Cover Story - Once A Raven
By: John Eisenberg
Earlier this summer, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh pulled aside Jameel McClain, the former Baltimore linebacker who now works in the team's front office.
"When you get a chance, give DeAngelo Tyson a call," Harbaugh said.
In his job as Director of Player Engagement, McClain mostly helps current Ravens navigate their off-field lives while staying on point at work. But he also is deeply enmeshed in the team's network of former players.
"I hear from everybody," McClain said with a smile.
He contacted Tyson, a defensive lineman who played 14 snaps in Super Bowl 47 as the high point of a four-year tenure with the Ravens that began in 2012.
Tyson delivered sobering news: He had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Out of football since 2016, the 32-year-old father of five was facing chemotherapy and had lost his job as a flooring specialist at Lowe's.
Tyson and Justin Houston, the veteran linebacker who'll play for the Ravens in 2021, were childhood friends and college teammates at Georgia. According to McClain, Houston told Harbaugh about Tyson's situation, prompting Harbaugh to call Tyson to offer best wishes and encouragement.
"It was nice to hear from him," Tyson said recently. "This is definitely something to fight through. I've got to stay mentally tough. Football helped me with that so I'm working to apply it."
Since McClain and Tyson spoke, the Ravens' organization has kicked into gear. Tyson's situation was noted in an email the marketing department regularly sends to former players. Tyson heard from former teammates, some of whom contributed to a GoFundMe.
In October, the team will fly Tyson and his family to Baltimore so he can be recognized during a game at M&T Bank Stadium as part of the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign.
"Everyone is pitching in," McClain said. "The organization clearly stands behind DeAngelo and his family and everything they're going through. Any way we can support him and be there for him is a must. We're going to be here for him. That's usually how it goes with the Ravens. You say, 'once a Raven, always a Raven.' We're such a tight community."
Although situations such as Tyson's naturally galvanize the organization, the Ravens are committed to supporting their entire network of former players. Matt Little, a senior manager in the team's marketing department, runs an outreach that probably is more comprehensive than many fans realize.
"This game is about the players. It always has been, and it always will be. Even when someone no longer plays for our team, he remains a part of the Ravens' family," said Executive Vice-President Ozzie Newsome, who shaped the team's roster for 22 years as general manager.
The Ravens send several emails per month to former players with news updates and links to post-career benefits available through the league and their union. Little runs a private Instagram page that 250 former Ravens subscribe to; he posts information about benefits and videos from current team employees such as Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale, Director of Pro Scouting Vince Newsome and Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz.
"The videos are well received," Little said.
"When players leave here, they lose the locker room friendships but also lose the broader scope of just coming in the front door. So we do these videos telling them, 'Hey, we loved you when you were here. We hope you come back around. You're still a big part of what's going on. We miss you.' We hear back from a lot of guys. They appreciate it."
(To be considered a former player by the Ravens, a player had to complete at least one "credited" season with the team. According to the NFL, a player receives credit for a season by being on full-pay status for at least three games.)
Little sends former players birthday cards and gifts, brings them back for reunions and helps arrange for them to attend games and practices. When he sees a fan wearing a former player's jersey, he takes a picture and texts it to the player.
"I sent one to (former center) Mike Flynn the other day and he texted me right back. He loved it," Little said.
Earlier this year, the Ravens sent every former player a bottle of champagne celebrating the franchise's 25th anniversary. Little organized a post-draft Zoom event for former players with Harbaugh and Newsome analyzing the team's picks. In September, former Ravens will receive a bucket hat from the team to commemorate the start of another NFL season.
"I've never heard the word no for anything I've asked for," Little said. "Can we do a Zoom call with John and Ozzie? Sure. Can this guy come to practice? Yes. Can we send gifts? Yes. Can we have extra tickets to the game? Yes.
"Sometimes it's the little things that get attention. I just heard from (former safety) Haruki Nakamura after he got our birthday card. He emailed saying, 'Thanks, it means a lot.'"
Lional Dalton, a reserve defensive lineman on the Ravens' first Super Bowl team, literally owes his life to his association with the team. Now 46, Dalton was in kidney failure and needed a transplant, but lacked a donor match. The Ravens helped publicize his situation, which resulted in widespread local and national media coverage.
Several Ravens fans volunteered to donate kidneys. Dalton underwent a transplant operation at Johns Hopkins last week.
"I've got a lot of love and support for Baltimore," Dalton said earlier this year.
It was during Dalton's era, two decades ago, that the Ravens' locker room first gained a reputation as a breeding ground for a strong culture of hard-nosed professionalism. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and their teammates started it, and it continues with Harbaugh.
That culture is integral to the strong bonds that exist among the former players, both with each other and the organization.
"It's extremely unique," said McClain, who also played for the New York Giants. "Part of the reason there's a bond among former Ravens is there are so many like-minded guys in the locker room. People that approach football, community and people the same way.
"Not to discredit other organizations, but sometimes they bring in people that are just filling spots and they don't click with each other. Here, they do a great job of bringing in guys who want to win, be physical and be a great person to the world. It creates a bond that goes beyond your playing days. For guys to still be in contact with the team six, seven years after they're gone, that's amazing."
The bond between former players and the organization is plainly evident. Anquan Boldin played for four teams during his 14 seasons in the NFL. He retired as a Raven. Vonta Leach played for three teams over 11 years. He retired as a Raven.
"It's a special place," said Calais Campbell, a current defensive starter who played a dozen seasons for other teams before joining the Ravens in 2020.
Respect for former players is a less heralded but enduring aspect of the Ravens' culture.
The commitment begins at the top, Little said, as Owner Steve Bisciotti fully grasps the former players' integral contribution to the franchise's development. The Ravens have won two Super Bowls, earned 13 playoff berths and fashioned an impressive .562 regular season winning percentage since they kicked off in 1996.
Newsome credits Art Modell, the Ravens' late owner, with mandating that his franchise would respect the former players who helped make it happen.
"Art Modell, who cared deeply about his players, established this culture, and Steve Bisciotti has continued to build upon it," Newsome said. "For over 25 years, countless players have contributed to the success of our organization, and they've helped the Ravens form an incredible bond with Baltimore. We believe it's important to honor and support the players who influenced our past, because that strengthens what the Ravens will be in the future."
Little said the goal, beyond showing respect to former players, is to help them stay in touch with each other and also provide support if needed. Leaving the NFL "can lead you down some dark paths," Little said. "We're just making sure we have the community where guys feel they can come back. Ozzie is a big part of it. Being here for all 25 years, he has literally had a hand in every single player being here. John (Harbaugh) has also been here a long time (since 2008) and plays a big role."
The Ravens are hardly alone. Every NFL franchise cultivates a network of former players. Six years ago, the league formally organized what it calls its "Legends" community.
But it's safe to say few teams are as committed as the Ravens.