdotes that give you insight into who he is. His locker is tucked back in the corner or the Ravens locker room, close to the showers and away from the noise. Scribes tasked with trying to get a peak inside his head almost always leave frustrated. At the end of camp this year, when he took questions at the podium for nearly 10 minutes, it was the longest anyone could remember him sitting still for an interview.
"This is not just football and a job, it’s fun also," Reed said. "We have a lot of fun outside of this. That’s what keeps us going. That’s what’s going to keep you going at the end of the day, even as a little kid. When you were a kid, and kids today, they enjoyed this. That’s the pure times of their life, to enjoy football, and a lot of us still have that little kid inside."
Reed has said that, when he football career is over, he wants to work with kids in inner city neighborhoods and make a difference in their lives the way teachers and coaches made a difference in his. Another Raven told me recently Reed is looking into possibly going to graduate school for business this spring. Thinking about his son, and the longevity of life, has forced him to play differently the past couple seasons.
When he was done taking questions, Reed took an empty plastic Gatorade bottle he'd been fiddling with and launched it in the direction of a garbage can like he was shooting a basketball. The garbage can must have been 20 yards away, minimum, but Reed's bottle had the perfect amount of arch and touch. He buried the shot, to the astonishment of everyone watching.
Most NFL players would have roared in celebration or pounded their chest.
Reed chuckled like it was nothing, and kept on going.
Silly moments like that, almost more so than 104-yard interception returns, remind me that as we enter the ninth season of his career in a Ravens uniform -- a career that will certainly end one day in Canton, even if it ended today -- it doesn't matter if I don't really know what's going on inside his head.
It doesn't matter because I still get to sit back and watch, and appreciate, a man with remarkable gifts as he goes about his business, unburdened by drama or ego, yet driven to be the best for however long it lasts.