Before 1996, Johnny Unitas was the face of Baltimore football. The crew cut, white and blue jersey, and just all-around good guy; Unitas was the reason why Baltimore residents went to a cold Memorial Stadium to watch him lead the Baltimore Colts to a victory. He was in a generation that still lived in the communities they played in and even worked during the offseason (because contracts weren’t enough to live off of).
When the Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984, Baltimore felt like a bride that was left at the altar. Even when the city requested a team in the early 90’s, then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, stated that the only way football would come back to Baltimore was if the city built a museum for it.
The comments by Tagliabue struck Baltimore fans in the heart strings. Who was he to decide Baltimore didn’t deserve football when they had greats like Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, John Mackey and Lenny Moore in the past?
When Art Modell announced that he was moving the Browns franchise to Baltimore in 1995 (with the season starting in 1996), Baltimore felt like a kid again. The team didn’t have a name or set colors yet, but the excitement was palpable as the Baltimore Sun put out surveys on what the team name should be.
Then came the Ravens first draft in 1996, where future Hall of Famers Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis were drafted. While Ogden was the first Raven to go into the Hall of Fame, Lewis’ induction means a little bit more to the city of Baltimore.
Ray Lewis created a brand of football in Baltimore that embodied the spirit of the city; it was grimy, dirty, beautiful and hard-working, all at the same time. Lewis helped to create one the best football rivalries over the last 20 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers (namely Hines Ward).
In 2000, only four years after becoming an NFL franchise, the Ravens won their first Super Bowl against the New York Giants and finished one of the best seasons by a defense in NFL history. This led to Lewis being officially labeled as the defensive captain.
From that point on, Lewis led a defense that featured Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Peter Boulware just to name a few. Having another superstar in football since Johnny Unitas left in 1972 gave Baltimoreans a sense of pride; not only was he the defensive MVP and a Super Bowl Champion, but Lewis was one the best linebackers in the history of the game.
Lewis made this city his second home as Baltimore was like him; an afterthought, outcast, and just not quite good enough. Just like Lewis, Baltimoreans always believe in themselves, and are individuals who never seek affirmation. Lewis getting inducted to the Hall of Fame has put Baltimore back into that echelon of great sports towns, and it just took everybody else this long to figure it out.
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