There were no more games to play, and nothing left to play for. The Baltimore Ravens had fallen 23-14 in the AFC Championship game, to their fiercest rival the Pittsburgh Steelers no less. So why did nearly 1,000 Baltimore fans show up at the Owings Mills Mall late Sunday night to wait for their team to arrive home?
Because Baltimore is a football city; it has been for more than 50 years.
Because the Baltimore Ravens are ingrained in this city's mind, heart and spirit, and the fans are grateful for being part of one of the most rewarding seasons in the franchise's history, even if it wasn't a championship history.
"I remember...I did not expect much from our rookie quarterback but maybe, just maybe, this might be the start of something special," said James Weisheit, a fan of the team since its inception in 1996. "Maybe turned out to be right. [The 2000 and 2006 runs] were great, but were not special like this one."
"We are proud to wear purple," said Brett LeBrun of Bel Air, Md. "Keep your heads up, and we look forward to next season."
The fans' sheer dedication to a team that went 11-5 and to the conference title game with a rookie quarterback, rookie head coach, 19 players on injured reserve and which played 18 straight weeks without a bye was impressive to all levels of the Ravens organization.
"It's been an amazing experience this year with the fans," added Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of public and community relations. "We feel so badly that we were delayed in Pittsburgh."
The Ravens jet taking them home needed to be de-iced, and as a result the players were not back in Owings Mills until 3 a.m., well after most fans were able to stay.
Initial plans were made for head coach John Harbaugh to shout the "What's Our Name?" chant through a megaphone into the crowd.
"We really wanted to greet these people," Byrne added.
The fans of Charm City have been fired up for weeks, crowding out Purple Friday rally locations
throughout the town. The sense of excitement rivaled that the city felt during its championship run during the 2000 season. After playoff wins against Miami and Tennessee, the crowds at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to greet the team produced staggering numbers..
Although the season ended in disappointment, the fans refused to waiver.
"It's huge," said punter Sam Koch. "Every time we show up at the airport they're there. It's great to have fans like that, no matter what we do [on the field]."
Fans arrived in the Owings Mills mall parking lot – where the team had arranged to meet and greet fans after flying home – as early as 11 p.m., about a half hour after the game ended. They brought their instruments and footballs of their own, braving the cold for the opportunity to tell the team how much they love them.
Others were concerned, holding up signs saying "We Love You McGahee," referring to Willis McGahee, who was injured in the fourth quarter.
"I'll tell you what, they've been unbelievable," said linebacker Jarret Johnson with obvious gratitude. "Through all the adversity, they've always got our back."
For some of the rookies on the team, that admiration has left them in awe at times.
"It's a commitment to this city," noted rookie wide receiver Marcus Smith. "I've never had five people waiting for me, let alone an entire airport. It's huge for me."
The respect and admiration has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated. Without the support of the fans, the Ravens would never have reached the AFC Championship game. The Ravens would not be the successful franchise it is today and would not have the promising future it has for seasons to come.
The Baltimore Ravens organization thanks every fan for the love and support they have shown throughout this incredible season. Because without the fans, there would be no Baltimore Ravens
We thank you. Just because.