With 32 teams, 17 weeks and over 256 games, much of what takes place in an NFL regular season goes on to become lost in the annals of time. Long forgotten are the majority of the characters who will play a small part in the tale of a single campaign. Only a handful of defining figures who you simply cannot tell the story of a season without will live on through the years.
The main character of the 2019 NFL universe is without question Lamar Jackson. Impossibly infectious as a personality and wildly dynamic as a player, Jackson provided the unimaginable on a weekly basis. Rarely does one squad feel a class above the rest but at times in 2019, his Baltimore Ravens plowed through the competition at a level of ease unmatched by almost any team the last decade.
As the Ravens grew stronger our collective draw to the team only increased. The insurmountable gap between them and the rest of the league as they went 12-0 from October on, had the NFL universe contemplating another Lombardi Trophy push for the Ravens.
Now, as Baltimore prepares for its first serious Super Bowl run since 2012, I cannot help but connect the tissue between that team and the one we see before us today. The memories of that Ravens team are personal. They draw me to Jackson’s 2019 squad in a way that proves irresistible.
Personal connection with Grandmom and the Ravens
“I don’t know why we bother watching these full football games,” my Grandmom would say to me. “All you need to watch are the last five minutes. That’s when all the excitement happens.”
It was a mindset born out of years of following her hometown team. She lived her entire life in Baltimore and raised my mom and her two siblings in a small home. Grandmom was there when the Colts left in the 1980s, then she fell for the Ravens when pro football returned to the city in 1996.
Grandmom and I always had a special relationship. While my mom still worked when I was a baby, she’d drop me off at Grandmom’s house. She’d insist as I grew up, “you know, I practically raised that boy.” Years later when we’d all go visit her as a family, my younger sister and I would race out of the car for the right to be the first to get to her doorstep.
When I was a teenager, Grandmom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She slowed down considerably. Still, I was there. When we’d go out to eat with her, I’d hold her arm as she took tiny step after tiny step walking from the car to the restaurant. Grandmom and I never got sat down first during those years. One summer when I was back from college, she came to live with us in Virginia as her health situation became more complicated. During my lunch breaks from my summer job, I’d come back to our living room and watch The Game Show Network with her. I’d be right back there once my shifts ended.
A fervent sense of loyalty kept me by her side whenever possible. As she had cared for me when I was just a small child, I felt it was my duty to be there to care for her in any small way that I could, especially as Parkinson’s disease began to take a more noticeable toll.
My memories of her and football are clear. Most of them centered on the idea of her team’s ability to rally. The Ravens of the 2000s and the early part of the last decade were a defense and running game focused team. We know in our current understanding of the modern NFL, those organizations will always invite close games. In those moments, she would sing the praises of two defining Ravens players: Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco.
Lewis, as she’d frequently note, was an uncanny motivator. She appreciated his celebrated ability to keep the team both driven and focused on the final goal of securing a win. The boisterous nature in which he played the game was her favorite. Flacco was a different type of leader to her. Grandmom would describe the Ravens’ one-time quarterback as unflappable with a face that hardly changed no matter how massive the moment. My favorite nugget from her was when she was describing the transition of the team from the era of “Big Ray” (Lewis) to Joe Flacco and “Little Ray” (Rice) in the early 2010s.
It was Lewis and Flacco who came to be the defining characters in the story the Baltimore Ravens wrote in the 2012 season. A campaign that ended with a Lombardi trophy. The mantra of the exciting final five minutes being all you need to watch came to characterize that Ravens playoff run. It was never more true than the last Ravens game of my Grandmom’s life.
Watching the Ravens’ playoff miracle from a hospital
My sense of loyalty and deep love for my Grandmom called me to her side one more time in January 2013. Her health was in a deep decline in the final six months of her life. It was hard to even recognize her when I last saw her back in November. It was during that hospital visit where we spoke for what would be the final time.
When I was home for winter break during my senior year of college, I finally got the call that I had dreaded. My mom called me home from a night out with my friends to tell me Grandmom had congestive heart failure and we needed to go up to Baltimore and see her immediately.
We arrived later that night and stayed for several to follow. That time of my life is forever burned into my memory, something that is unexplainable but so pure and so clear.
My family went up there with a clear vision of what the odds were. Grandmom leaving that hospital was an unlikely outcome. Her eyes were closed. There was no emotion in her face. Nurses told us she knew we were there, but she never spoke to show us. Nevertheless, as others left while my mom and I stayed through the weekend, we still pushed for the miracle. Mom would encourage her to sit up, try to guide her into opening her eyes. I was there in my usual spot, right by her side talking to her in hopes of a response.
While we were there, the Ravens played the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 12, 2013. Mom and I watched the entire game from that hospital room. All I wanted was for my Grandmom to open her eyes one more time to take in the majesty of what took place. That upset for the Ravens came to be defined by the unflappable Joe Flacco heaving a 70-yard Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones with just 31 seconds left on the clock. It took the game into two overtimes, where Justin Tucker would ultimately seal the win with a 47-yard field goal.
