Ed Reed, hiding in plain sight

NEW ORLEANS -- What would you say if I told you the most important player on the Baltimore Ravens this year, the man whose leadership stitched his team back together in a moment of crisis, wasn't the guy you see gyrating and thumping his chest in front of all the cameras?

What if I questioned the narrative that's been drilled into your brain for so many years, the notion that this is Ray Lewis' team and it's his leadership that inspires and focuses the Ravens above all else? What if Lewis' alpha-male personality, his ceaseless energy and his booming, sermonizing pregame speeches were only part of the equation? Could I convince you there's another player on the Ravens who's been just as important, just as influential, in this year's Super Bowl run, if not more so?

You'd probably scoff at first. Roll your eyes, maybe. Especially if I told you he was moody, mercurial, occasionally aloof and uncomfortable with fame. That he purposefully grooms and dresses himself like a train-hopping hobo -- to keep the world outside the locker room at arm's length -- and that he'd be thrilled if he never had to do another interview for the rest of his career.

You'd be skeptical, wouldn't you?

Maybe it's time, then, that you hear the story of Edward Earl Reed Jr., the NFL's most surreptitious football general.

For years, Reed has pulled off an almost impossible feat in an era of information oversaturation: a superstar and surefire Hall of Famer, hiding in plain sight.

"It's been such a blessing to play with that dude," Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe says of Reed. "He's just so much of a leader that's behind the scenes, man. He don't need the cameras or anything. He's a guy that you respect, because he really don't care about being in the limelight. He just wants to make sure all his players are doing good. He cares only about this team. That's just a guy you want to play for."

Lewis' decision to retire after 17 seasons in a Baltimore uniform, whether the Ravens win or lose Sunday, has become one of the dominant storylines of Super Bowl XLVII, and understandably so. He has been the face of the franchise for as long as it's been in Baltimore. He is a lightning rod for people's emotions, playing the roles of hero, villain, preacher and sinner.

But this could be Reed's last ride, as well, at least with the Ravens. He will be a free agent at season's end, and when you combine his age (34) with the game's financial realities, his return feels increasingly unlikely. He also has mulled retirement in recent years, torn between how much he loves the game and how terrified he is of ending up with a cane or in a wheelchair. When he does leave football, friends say, he is likely to do so without warning or ceremony.

So in the crush of Super Bowl coverage that is about to overwhelm you this week, when 72,000 fans will fill the Superdome on Sunday and 62 TV cameras will zoom in on every bead of sweat and broadcast it to millions around the globe, take a moment to appreciate the unique athletic genius of Ed Reed, just in case this game, which will be played just 20 miles from where he grew up in tiny St. Rose, La., is the last time we see him in a purple uniform.

That appreciation won't come easy: Reed is like a surrealist masterpiece that's been hanging next to the Mona Lisa for 11 years, and it's hard to put a finger on what makes it so special. Reed is fast, but he's never been the fastest player on the field. He hits hard, but he's never been the hardest hitter. Yet he's been voted to the Pro Bowl nine times, has intercepted 61 career passes and scored 13 touchdowns. and is the NFL's all-time leader in interception return yards. His talents are instinctual, intellectual, almost magical in a way because they're so difficult to quantify, impossible to explain.

"This might sound like the worst compliment ever, but he understands football almost like an autistic kid understands the piano," one former teammate says. "His brain has that type of transcendent talent."

And when he's gone, it might be a long time before we see another player like him.

The Ravens held a team meeting 10 days after suffering a humiliating 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans, and what was discussed is no longer much of a secret. It's been widely reported, dissected and then anointed (in retrospect) as the turning point in Baltimore's season. Ravens coach John Harbaugh had what felt like a mutiny on his hands. The 50-year-old coach told his players he wanted to begin preparation for Baltimore's game against the Cleveland Browns by practicing in full pads, a rarity for a midseason Wednesday in the NFL, and his players -- still feeling battered and bruised -- were furious. Lewis was in Florida rehabbing his torn triceps, so it was Reed and Bernard Pollard who openly confronted their coach in front of the team, kicking off what players have described as a "group therapy session" in which they were able to air a number of grievances and frustrations.

Harbaugh listened to their concerns, then backed down. He agreed that the Ravens could practice in jerseys and shorts.

