It started with a kiss.
For Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens’ locker room was located deep under the north side of the Superdome, about 50 feet from the field and at the epicenter of an impossible labyrinth of tunnels, doorways, ramps, curtains, purple bunting and security checkpoints that eventually funneled team members into a narrow, private corridor that could not have been any wider than 10 feet. In the wonderful chaos that is the Super Bowl postgame, however, this troublesome layout created a physical and emotional bottleneck. It was located halfway between the expansive glass and tile lobby facing Poydras Street, and the outside world of media, fans, friends and family, and halfway between the confetti-covered football field, the locker room, team officials and teammates. And so it forced every last person in the Ravens' organization, at one point or another -- from Ray Lewis to Joe Flacco to John Harbaugh, Steve Bisciotti and even Michael Phelps -- to stop, pause, exhale and privately express in his own unique way, the full joy and weight of what the team had just accomplished on the world's stage in one of the wildest Super Bowls ever.
The first person to float in through this space was Harbaugh. The overshadowed big brother, who played at a MAC school and paid his dues as a longtime special-teams coach, was surrounded by a pack of family members who all sort of compressed into each other like bumper cars when hit by the bottleneck outside the Ravens’ locker room. Snapping from coach to father in the spare nanosecond of that pause, Harbaugh instantly recognized, like any dad, that the special spot near his heart, just under his left arm, was occupied by his daughter Alison.
In the middle of a kaleidoscope of deafening sounds, colors and emotions, and with fans, workers, cameras and security screaming his name and rushing to and fro in the blur, Harbaugh palmed the top of the brand-new gray Super Bowl champions hat Alison had been wearing backward, lifted it off like a teakettle top, then leaned down and kissed her gently on top of her head.
The coach stayed there a while, then turned his head to the side, resting his cheek on top of her head like a pillow. And his whole body seemed to relax and exhale, as if the weight of the world had suddenly evaporated.
“We did it,” he whispered into his daughter’s mop of brown hair. “We did it.”
It was 10:22 p.m.
Mesmerized, I retreated to the shadows of this space. Knowing from the experience of 17 Super Bowls that people reveal themselves in the lost, quiet moments when they don’t think anyone is watching, I decided to stay put and jot down everything I witnessed from the new Super Bowl champions over the course of one full hour.
And this is what I saw.
A moment later, Harbaugh leaves his family to start a radio interview, only to be interrupted by an avalanche of bodies and, suddenly, tons of screaming. Hysterical screaming. It's for Ray Lewis, who is jogging past with his arms extended out like wings on either side to accommodate all the people rushing in to touch him as he glides by. Lewis, in a gray T-shirt, soaked, presumably, with champagne, has a long Gatorade towel tucked into the back of his football pants. He sees Harbaugh and yells: "Tell ’em the truth, John, tell ’em the TRUTH!"
In Lewis' wake, slow and steady and by himself, O.J. Brigance, the former Ravens bada-- special-teams player now bravely battling ALS, rolls past in his wheelchair.
Suddenly, the area is overwhelmed by the strong smell of cigars. Carrying a tiny water bottle in one hand and a victory cigar in the other, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and, oh, 100 of his closest friends, try to wedge their way into the tiny space outside the Ravens’ locker room.
First, though, they must wait as Bisciotti and Michael Oher exchange a long, almost violent hug. Members of the Tuohy family, featured in the famous movie “The Blind Side” that Oher has grown tired of, are nowhere to be found. Instead, it is a small boy with a purple shirt and big yellow “Michael Oher” sign who sticks close to Oher the whole time he’s hugging Bisciotti.
The Bisciotti crew eventually makes its way into the Ravens’ locker room, just missing the arrival of defensive coordinator Dean Pees. What was he thinking on the last play? “Don't let No. 7 [Colin Kaepernick] run it in, that was our biggest concern.” What did he tell his players during the 34-minute blackout? “Don't count the 49ers out; we just reminded them about what we saw on film against Atlanta, we had seen them come back before.” And what was the difference in the game? "Red zone defense,” he says, “that has been the name of our game all year long.”
