"We got our eye on something, and everybody sees that. When one guy wants to take a day off from practice, there's 10 to 15 guys picking him up and saying you can't. The vibe is different this year because everybody has this taste in their mouth." -- Ray Lewis to the Baltimore Sun's Jamison Hensley on 8/23/09
I couldn't agree more with Ray when he said "the vibe is different this year." First, we've got a lot of good players – some of the best in the NFL at their positions. The coaching staff is excellent, with a head coach who proved in his first season that he can lead a team to the highest NFL levels. (That trip to the AFC Championship game wasn't too shabby for a rookie head coach starting a rookie quarterback.)
I expected the players to be whining privately last week about the final week of training camp. That's not an uncommon occurrence. Camps are hot, humid, mean and nasty. They keep people away from families and normal living.
The players didn't whine. They worked hard instead.
Our camp, which ended yesterday morning with a game-plan and substitution rehearsal for tonight's game, was the longest in the NFL – 27 days. On most days, the temperature was at least 90 degrees with high humidity. The type of days that make men grumpy, especially when you throw in daily hand-to-hand, full-body football contact.
(By the way, our camp was the longest not because John Harbaugh wanted to make our players suffer or work more. Our calendar just worked out that way. With the preseason starting with a Thursday game [8/13 vs. the Redskins] and the next game coming 11 days later on a Monday night [8/24 against the Jets], it made logistical sense to stay at McDaniel College the extra few days.)
So to break up that long time between our first two preseason games, Coach Harbaugh wanted to do something different. He and owner Steve Bisciotti talked about it the night of our Redskins' victory – and wasn't that sweet…a 23-0 win and domination by our offensive and defensive lines.
With encouragement from Bisciotti, "Harbs" asked us to find something "entertaining" for the team that could take place "either Thursday, Friday or Saturday night."
Chad Steele, our media relations director, worked on getting a huge video game setup where each position group would have representatives to compete against another group in a big tournament. Chad worked hard on this, but we were not quite sure everyone on the team would find it fun and exciting. We also scoured the Mid-Atlantic region for entertainment acts that were in the area, thinking we could persuade one to come here and entertain our team.
In the meantime, Bob Eller, our VP of operations – and the guy who seamlessly runs our training camp – worked with a person who books entertainers. They came up with comedian/actor Mark Curry, probably best known for starring in the comedy series Hanging With Mr. Cooper. Curry accepted our invitation, took a red-eye from LA and performed for those of us at camp last Friday night.
The event was spectacular. And, as Ray indicated, there was a "vibe" in the room.
As best as we could, we surprised the team when they showed up for the 7:30 p.m. meeting on Friday. The team meeting room at Westminster's Best Western was set up with a stage, lit by a spotlight and we had a dark curtain as background. We had an "Earth, Wind and Fire" CD playing when the players entered.
At 7:30, when Coach Harbaugh was about to start the proceedings, quarterback Troy Smith walked to the stage, stepped into the spotlight, grabbed the mike and did a spot-on imitation of Darren Sanders, our popular and able security director. Smith had players, coaches and front office personnel rolling with laughter. Guys were standing and slapping high fives and exchanging fist bumps.
Smith received a standing ovation when he finished. Harbs grabbed the mike and said: "Anyone have anything else?" Players called for defensive tackle Justin Bannan to "tell one of his bad jokes." Without hesitation, the big man entered the spotlight and told a joke that ended with Jarret Johnson being the butt of it. Again, more hard laughing and camaraderie.
"We have more?" Harbs asked the team. "Make 'E.J.' tell a joke," a few players yelled. Quickly, tight end Edgar Jones jumped on stage and told a joke "I got it from one of my uncles." It worked and the room was really buzzing now.
The head coach told the team: "Obviously, this is not going to be our normal team meeting." And then he intro'd Curry, who started a 55-minute set that literally had us out of our seats. He did some of his regular act, but he also included the Ravens in his presentation.
I can't do his act justice. But I'll try to write a little. He had some fun with lines about the Best Western and guys having to room together. He then said: "You all have roommates right? Ray Lewis, where are you? Who's your roommate?" Players laughed because they knew that Ray doesn't – Harbs gave all the players over 30 their own rooms.
Curry continued: "We all know why Ray doesn't have a roommate. Who would want to be his roommate? You'd be sleeping like a baby and all the sudden you'd hear somebody standing over you, screaming: "What time is it? I said, 'what time is it?' Are my dogs in the house?" And, while Curry barked, the room collapsed in laughter.
Man, it was fun. There was a little magic in the room. There clearly was a buzz. There's something happening here. There was a collection of workers enjoying themselves, making fun of each other…continuing to create a special team chemistry.
Yes, Ray, there's a vibe here. And, good things are going to happen.
Kevin Byrne is in his 30th NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis, Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.