Monday, November 06, 2006

Week 9 – Tunnel Vision

Baltimore, MD – 11/5/06.

I haven’t completed my research, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there are no 5’9” Jewish guys from New Jersey playing in the NFL today. In fact, according to the world renowned Jewish News Weekly, there were only 7 Jewish players in the entire NFL in 2005. I don’t mean to stereotype. Jewish people, along with just about every other racial and religious group in the country, are taking enough of a beating from Borat this week. But Jews don’t typically play with the pigskin. It doesn’t even sound Kosher.

The reason I mention the startling statistics above is that this afternoon, on a beautiful, but brisk day in Baltimore, I found myself standing at the cusp of NFL stardom. Inside the players’ tunnel, at the entrance to the field, this 5’9” Jewish boy from New Jersey wound up in the midst of the parade that is player introductions in the NFL.

First the visiting team took the field. Chad Johnson was so close that I could tell that not only did he shave his golden mohawk, but I think I noticed a smile full of gold teeth. Then came the cheerleaders and the three Raven mascots, one of which patted me on the back with one of his wings. It was my second ‘brush’ with fame on the day as ESPN football analyst, Sal Paolantonio, also patted me on the back while trying to get by me in the press box. I know that’s not as exciting to most of you as an encounter with Ray Lewis, who was the next to walk by me in the tunnel, but for the same reason my heart skipped when I saw Chris Berman in Denver, I grew up wanting to sit alongside these guys at the SportsCenter desk. A much more attainable goal for me than, lets say, a middle linebacker. Mike Greenberg. Tony Kornehiser. Al Michaels. Sports heroes a young Jewish boy could look up to. But on this day, I was standing in line with the linebackers.

The last players to enter were the offensive starters and from under the stands, I could hear the crowd shake with every announcement. The last to be introduced was Todd Heap, who ran through the smoke and the runway strip of players to finish off the pre-game spectacle. What the PA announcer may not have realized is that Lauryn and I were still in the tunnel. We followed Heap into the smoke but apparently the pyrotechnic crew increases the gas flow after the last player takes the field. We lost each other in the confusion. I wasn’t sure if the fans still had their eyes glued to the entrance and I didn’t want to stumble on my way out, so I stopped in the midst of the smoke and waited for further direction from Lauryn. Of course she clearly had been here before because she had already left me by the time I looked up. I wonder how many 5’2” Jewish girls from Columbia, MD could say that they ran through the tunnel at an NFL game. I’m proud to say that she’s probably pioneering that path.

My big entrance, however, was going awry. My NFL dreams were about to go up in smoke. Pun intended. Then I caught a glimpse of the grass as I was searching for a way out and I made a run for it. Daylight! I emerged from the haze and welcomed the crowds cheers. I think they were still focused on Heap and the offense, but I didn’t mind sharing the praise. With 70,000 fans in attendance, there was enough to go around.

The game could not have started better for Baltimore. Two turnovers. Two touchdowns. The second score came courtesy of Ed Reed, who stole the ball from Samari Rolle after Rolle intercepted a pass from Carson Palmer. I don’t know if I have ever seen a group of Baltimoreans happier than the fans were at that point in the game. Not while eating crabs on the way to Ocean City. Not while playing competitive kickball in Federal Hill. And certainly not at Oriole games the last 10 years. Husbands kissed their wives. Brothers hugged each other. And who knows, despite being less than 48 hours away from Election Day, you could even imagine Ehrlich and O’Malley giving each other fist pounds before realizing whom they were celebrating with. It could happen.

In the past few weeks, the talk of the NFL has been Ocho Cinco (a.k.a. Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson, #85). But today belonged to Baltimore’s Ocho Seis. Just ask Trevor Pryce, our wired Raven this week who commented after one of Heap’s big catches, ‘That man has skills!’ Or you could ask the clever fan in the modified Heap jersey that I stole the name from. Either way, the first half belonged to the Ravens and the team led 17-7 at halftime.

Unfortunately, the Bengals decided to play the second half as well and just as they did two years ago, their highflying offense began to chip away at the lead. Then something funny happened. Not ‘funny ha-ha’. More like ‘funny uh-oh’. Palmer completed a deep pass to Chris Henry and Chris McAllister was able to tackle him just before the end zone. The ball came loose and Ed Reed picked it up and tried to run it back. At some point in the play, both Ed and Ray were knocked to the ground and had to be attended to by the medical staff. As loud as the crowd was up 14-0, there was stunned silence in the stands as the faces of the franchise lay flat on their backs. Of course there was confusion too.

The play was ruled a fumble. Cincinnati challenged and it was overturned. Then Billick tried to challenge that Henry was out of bounds before the reversed fumble even took place. Billick lost the challenge. So to summarize: two challenges, both went against the Ravens; two players down, both of them Ravens; and the Bengals get the ball on the four. Kudos to Larry and the game day crew in the video control room who not only brought up the replay on the SmartVision boards, but were able to zoom in on Henry’s foot, apparently stepping out of bounds. Too bad Larry wasn’t controlling the replay booth the referee was using.

As the game wore on, every time we would film Pryce about to take the field, we were lucky enough to almost get in the way of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as they psyched themselves up for each new series. I don’t care how many times I get to stand on the sidelines, I will always be in awe of the aura surrounding Ray Lewis. I couldn’t help but stare at him. I tried not to make eye contact but I did make arm contact. He has a tattoo of a panther on his bicep that is in honor of his mentor growing up in Florida. I swear, if I didn’t know better, and as I’ve mentioned many times that this whole experience still feels like a dream, I think the panther snarls a little as Ray pumps his arms. It is scary. Especially up close. And even though I experienced my first player introduction earlier in the day, I don’t think I’m ready for the massive bicep tattoo just yet. Remember, still 5’9”. Still the Jewish boy from New Jersey.

As the fourth quarter ticked away, the Ravens found themselves up just six points with less than three minutes to play. The Ravens fans knew that in order to stop another dramatic comeback, the 12th man had to be called upon. And the crowd abided. In accordance with the newest man-law, a continuance on the chant, ‘D-Fence!’ was issued. 70,000 strong sang loudly. Even a few of us on the ground got into the act. Fourth down and the game was on the line. This was my professional debut; I wasn’t going to let this one get away. A few extra ‘D’s’ had to help. And it did. Palmer’s pass was tipped. The game was over. The Ravens gained a game in the standings and took control of the AFC North.

As I reflected on my day in the spotlight I realized a few things. First, other than my in-laws watching from section 230, I was not in the spotlight. Second, even with a defense ranked 3rd in the NFL, no lead is safe. And third, there just might be a universal truth that connects Jews in New Jersey to the NFL. In Brian Billick’s post game speech to the team, he referenced that one thing he was looking forward to after the game was sharing some Chinese take-out with his family. A tradition shared by many of my religion. Lauryn and I do the same after every home game and hopefully all our cookies will continue to bring us good fortune.

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