Pushing past on the left is Lewis, again -- it’s like his first Super Bowl in 2001, when the guy seemed to be everywhere. Coming from the other direction now, his entourage has grown to about 50 people and is being led by a stocky guy in a gold pinstripe suit. Lewis is in flip-flops. I remember watching during the game how his teammates had to help him re-snap his chin strap on the right side of his helmet because his mangled arm couldn’t do it. The arm seems to be fine now as Lewis cackles above the crowd to Pees, “What it do, Pops?!"
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught a TD in the second quarter to put Baltimore up 14-3, stands in the middle of the corridor talking on his cellphone. On the back of his uniform is a smear of red and gold, as if he had just been involved in a hit-and-run with the 49ers' team bus. Which, if you think about it, he kind of was.
No fans make it into this area. It’s all team members and family. The one exception is a guy dressed in a white Ravens jersey and jeans. He walks up to the state trooper guarding the entrance and asks him, “Where's the nearest liquor store?” The tall officer looks him up and down. I’m waiting for a scene to erupt. Then the cop smiles and says, “Two blocks down on Claiborne.” God I love New Orleans.
Carrying his shoulder pads and helmet, Brendon Ayanbadejo strolls up the tunnel from the field and, as he passes, fans lying on the floor of the stands above the tunnel reach through seams in the cloth and touch him on the head. From the right angle, it looks like a scene from a zombie movie, just a row of arms and hands and fingers stretching down to get at Ayanbadejo.
A linebacker with a long piece of silver Mylar confetti stuck to his cleats like toilet paper skips through the crowd and yells: “When do we get our rings!”
Behind him, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, wearing a yellow-and-red flowered lei, gimps up from the field -- when he plants his right leg he smiles, when he plants his left leg, the one he hurt during the game, he grimaces in pain. So during the slow walk, the entire hallway of people seems to mimic his face with each step: smile, then grimace, smile, then grimace.
Coming the other way, a guy in glasses and a black business suit marches past holding a thick folder that has the NFL logo on it and the title “Owners Liaison Program.” I have no idea what that means and he ignores me when I ask, but judging by the way he's gripping that folder -- like a fullback, with one arm under and one arm over -- you'd think there were missile launch codes in there. Or a layout of the stadium’s electric grid.
The area is beginning to calm down and find a nice rhythm, like a cocktail reception at a wedding. Until: “MAKE WAY FOR THE CHAMP!” That’s all the warning we get before Terrell Suggs and his own security detail crash through the middle of the crowded corridor and plunge into the Ravens’ locker room while sending parents, kids, workers, even teammates, sprawling toward the walls.
The ceiling starts to leak. Not a drip, but a steady stream from a crease in the concrete just to the right of the Ravens' locker room door. Two feet away is a massive tangle of electric plugs, cords, connections and computer equipment. Someone from the team slides a large plastic garbage can under the leak. Problem solved. But seeing this, I begin to feel lucky that the blackout lasted only 34 minutes.
Someone is yelling outside the entranceway. It’s Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. Even though he was the team’s third-leading scorer (and rusher, with 8 yards on that ill-fated fake kick) in Super Bowl XLVII he’s being held up at the door. “We’re good, we’re good; I promise I’m with the team,” he yells, and everyone can’t help but crack up.
Outside this area, leading up to the stadium exit, is a tile ramp sectioned off by purple Super Bowl bunting and curtains. Ravens center Matt Birk, the first player from Harvard to start in the Super Bowl and a world champ after 15 years in the NFL trenches, stands at the top of this ramp, talking and chatting. He looks fresh, as though he hasn’t even played a snap today. “Both teams play this game the right way,” he says. “Physical and tough.” It’s strange to hear a Harvard man speak in clichés, but he swears this isn’t one: “They are a great team and a great organization and, in the end, we literally made one more play than they did.”
Lining the ramp next to Birk are five metal trays of cheeseburgers that look as if they’ve been here since the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl. The players know better, it seems. But over the course of the next 20 minutes, I will see family members devour several of them.
Birk’s chat is interrupted by a massive swarm surrounding Ed Reed and then Joe Flacco. Birk’s moment is over. But he doesn’t look upset. Not as upset as the guy caught in the middle of all this in nothing more than a towel. Yes, the coaches’ locker room is at the other end of the short hallway so, periodically, and as crazy as it sounds, in the middle of this entire wild mess, there are grown men walking by in towels, clutching them on the hip with a death grip.