Going into Denver to defeat Peyton Manning and the No. 1 seed Broncos felt like an impossible task. Flacco and the Ravens had miraculously toppled a giant with his Hail Mary. Taking it all in while staying in the city of Baltimore was a joy.
In that same hospital room, as the game faded into the past, mom and I still held out hope for our own sort of Hail Mary. Yet, those expectations were about to change.
A final goodbye
Being present when someone begins to die is an indescribable experience. It will test your beliefs on everything. Like me, you could be of the highest degree of skepticism about the metaphysical or the spiritual, but in my personal experience, all of that will begin to slip away as you prepare to embark on the journey of guiding a loved one away from this world.
Throughout the early part of our week in the hospital room, Mom and I were consistently pushing for Grandmom to give us signs of life. We wanted to see something that would indicate she’d come down with her own version of a 70-yard touchdown pass, even if it was just going to give us some unexpected overtime with the person we loved so much. It was the morning after the Ravens win in Denver when the hospice nurse ultimately pulled us aside to explain to us plainly how this was going to happen. While the three of us had spent so many hours the previous week in that hospital room, only two of us were going to leave it.
From then on, our interactions with Grandmom shifted. Gone were the pleas for her to open her eyes. No more did we attempt to get her to respond to us. Instead, Mom and I spent the next 24 hours sharing wonderful memories with Grandmom, telling her how much we loved her and how we would be OK without her.
In hospice, they tell you that your interactions with the patient can dictate so much of the circumstances. I’m not the expert but that’s how it went for us. When we began to come around to the idea it was time to let her go, she began to fade. Her appearance changed, her breathing became short. As the nurse told us she would, she began to loosen her grip on life when we modified our behavior to reflect our love for her and peace with her departure, rather than pleas to hang on.
On the night of Jan. 14, my mom and I had gone to dinner before returning to our hotel near the hospital. At the end of the meal, as we sat in the car, we mutually decided that for whatever reason, we felt drawn to go back to see Grandmom again before calling it a night. Whatever force was at play to call for our return, I’m eternally grateful for it. When we entered the room, the rattle from her breathing was at a deafening volume. This was what the nurse had told us to expect at the end. Mom and I gathered by her side in the cold room lit by just one bedside lamp, put our hands on her arm and poured out our love for her. The two people who needed it the most were now at Grandmom’s side in the final stage of the journey. It all felt perfect.
Through tears and smiles, we thanked Grandmom for all the time we got to spend with her, recalled cherished memories from years gone by and ultimately, told her we knew it was time for her to leave us. Within the hour, she was gone.
Phone calls were made, arrangements planned in the hours and days to follow. After speaking at her funeral in Baltimore to offer my final tribute to the woman who had “practically raised me,” I returned to school in Virginia. A life-defining moment and heavy heart came in tow. Nothing about death is easy but the way one must return to business as usual is particularly painful.
Fate would, however, grant me one more treat to ease the hurt. It was with joy that I watched the Ravens defeat the 49ers in the Super Bowl just a few weeks later. I could barely contain the glee I felt that my Grandmom’s team had come to slay giants all the way on the run to the winner’s circle. The 2012 Ravens cemented their place in history, never to be forgotten by the NFL universe. Something about it felt like a final gift to both of us, one last moment we could share, even as she was gone.
These Ravens would’ve tested Grandmom’s 5-minute theory
In the months to follow, I would take the money from Grandmom’s last Christmas present to me and buy the domain name to my football blog TheBackyardBanter.com. It would take me on the path to a career covering the NFL full-time. All the while, as the job allows me to follow the league closely, I’ve watched the Ravens with a fondness. They give me a reason to think about her, to remember all the years of memories but especially the sacred final hours I spent at her side.
The affection has never been more pronounced seven years later, as the new-look Ravens once again became the story of a season. The 2019 version of the team will enter the divisional round of the NFL postseason as the giant others want to topple. Outside of their adaptable head coach and ultra-clutch kicker, nothing about this Baltimore squad looks like the one my Grandmom watched.
I often find myself longing to know what Grandmom would have thought about this Ravens team. I wish she could have had a chance to fall in love with Lamar Jackson, observe with joy as he rewrote the standards of the sport. I can only imagine how she would have reacted to the boisterous nature of newcomers like Mark Ingram and Marcus Peters. Would she have supported John Harbaugh’s decisions to trust the numbers and go for it on a variety of fourth downs? In a season when Baltimore is at the center of the NFL universe and the Ravens are must-see TV, I just wish the best fan I knew had gotten a chance to take it all in. One thing’s for sure, with the way these Ravens made a habit of blowing out other teams on the way to leading the NFL with a +249 point differential (with a 54-point gap to second-place), her theory of just watching the last five minutes of games would have been put to the test.
With the Ravens just days away from making their debut in this season’s playoffs, I know I’ll be rooting for this team to make it all the way to a Super Bowl win ... just for Grandmom. Seven years later, in some way, I’ll still feel like I’m doing my cheering where I always felt I was supposed to be, right by her side.
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