"We have something that's really different in the Raven organization," says Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. "We actually get to influence what we're going to do. And Coach Harbaugh is open to that. If you look at how businesses are run, a business will take a survey to find out what their customers need and what their employees need. Then they'll make the best product however way they can. Coach Harbaugh does that here, and I've never seen that done anyplace else in the NFL."

That scene makes for a great anecdote, a coach who is secure enough that he can view his team as a democracy instead of a dictatorship. But, in truth, it's only half the story. What happened next is the Ravens had a terrible practice while wearing those shirts and shorts. Sloppy, unfocused, lacking in effort -- all the things that drive a coach crazy. Every Raven knew it, too. There was no pretending things had gone well. So when the team came together and kneeled in a circle at the end of practice, it was Reed who stood up to share what was on his mind. He gestured to Harbaugh, but was speaking to his teammates.

"Now this guy feels like he can't trust us," Reed said. The message, according to several Ravens, was clear. Reed would have his teammates' backs when they deserved it, but he would not let Coach Harbaugh be taken advantage of. It was especially profound because the relationship between Reed and Harbaugh, according to several sources, hasn't always been harmonious in the coach's five seasons in Baltimore. But in recent years, a mutual respect and admiration has developed between the two.

"It was an awesome thing," Ayanbadejo says. "I think that's ultimately what pushed us over the edge from being good to being a potentially great team. It was interesting to sit there and see the dialogue, to see how each man, Coach Harbaugh and Ed, handled things. It was a beautiful dynamic. And a lot of it came to fruition because of the man Ed is, and the man Coach Harbaugh is."

Reed also served as behind-the-scenes advocate this year for left tackle Bryant McKinnie, his former college teammate at Miami. McKinnie lost his starting job before the season, and he couldn't win it -- or Harbaugh's trust -- back because of poor performances in practice. But late in the year, with the Ravens struggling to protect Joe Flacco, a number of veterans decided to speak up, successfully imploring Harbaugh to give McKinnie another chance. Since the Ravens inserted McKinnie into the lineup and moved Michael Oher to right tackle, their pass protection has significantly improved.

"Ed was one of the guys yelling and blurting out stuff at practice: 'We need B-Mac!'" McKinnie says. "He's been a big supporter of mine, and he's one of the main reasons I'm even here. Even when I did get in, he was going around yelling at practice, 'It's about time! It's about time for B-Mac!'"

Reed's leadership within the structure of the Ravens has always been harder to appreciate than Lewis', in large part because it lacks the public theatricality of the linebacker's fiery sideline and locker room speeches. Reed doesn't sit for interviews very often. Lewis, Flacco, Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs all field questions from the media on a weekly basis, but the Ravens don't ask Reed to do the same because they know how much he dislikes it. He'll typically talk to reporters at his locker after each game, but not always. When the Ravens lost the AFC Championship Game to New England a year ago, Reed ignored questions from the media with a playful smile and instead chose to walk around the visitors locker room in Gillette Stadium singing "Love TKO" by Teddy Pendergrass.

Think I'd better let it go;
Looks like another love TKO.

Most days at the Ravens facility, he will duck into the hallway the second he sees a camera or a notebook. But when reporters aren't around, the players say it's Reed who makes the rounds, asking his teammates (even the ones on the practice squad) about their aches and bruises, offering to share his wisdom and advice. He's constantly trying to encourage players to eat healthier or try a special water filter he's fond of.

"Physically, it seems like Ed's been through everything, so if I'm dealing with something, he'll tell me about what kind of treatment worked for him," says Ravens offensive lineman Marshal Yanda. "I hurt my back, and he was like, 'Try this stretch.' Or when I had an ankle injury, he said, 'I did this when it happened to me.' He'll seek you out in the training room. He's a real quiet guy, but every single person in that locker room respects him."

Reed and Lewis -- who both played at the University of Miami, albeit several years apart -- are not as close as they're frequently portrayed in the media, friends say. But no power struggle exists between them. For years, Reed has been the yin to Lewis' yang.

