Back in elementary school, I frequently read a book about the Baltimore Ravens and one line always stood out. In discussing Baltimore’s tradition of stifling defenses, it described the Ravens’ unit as something to the effect of “tougher a brick wall” and “stingier than cobwebs.” I saw those imposing Ravens defenses for four glorious years from 2008-2012, and that description nailed down the Ravens perfectly. And if there was one man that best represented what that defense stood for, it would be Ed Reed.
Tonight, Reed is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has built a legacy as one of the best defensive players not just of his generation, but all-time. Reed holds the NFL record for most interception return yards with over 1,500, plus the record for postseason interceptions (9) and ranks seventh all time in total interceptions, per Pro Football Focus. The man synonymous with the phrase “ball-hawk” also holds another title – my favorite NFL player of all-time.
Linebacker Ray Lewis was the heart of the Ravens’ teams from their inception in 1996 to his final ride in 2012, but Ed Reed, the safety out of University of Miami, always captured my attention and imagination. Where Lewis was the hard hitter and quarterback of the defense, Reed brought the finesse factor. Back when I started watching football in 2008, Reed’s lengthy interception returns were the premiere highlight. He would sit back deep in the defensive backfield, charge at an incoming receiver and snatch the ball out of the air. Then came the best part – Reed weaving in and out of traffic, ball held by the laces in one hand, until he came streaking down the sideline into the end zone. He also had a propensity for lateraling the ball to teammates to pick up additional yardage, a maneuver that highlighted Reed’s unmatched intellect and added another degree of flair to the returns. It wasn’t only the pick returns that made Reed a legend. Reed’s mere presence would make quarterbacks think twice and could turn a game in an instant.
I could always see myself in Ed Reed. Unlike the 400-pound defensive linemen or a player with the chiseled build of a Ray Lewis, Reed had a lanky build more reminiscent of a kicker. But he was athletic, with unmatched speed, hands and awareness for his position. He was the rare defensive player worthy of the moniker of “human highlight reel”, and he certainly deserved his Defensive Player of the Year award (which he won in 2004). With Ray Lewis roaming the middle of the field, Terrell Suggs coming around the corner of the offensive line on the rush, Haloti Ngata attacking from the middle of the line and Reed patrolling deep in the backfield, the Raven defense made the team a Super Bowl contender year in and year out.
My coolest Ed Reed moment came in training camp before the 2009 season, when I attended Ravens training camp as part of the Ravens Rookies Kids Club. After the practice, a bunch of players made their rounds signing autographs, and a couple came to the Kids Club pen where I stood in a Celtics Kevin Garnett jersey among a mass of other wannabe Ravens. Ray Lewis came to us and gave me a noogie as he signed my Celtics jersey, but when Ed Reed came down to our pen beyond the end zone in a golf cart and stepped out, I was beyond hyped. He told me that he liked the Celtics as he signed the shoulder of the jersey, and I was in awe that the guy responsible for those amazing pick-sixes was talking to me.
Reed had an amazing career, one that earned him the respect of offenses around the league and had experts calling him one of the best defensive players in history. But after the Ravens’ heartbreaking 2011 AFC title game loss to the Patriots, it looked like Reed might not ever get the Super Bowl validation he deserved on his career (Reed was drafted a couple years after the Ravens’ first Super Bowl win in 2000). He staved off Father Time for another year and Baltimore finally reached the Big Game after years of near-misses. Fittingly, Reed corralled an interception of the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick in the second quarter, his last pick in a Ravens’ uniform. And when he held the Lombardi trophy after the 34-31 win, Reed added one more title to his legacy: champion.
Reed represented the best of those Raven teams. Like the Ravens as a whole, Reed outsmarted opponents and used his athletic abilities to supplement his football mind. He also played as a worthy foil to some of the league’s best offenses and was at his best in division rivalries and postseason competitions.
When Reed steps to the podium in a gold jacket to give his Hall of Fame speech, the greatest safety of all-time will receive validation for an epic and highlight-worthy career. I’ll be seeing one of the tenets of my football childhood celebrated and immortalized in Canton. The football world knows this – there will never be another Ed Reed. I think quarterbacks around the league can breathe a sigh of relief at that.
My 10 Favorite Pro Athletes of All Time (inspired by my friend Daniel Olinger’s Top 10 Ohio St Buckeyes Feature)
Honorable Mentions: Keith Brooking (Cowboys), Kawhi Leonard (San Diego St), Andy Dalton (TCU), Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox), LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers), Devin Hester (Bears), DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys), Jeremy Lin (Knicks), Marcus Paige (UNC), Greivis Vasquez (Maryland), Todd Collins (Redskins)
10. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic/Los Angeles Lakers/Houston Rockets/Charlotte Hornets/Brooklyn Nets/Washington Wizards/Memphis Grizzlies- Watching him on the Orlando Magic teams of the late 2000s was, well, magical. His Superman dunk reverberated around the sports world, and his run to the Finals made me jump on the Orlando bandwagon.
9. Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos/New York Jets/New England Patriots- I loved Tebow at Florida, and when Tebowmania took the NFL by storm, I was all-in on number 15. He was an underdog with character, and his late-game heroics were a joy to watch. As Skip Bayless said, “all he does is win,” and contrary to the opinion of many sports analysts, I think Tebow was worthy of his first round selection. He was great.
8. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys- Witten has been the go-to guy on the Cowboys for as long as I can remember, always able to make the catch when it mattered most and find separation. He is also the consummate teammate and a Hall of Fame-worthy talent.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers- I was always strangely attracted to the Chargers teams, from drawing pictures of Philip Rivers in my notebook to nearly crying after the team lost in the AFC Championship to the Patriots in ‘07. I’m hoping he can pull off the Super Bowl run he deserves.
6. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics- The first game of NBA basketball I watched was Pierce defeating the Lakers in the Finals in ‘08. He had been on the cover of my Sports Illustrated Kids magazine a couple months earlier, and seeing him take down Kobe and LA was inspiring. I felt like I related to him the most of any of the towering, high-flying NBA stars.
5. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens- Ray Lewis was the guy everybody wanted on their team and no one wanted to face. He fired up the team before games, fired them up during games with jarring hits, and celebrated with them after their many victories. The post-Lewis years haven’t been as fun, a testament to his personality and on-the-field prowess.
4. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys- I loved Tony Romo because, win or lose, he was the Cowboys for the first eight years that I watched them. His last-second pocket escapes were awesome, and watching him lead the Cowboys on playoff runs was extremely fun to watch.
3. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals- I actually cried the day after the Cardinals lost to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, and Fitz was the reason why. He had touchdowns throughout the playoffs that year, but his two stellar catches against Pittsburgh almost put them over the top. His sticky hands and playmaking ability made him my favorite offensive player to watch, and he was the subject of my first NFLRush.com article. And late into his 30’s, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
2. Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens/Houston Texans/New York Jets- See above.
1. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox/Oakland Athletics/Chicago Cubs- Lester, my second cousin once removed, has been hands-down my favorite player since becoming a sports fan. He shut down the Rockies in the World Series, my first exposure to pro sports, and has since won titles with the Red Sox and Cubs, both among my favorite sports memories. Following every tick of ERA and combing through every ESPN article about him has added a cool dimension to being a sports fan, and I’ll go to my sports grave saying that Lester, one of the premier playoff performers of his generation, is deserving of a spot in Cooperstown.