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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.


Why do the media and fans act as if they're entitled to know about a player's personal life? If they choose to share that side with us, fine, but if not, it's really not any of our business...

reed is the man

wonderful article! It made me appreciate Ed Reed the man and football player that much more. well done

Great article! After all of these years, only recently has Ed cemented himself as my favorite Raven. I have wondered why my full appreciation took so long to develop, but this piece summed it up perfectly. In addition, he's got an awesome beard.

Nice article, nice guy, great player.

I remember when Ed Reed publicly endorsed Adalius Thomas. Even though it didn't bring him back to the Ravens, I'll bet he couldn't imagine having a better teammate than Ed Reed.

Ed Reed is my favorite Raven for so many reasons.

Honestly the best article I have read in a long time. Great job. Ed Reed is the man and this article summed it up perfectly.

While I'm sure it was a nice shot, are you sure he didn't sink the Gatorade bottle from 20 feet? Chucking an empty plastic bottle 20 yards would truly convine me that Reed is actually a super hero!

Great Article about Ed Reeeeed!!! I think it's great when you have such a superstar that is never in the limelight. Raven Fans know we have the best Safety to play the game.

I've become so frustrated with coverage of sports these days. If you think of the people that dominated NFL news this summer, 3 were criminals VICK,Plax and Marshall) and 1 was a aging star just looking to hang on. ESPN makes million of dollars from sponsors to talk about these misfits night and day. Then you read a story like this and you think man he's only one of the good guys throughout this league yet nobody hears about them. It used to be that doing something good didn't require you to talk about it but with all the negative things going on today there needs to be a sports channel dedicated to guys like Ed Reed etc.

Ed Reed from his days at the U and In Baltimore is a World Class Player and more importantly appears to be a World Class guy. Here's hoping he gets 3 pick sixs on Sunday!

Great article KVV. Ed Reed is my favorite Raven of all-time, dropping Ray Ray to second.

After our touch football team wins on Sunday morning in HoCo, I'm going to go home and watch Ed take a back a pick-six.

This is the way all celebrities should act. A good guy and a credit to the game.

This article confirms what I've thought about Ed Reed. What a cool dude! Not just a great player but a genuinely nice guy and solid citizen.

And when he gets the ball...I think we all feel that rush of anticipation because we know what can happen. I've even gotten to the point where I've stopping holding my breath when he does one of those crazy lateral passes.

Great article, long overdue.

As great as Ed Reed is you really don't hear much about him. His personality is much more low-key than Ray's and I like that, it offers a nice contrast for our two main guys on D. He seems like a class act, involved in the community and devoting himself to inner city kids when his career is over. He's a great player and a good man, we should all be proud that he's a Raven!

Great article about a great Man.

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