"Ray is perfect for what Ray does," says one NFL player who has played with both men. "And it might actually help Ed be who he is. I don't think it's a secret that Ray enjoys the attention, that he sometimes seeks it out. Ed is the opposite, and I think that's good for both of them. But I think Ray being so demonstrative, so welcoming to the attention, I think that drowns out how good Ed is, and how important Ed is. Behind closed doors, in the locker room, I don't know that Ray gets more respect from the guys than Ed does. If you polled players secretly, I think guys might say they respect Ed more.

"That's not a shot at Ray because in my opinion he's the best linebacker ever. He just hasn't changed the position like Ed has. Ed doesn't get the attention he deserves because he's comfortable being in Ray's shadow, and maybe he wouldn't have been able to thrive the way he has if he had to be the vocal lightning rod that Ray is. Ed wishes no one would even recognize him, which is why he grows that ugly-ass beard. It's like a mask for him. But I think Ed should be in the debate for the best defensive player of all time. He probably wouldn't win that debate, but I think he's as important to a team and as revolutionary a player as Lawrence Taylor."

It hardly seems possible now, but the greatest free safety in the past 20 years almost never made it out of St. Rose, a town in St. Charles Parish of 6,500 people that hugs the east bank of the Mississippi River. Reed's journey to Miami and Baltimore, and the way it comes full circle this week when he returns home to play in the Super Bowl, is not just a story of Reed's determination but also one about the people who shaped him into the player and leader he is today.

Most of the jobs in St. Charles Parish are skilled labor, in refineries or on the docks, and the Avondale Shipyard is where Reed's father, Edward Earl Reed Sr., spent more than two decades working as a welder and crane operator, doing mostly 12-hour shift work. Sometimes he'd finish up with work, drive home from the shipyard and climb into bed as the sun was coming up. Reed's mother, Karen, worked in a hospital, then at Walmart. Hard work was such an integral part of Reed Sr.'s life that he declined to retire when his son made it to the NFL and signed contracts that paid millions of dollars. He continued to work for several more years, long after Reed established himself as a perennial Pro Bowler.

Reed might have been the best athlete St. Charles Parish had ever seen by the time he became a teenager. He was outstanding at football, basketball and baseball, and he would occasionally show up at track events and outrun everyone or throw the javelin farther than anyone despite little to no practice. But sports were the only thing that kept him interested in school. He was frequently in trouble, but he managed to charm his way out of most of it.

"I never was in jail," Reed told The Times-Picayune in 2002. "But I did some things that probably would have put me there."

By the time Reed was an eighth-grader, Ben Parquet, a student advocate for St. Charles Parish, took an interest in Reed after his wife, a teacher at Reed's middle school, said she thought Reed needed a little extra help. Initially, Parquet said, it looked as if Reed was going to have to repeat eighth grade because of his poor marks. If that happened, Reed would be too old compete in organized sports until he got to high school, which worried everyone. The parish offered a transitional program for students who were struggling to make the leap between eighth and ninth grade, and it allowed them to enroll in high school (and participate in sports) while they caught up academically. Only problem: Reed's September birthday meant he missed the age requirement by two weeks. The school board said no exceptions would be made.

"You could tell how intelligent he was just by talking to him," Parquet says. "But I felt like if he had to wait another year to get around some older kids and get him involved in sports, we might lose him. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it hadn't worked out."

Parquet appealed for a waiver on Reed's eligibility all the way up to the administrative level. Eventually, after an intense debate, Reed was granted one. He enrolled in summer school and slowly began to apply his intelligence to schoolwork.

"I'll be 74 next month, and this is my 50th year doing this," Parquet says. "I feel as close to Ed now as I do to my own son. I get emotional sometimes when I talk about him because he's such a quality person. You know, everybody is not going to be a professional athlete, but if you can help a kid stay out of trouble, get a job and become a great family man, those are the things that keep you moving forward."

Reed enrolled at Destrehan High School, which was just up the road from St. Rose. He quickly performed well in sports, but he was not particularly adept at getting up in the morning and going to class on time. Nor was he very focused on doing his homework each night.

"When he was a freshman, I was his academic adviser," says Jeanne Hall, an office administrator at Destrehan High School. "He was hanging around with a lot of older guys on the football team, and they'd come to my home for tutoring. Edward has such a charm to him, you can't help but fall in love with him the minute you meet him."

