On the night I remember so well, Ed Reed was in his third season with the Ravens, coming off the first of his nine Pro Bowl appearances. His legend was just starting to crystallize.
In fact, this might have been the night it did.
The Ravens were visiting the Washington Redskins on a Sunday night in October 2004. In front of 90,000 fans and a national television audience, the home team dominated early and led, 10-0, in the third quarter. Baltimore's Kyle Boller-led offense seemed incapable of scoring any points, let alone enough to win.
Reed did something about it.
On third-and-6 at his 37, Washington quarterback Mark Brunell dropped back. Blitzing, Reed swiped for the ball, knocked it free, picked it up and ran 22 yards for a touchdown. Just like that, the Ravens were on the board. Game on.
Regaining possession, the Redskins quickly reached third-and-1 at their 35. Clinton Portis took a handoff, but Reed anticipated the play, charged forward and slammed into Portis, throwing him for a loss and forcing a punt. Baltimore's B.J. Sams fielded the kick, and after Reed threw a block that opened a lane, Sams raced 79 yards for a touchdown.
In a matter of minutes, the Ravens had come from 10 points down to take the lead, thanks almost entirely to their third-year safety.
The big crowd went silent, the Ravens won and I remember walking out of the stadium later thinking I had seldom, if ever, seen a playmaker so unique.
There would be many more days and nights like that, many more games Reed took over, changed, decided with an interception, a jaw-dropping return, a blocked kick – plays no one saw coming except Reed himself.
We became accustomed to it here, but that didn't mean it was typical in any way. To the contrary, there had never really been another NFL safety like Reed, who wasn't the fastest or hardest-hitting guy, but possessed a truly electric instinct for delivering the momentous, unexpected and dramatic.
Fans came to games not knowing how he would make an impact, just that he likely would, hopefully with one of his signature "Ed Reed moments." Because those usually led to a Baltimore victory.
Now he is up for the ultimate honor, election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The vote is today and Reed is widely regarded as a slam-dunk to make it, with the news certain to be followed by a rollout of the many records and numbers that justify his selection, i.e., his career totals for interceptions, return yardage, touchdowns and more.
As great as all that tangible evidence is, though, numbers don't do justice to his talent. At its essence, Reed's greatness was intangible, unquantifiable, a level of expertise most savored as an experience, sniffed like a fine wine, studied like an Impressionist masterpiece hanging in a museum.
You'll probably never see another player more like a jazz riff, floating here, humming there, suddenly soaring to a crescendo. The only problem with that comparison is it sounds as if he was all instinct and improvisation when, in fact, his success was based on relentless hours of film study, knowing when and how to play the odds, make his move.
It's only appropriate that he is now deemed a shoo-in for the Hall in the first year he is eligible, following in the footsteps of his former teammates, Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis. (By the way, three inductions in seven years is anything but normal. It's a special passage in the franchise's history, unlikely to be repeated.)
But Reed wasn't always considered a 99.9 percent shoo-in. An incurable on-field gambler, he occasionally lost. His forceful hits ebbed in his final seasons, in Baltimore and elsewhere. There were a few detractors.
My response to anyone doubting his candidacy was always the simplest of questions: Did you watch him play?
I mean, did you actually see Ed Reed perform, especially in the years when he was at his best?
If you did, you know he was a one-of-a-kind talent and there was never a doubt that he belongs in Canton.