Friday, January 27, 2006

The true MVP (or why I still hate Sports Illustrated)...

After the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, SI's cover screamed "Baltimore Bullies" and included a picture of someone (I think Peter Boulware) shoving his hand into the facemask of some nameless member of the Giants. This cover annoyed me greatly, so much so that I wrote a mean and overly-emotional letter to the magazine's editors. Throughout that entire magical season, the coverage of the Ravens by the national media focused on Ray Lewis's murder trial and the "meanness" of the teams defenses. Even during the Super Bowl run, such stories were all you could read.

Meanwhile, quietly, Jermaine Lewis--then the team's kick returner--was doing what he always did: score touchdowns in some of the most electrifying, game-changing ways. I was fortunate enough to score a pair of tickets really close to the field and really close to the 50-yard line for the team's regular season finale on Christmas Eve against the Vinny and the Jets. In case you don't remember, Jermaine Lewis returned two punts for touchdowns during this game, and (I think) single handedly won it for the team, whose defense forgot to show up, allowing the Jets over 500 yards of total offense.

While Jermaine returned several kicks for touchdowns that year, this game was different; his son was stillborn just 11 days before. Christmas Eve was his first game back with the team.

During Super Bowl XXXV, the Giants returned a kick for a touchdown and appeared poised to actually put up a fight. Immediately after, however, Jermaine again stole the show with a kickoff return that all but iced the game for the Ravens. As he crossed the goal line, Lewis pointed to the sky, honoring his dead son and sending shivers through the bodies of every person who knew of his tragic story.

Of course, few people knew of his story then and even fewer know of it now. Lost among the stories of Ray Lewis's murder trial and Brian Billick's hubris was perhaps the most poignant, emotional story of any Super Bowl: That of a 5' 7" guy from Lanham, Maryland who nobody thought would be worth a damn in the NFL but played with more heart, more passion, and more courage than anyone else to take the field that year, or any year for that matter.

All of the emotion that I felt during that moment came back to me the other day when I read this piece on by David Fleming. Like Jermaine, Fleming lost a son in childbirth that year, and wrote a book called Noah's Rainbow about coping with loss and finding comfort in sharing his experiences with those who can most understand, people like Jermaine.

Sometimes sports is just sports, filled with trivial, artificially-induced emotion. But sometimes, it transcends the wins, the losses, the uniforms, the field, the faux rivalries, and all the other junk we care so much about, and it takes on a purpose far greater than entertainment.

Jermaine Lewis will forever rank among the greatest men to play for the Ravens. He was, and is, an inspiring figure, one who stands out for his actions both on and off the field. And with great pride I will always be able to say about the two touchdowns he scored against the Jets, "I was there when...", for a few brief, magical moments, ceased being "just a game."

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