In time, Reed grew comfortable around Hall and her husband, Walter, who worked as a foreman at a nearby oil refinery. They had four children of their own, and Reed soon bonded with each of them. His life at home with his parents wasn't anything he wanted to run away from, but he understood the Halls offered a discipline he needed if he wanted to get to college.

"One day he asked me, 'Do you think I could come stay with you? Because I know I'll get up and go to school every day if I'm here,'" Hall said this week, recalling the conversation while sitting on a bench outside Destrehan High School. "I said, 'You know what, baby? You're here at the house all the time anyway, you might as well bring some clothes and move in.' And once Edward gets in your life, he's in your life forever."

It didn't matter that they were white and he was black -- the Halls soon became a second family to him, and Reed's parents supported the move. Each night, Reed would labor over his homework, pondering math equations with the same intense focus he would one day use to study NFL game film. One evening, Hall recalls, she was doing the dishes while Reed sat at the kitchen table, finishing up an assignment. She looked over his shoulder to double-check his work, and he shooed her away.

"No, no, no, I got this Ms. Hall," Reed said. "I got it."

On the football field, he looked more like a magician than a player with each passing year. He seemed to be everywhere at once, and it was as if he could see plays unfolding before they happened, according to Destrehan coach Stephen Robicheaux. At different times, Reed played quarterback, running back, punt returner, kick returner, cornerback, safety, kicker and punter. And he had a flair for the big moment.

In 1997, in the final game of the regular season of Reed's senior year, the Destrehan Wildcats were leading rival South Lafourche 14-7 in the final seconds, but they weren't going to make the playoffs because they needed to win by at least nine points to break a tie with another team with the same record and take the district title. A teammate of Reed's, Aaron Smith, intercepted a pass with seven seconds remaining, and Reed ran alongside him, imploring Smith to lateral him the ball. Smith complied, and Reed broke four tackles on a 55-yard run to the end zone, sending Destrehan to the playoffs.

"When Edward got to Miami, he'd get an interception and my husband would say, 'He's going to pitch it! Just wait!'" Hall says. "And when he got to the pros, it was the same thing. People think it's crazy, but that's always been Edward."

The region -- and the people in it -- are still extremely important to Reed. Each year, he returns to St. Rose to host a football camp for nearly 300 kids, and instead of signing autographs (which he loathes), he tries to make it a point to interact with all of them. "I've seen kids who are 8 and 9 years old hang on his every word," Hall says. "They look at him and they think, 'I'm from St. Rose. I can make it, just like him.' Teachers and parents can say that until they're blue in the face, but when it comes from him, it matters."

A year ago, when Hurricane Isaac flooded East St. John High School in nearby LaPlace, La., it caused considerable damage to the school, and nearly all of the program's football equipment was ruined. As soon as the cleanup began, Reed called East St. John's coach, Phil Banko, to tell him he wanted to help. He was going to organize an equipment donation. Within hours, calls were pouring in. Within days, Nike and the New Orleans Saints had replaced nearly all the school's gear.

"He's always been humble, and I think that's part of his success," Robicheaux says. "When he's on the field, he's that fiery guy, but when he's at home, he's the nicest person you'll ever meet. And I think that helps him because he can never turn it on and turn it off."

In many respects, Ed Reed is not the player he was during his prime. After leading the NFL with eight interceptions in 2010 (despite playing only 10 games), he has just seven in the past two seasons combined. He doesn't tackle the way he once did, thanks to neck, hip and shoulder injuries, and at times, he has looked like a liability against the run. A few years ago, a large thatch of gray hair appeared just above his forehead.

But when he's playing in space, anticipating your every move, he is still a terrifying sight for offensive coordinators. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady mostly avoided throwing in his direction in recent playoff defeats. In games in which turnovers can snuff out an entire season of hard work -- especially an interception or fumble return touchdown, something Reed has done 13 times in his career -- he is still as dangerous as he was in his 20s.

Reed's weekly preparation, however, is the same as it's been for a decade. The majority of his evenings are spent with a pencil in one hand, a remote control in the other and a notebook on his lap. He lives just a half-mile from the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills, Md., in a modest, four-bedroom house that blends into the neighborhood, just like any other. He frequently has teammates over to his house to watch film in his basement, and he holds court from his favorite spot on the couch, rewinding and pausing dozens of times, eager to hear what they think when he shows a particular formation.

