When I came in 1996, we had no team, no identity, no locale, no nothing. So there was nothing to really respect. The excitement was there, but there was nothing to respect
Ray Lewis was right. There was not much to really say about the 1996 Baltimore Ravens. After owner Art Modell moved the team from Cleveland, Baltimore was back in the NFL. It took 13 seasons for the city to get a team back after the Colts darted for Baltimore. But it didn’t take nearly that long for the new team in Baltimore to establish themselves as Baltimore’s team, winning the Super Bowl in their fifth season behind one of the greatest defenses ever.
One of the keys to that defense was Ray Lewis. The linebacker out of Miami became the second draft pick in Baltimore Ravens history in 1996, and the first defensive player to be selected by the franchise post-Cleveland. Early on, he needed to learn about being a leader, and a professional, and Ray credits two people the most for helping him with this transition process
“Two people truly inspired me from two totally different spectrums. One of them is not with us, by the name of Eric Turner. When we got there, for some reason ‘E.T.’ fell in love with me. He early on taught me what it meant to be a true, true, true professional. Another person who always confirmed that was Bennie Thompson. I’ve never seen a man work harder than Bennie Thompson. I started coming in at 6:30 in the morning during training camp riding the elliptical with Bennie Thompson. When we had a break between practices, we were working out again. What those two people did for me in Baltimore forever changed my way as a professional.”
The connection with the city was something that had to be built up too. Ultimately winning solves everything, but it took a few seasons for the Ravens to find their footing. Off the field, it only took one home game for Ray Lewis to lay down the marker for what he was hoping to accomplish or the city.
There were so many people in the city at the time that taught me little things and gave me so much love that made me the person I am today.
But arguably the thing that defines the Baltimore Ravens as a franchise the most – more than their connection with the city or how quickly they captured the Lombardi – is their bitter rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve played some instant classics in recent years, and it’s hard to articulate the hatred the two sets of players and fans have for each other.
But it wasn’t always so.
Without much of a foothold in the league early on, the Ravens really didn’t have any rivals. But Ray Lewis recalls the exact moment that script flipped with Pittsburgh.
“On the one-yard line, Pittsburgh got eight chances. If you want to see old school football when you see the switch of power to let them know we have arrived. They had eight downs. They got a first down on the one yard line, and surprisingly enough, they didn’t get in. We ended up beating Pittsburgh 16-0 in Pittsburgh! And that moment for me, it changed so much for that rivalry”
That win over the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium was the first game of the season Baltimore would ultimately win their first Super Bowl in, and Lewis looks back on the turning point in saying “There was the moment that rivalry became real”
Even with 17 seasons in Baltimore, and the deep animosity for Pittsburgh that comes with spending so many years as a Raven, the rivalry was always one filled with respect. He had a deep admiration for the tradition of the Steelers, saying when he came in the league.
I picked up some dirt from Pittsburgh and I put it in my pads because I wanted to take that dirt back to Baltimore. As much as I don’t like this word as a competitor, the respect that I have for them is absolutely amazing.
Very few players in NFL history have been as deeply embedded with a franchise as Ray Lewis in Baltimore. If you look back at almost any iconic moment in franchise history – including both Super Bowl titles – Ray Lewis was on the field leading the defense. He helped a city who collectively had their hearts broken by the Colts love an NFL franchise again, and have the opportunity to support a winning one.
When he takes his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, it will extend much further than just on Ray Lewis.
Seeing the first defensive player the Ravens ever drafted on the stage in Canton will be a proud moment for the entire city of Baltimore.