The lights in the entranceway to the Ravens’ locker room go dark. There is panic and worry on everyone’s face. A repeat of the blackout? But it turns out someone just hit the light switch with his butt.
“How in the hell do we get to the locker room, man?” yells Ray Rice, only half-joking. The Ravens running back turns the corner, runs into a TV guy and asks to hold his camera. He aims the lens at the crush of people in this tiny space, spins in circles for a few avant-garde minutes yelling, “You need some more TV time … No, you need some more TV time … You! Come get some more TV time.” Perhaps remembering the game-changing fumble Rice had, the camera guy seems more than a little relieved to get his equipment back.
A Ravens official, bald with a goatee, walks out of the locker room followed by his teenage son who’s wearing a new Super Bowl champs hat, backward, over the Ravens' AFC title game hat. “Dad, are we going to the postgame party?” Replies Pops: “Yes, of course we are.”
Steve Young rushes into the space, looks around, puts his hand on his chin, asks the security guard something, then rushes back out.
I glance into a corner and there’s uberagent Drew Rosenhaus, black shirt under black sports coat, arms folded, shooting “someone’s about to get paid” daggers with his eyes into the Ravens’ locker room.
Just for a moment, Harbaugh comes back into the hallway, where he bumps into Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz. The two men embrace like brothers. How important is a great working relationship between a team’s scouts and its coaching staff? How vital is it for scouts to supply not just good or great players but talent, at a value, that perfectly suits the team’s schemes? The answer seems to lie in this moment between coach and scout. And I realize, after watching Harbaugh with his daughter and now with Hortiz, I’m seeing the real secret to success for the Ravens: Harbaugh’s ability to run a multibillion-dollar business, in the violent and hard-core sport of pro football, just like a family.
Michael Phelps comes out, hugging everyone he recognizes. He has an old black Ravens hat turned inside-out tucked into the back of his jeans. Dressed in white and black sneakers, his feet are so big it looks as though he’s wearing scuba fins. His eyes are red and half shut. Why? The greatest Olympian of all time says he has never cried as much as he has during the Super Bowl.
All eyes are on Phelps, until Flacco ducks his head and steps out of the Ravens’ locker room decked out in a suit and tie. A teammate yells, “JOE, let me hold a 20 BABY!” In the money-driven world inside an NFL locker room, this is the highest compliment you can get and a sure sign that this is now Joe’s team. Shoot, even Phelps turns around to marvel at the MVP. “The parade,” says Flacco, “oh, the parade in Baltimore is gonna be something.” The questions are all about him and his performance, his contract, his MVP. But Flacco keeps deflecting them to talk about someone else: Ray Lewis. “I just hope,” says the QB quietly, “that I can play as well as Ray did for as long as Ray did and to mean as much as Ray did.”
Right on cue, Lewis reappears. This time dressed to the nines in glasses and a gray suit. He’s wearing a black vest and black tie, along with a white shirt, that, I swear, gives him the look of a clerical collar. Seems about right. Lewis didn’t have a great Super Bowl, not even a good one. He got pushed around by tight ends, couldn’t stick with Vernon Davis, and was late on a lot of plays and started guessing. But you cannot deny the emotional and inspirational boost, and sense of urgency and mission, he provided this team. And every man who has passed through this tiny space in the past hour has said the same thing: Just like Lewis, the Ravens are far greater than the sum of their parts.
Lewis makes his way back out onto a football field one last time.
The few remaining fans rush to the edge of the Superdome stands to try, again, just to touch him.
When they can’t, they yell things.
Stuff like: “Don’t retire, Ray!”
“Do the dance, Ray!”
“We loves you, Sugar.”
“Be the head coach at Alabama State!”
“Touch my hand, PLEASE!”
Out on the field, two Ravens fans are doing snow angels in the deep purple, yellow and silver confetti that blankets the turf. Others are on bended knee scooping it up into plastic keepsake bags with the care and precision of Neil Armstrong collecting moon rocks.
Lewis never turns to fully address the fans.
Then someone yells, “Thank you, Ray, THANK YOU.”
This stops him in his tracks.
He pauses. His eyes look sad and tired all of a sudden. The corners of his mouth turn down.
“Thank you,” he mouths to them.
Then his face softens. He smiles.
The NFL season and the Ray Lewis era have officially come to an end.
Both, though, have gone out on top.
It is just past 11:22 p.m.