"He's Ed Reed, but he's willing to help everybody, from the guys like me down to the rookies," says cornerback Corey Graham. "He'll invite you over to his house to watch film with him, and he's got the computer system set up like he's in the meeting rooms, man. He's got it all. And you see through his eyes what he's watching and learning. He wants to know what you're seeing and what you think."

He likes to play golf with friends on his days off and can shoot in the low 80s, but he also doesn't mind hours of solitude. He has a place in Atlanta with a much bigger yard, and, in the offseason, one friend says, he'll climb aboard his tractor and mow several acres of his property.

He has very few endorsements, but family and friends say he has saved most of his money. He spent several years driving a Chevy Traverse and was playfully mocked for it by his teammates as they pulled away in their Bentleys and Hummers.

"He's the only person who doesn't know he's Ed Reed," said one of his friends.

The thousands of hours he has spent obsessing over game film only begin to explain what makes Reed one of the all-time greats, says Domonique Foxworth, a former teammate of Reed's who is now retired and serving as the president of the National Football League Players Association.

"Anyone who makes it to the NFL, their brain is very adept at making quick analyses and judgments and assimilating new information throughout a game," Foxworth says. "But Ed puts more stuff into his computer brain, hundreds of formations and combinations, and he can recall that information faster than anyone else can. He doesn't read and then react, he thinks and plays like a quarterback or an offensive coordinator. He's asking himself: 'What would I call here, based on down and distance?' People think he gambles, but what I learned after I sat down and talked to him, and watched film with him, is that it's all calculated risk based on experience."

There is a reason Reed is the one defensive player in the NFL whom Patriots coach Bill Belichick can't resist heaping effusive praise upon. He understands the nanosecond calculus Reed is able to do in his mind during every play.

"He just does things that nobody else at that position does, or I don't know if they've ever done it. He's special. He's really special," Belichick said before the AFC Championship Game.

When the Ravens defeated New England in Foxborough on Jan. 20, Belichick sought out Reed at midfield after the final whistle, and the veteran coach delivered a two-word message. Because Reed was wearing a microphone for NFL Films, the message was preserved for all to hear.

"Finish it," Belichick said. And coming from him, it seemed like the ultimate compliment.

In the visitors locker room of Gillette Stadium, Reed once again broke out in song, but this time the tune was celebratory.

"I've got two tickets to paradise!" Reed bellowed, his graying hair and his unkempt beard getting soaked with champagne.

He understands this is the autumn of his football life. It might even be the early winter. Time is running out. He might play a bit longer, but he cannot play forever.

"He's always going to be that kid who wants to play football," Foxworth says. "He's the least jaded player that I've ever known. If the lights were off and there were no cameras there, he'd still want to play. A lot of people say that B.S., but about 90 percent of them don't mean it. He means it."

The game has been Reed's outlet in times of joy, and in times of sorrow. In 2011, his younger brother, Brian, who struggled with mental illness for much of his life, drowned in the Mississippi River near St. Rose as he attempted to elude local police, who were trying to bring him home after he borrowed a family car without permission. Reed flew home to be with his family, but returned to the Ravens several days later to help Baltimore win a playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs. In the locker room after the game, he fought back tears as he explained to his teammates that his brother Brian also loved football.

"Anybody who's emotionally like that, you tend to feel things more," Hall said. "Your hurts and your joys."

Reed still talks to Hall on the phone at least once a week. She was the one who offered him shelter and structure when he needed it the most, and he has never forgotten that. Sometimes, he'll call her hours before a game, just to be reminded of home.

Several years ago, Reed told Hall something she thinks can help explain exactly what kind of person he is. Each week, when he runs out of the tunnel, onto the field -- as he bobs and weaves his way through the smoke and the pregame fireworks and toward the crowd's boisterous roar -- he feels briefly as if he's gone back in time. Just for a second, it's a Friday night again in Louisiana, and Reed is back at Destrehan, his band of brothers eager to embrace him, asking him once again to lead the way.

Kevin Van Valkenburg (@KVanValkenburg) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He was born and raised in Missoula, Mont., and is a graduate of the University of Montana. His work has been anthologized in the "Best American Sports Writing" series. He lives in Baltimore. He can be reached by email at kvvespn@gmail.com.