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Purple Reign 2: Chapter 17 “The Last Ride of 52”

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It was a playoff game. There was plenty of emotion and a rich, vivid storyline with all of the connections of Baltimore and Indianapolis, Harbaugh and Luck, Pagano and the Ravens. The Colts had also imported two coaches plus Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski from the 2011 Ravens defense when Pagano took the job in Indy. This was a family affair with lots of relationships and tentacles.

Harbaugh’s mandate to get healthy during December, even as the Ravens endured a three-game losing streak while grooming younger players, seemed to have been a success. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were expected to line up next to each other for the first time since the AFC Championship Game. The Cincinnati game caused Vonta Leach to be nicked up, but Harbaugh expected to field his most complete team in weeks for the Colts with Jimmy Smith, Bryant McKinnie, and Haloti Ngata all getting healthier and stronger.

On Wednesday, the media reported to Owings Mills and with the playoffs narrowing the menu to just four NFL games during the first weekend of January, many national reporters flocked to Baltimore expecting to hear from Ray Lewis for the first time in more than two months. He had been mostly silent, spending most of November in Florida watching his son, who was a senior headed to The U like his dad to play football. Lewis joined the team for games on Sundays in November and supported the players via texts daily while he was rehabbing and returned fulltime to Baltimore in early December. Once he was back in Owings Mills, everyone could see he was using his right arm with ease. He was shaking hands with people, moving it around, not showing any signs of strain or pain. Newsome and Harbaugh had always hoped Ray would come back, but they didn’t necessarily believe he would. The team had played 10 games without him and eight without Suggs. Would it be simple, like riding a bike, with them back on the field together?

Pagano knew more than anyone what having Suggs and Lewis in the middle of the defense would mean for Baltimore. It essentially made useless any film study for Luck unless he was studying 2011 footage, which was Pagano’s defense anyway. The Ravens would play this game differently, and Dean Pees would call it differently with 52 and 55 running around.

“Sizzle and Ray, those are both guys that everybody in the league, all the 31 other teams would love to have on their defense,” Pagano said. “They’re great people, great players, great pros.”

Pagano remembers when he first came to the Ravens in 2008, watching Rex Ryan intimidate the college kids who would visit Owings Mills during pre-draft interviews with the towering expectations of playing next to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

“We’d bring in 30 guys during March and April and we’d visit with them and Rex would show them the depth chart and look at those names,” Pagano said. “He’d tell them, ‘Here’s the expectations to be a Raven – work ethic, preparation, film study, practice, how we play the game.’ He’d say to these kids, ‘The bar here is sky high. And, hey, there’s 31 other teams that would love to have you. Being in Baltimore is not for everyone. Tell me now so we don’t make a mistake. Is this too big for you seeing Ray and Eddie, Haloti and Siz and J.J.? Every guy in that room is going to expect nothing less than this,’ ” Pagano said of Ryan, raising his right hand as far toward the sky as it could go.

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Pagano laughs. “Rex would look them in the eyes and say it all sort of matter of factly. He’d say, ‘Just save us some anguish and a draft pick if you’re not going to make it here. And that’s, OK. You can go somewhere else and play. I’m sure some other team in the NFL will want you. But around here, that’s the standard.’ ”

After all, who wants to be the one who walks back the sideline and has to explain to Ray Lewis how he blew his assignment or missed a tackle or jumped offside or took a stupid penalty?

Pagano said. “Rex let them know that playing next to Ray Lewis was a privilege and there was a lot that came along with that.”

Now the Colts, in some strange way, had one of the best parts of Baltimore once again carted off to Indianapolis in Pagano, who was universally adored in Owings Mills and had been through – and really was still in the midst of – the biggest challenge of his life still battling leukemia. And he had taken a big chunk of Harbaugh’s philosophies with him to power the Colts.

“John is all about family and he never wavered, never flinched,” Pagano said. “He never backed off it one second knowing that once a team decides to buy in, they go all in. And if you’re not all in, you have to get out. I’m trying to create the same culture in Indy. It’s about relationships, family, and putting egos aside and doing what’s best for the team. Everyone is going to have a role, and when you have a chance you play the best you can for the team. When you win, there’ll be enough credit to go around.”

“But,” Pagano admitted, “that’s hard to create.”

Now as the head coach for the son of the man who drove the Baltimore Colts out of their home of five decades in the middle of the night in Mayflower vans, he says the new Irsay Way and the Bisciotti Way are closely aligned.

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“Faith, family, football – in that order,” Pagano said. “That’s Mr. Irsay’s mandate in Indianapolis. And my late father in law, that’s all he preached in his home. Without faith and without family what do you have? You have nothing. Those are the things that carry you, get you through hard times. They get you past the situation the Ravens had with Torrey Smith.

“And it’s also what makes you believe that Juice [O.J. Brigance] might jump outta that chair one day,” said Pagano, his mind drifting back to walking into Owings Mills every day with the Ravens. “The inspiration he gave! Just look at him – the integrity, grace, as a player, as a human being. If you ever walked into that building and had a gripe about anything, just take a walk down the hallway and take one look at O.J. and see his battle and the way he’s fighting. We’re all still walking around. It reminds you how blessed you are and what a privilege it is to be alive.”

“None of us are promised tomorrow.”

Pagano knew that better than anyone given what he’d endured over the past 12 months, professionally and personally.

Ray Lewis wasn’t promised another snap in the NFL. Lewis, 37, was told by doctors that this kind of biceps tear would end his 2012 season. Harbaugh even told the media that news back on October 15th. Now two days into 2013, Lewis was going to speak to the world about his comeback from an injury that no other NFL player had ever endured and returned from in the same season.

Harbaugh took the podium first and was testy, curt, and very brief in his answers. He had his playoff face on.

Lewis meandered to the press area on the practice field, just like he always had, as some teammates begin to mill on the field. It began with the usual song and dance, Lewis refusing to even say that he was playing because Harbaugh hated when players were anything less than coy regarding injuries. It’s Harbaugh’s pet peeve.

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Lewis said: “Let’s just say I’m active on the roster. We’ll see from there,” an absurd statement, given the gravity of the game and the obvious comeback.

Lewis talked about “the craziest 12 weeks of my life,” rehabbing through the pain. “Most of the doctors I was dealing with were trying to get me to calm down, because I wanted to push it a little more. And I just went fast. I went real fast. Pain was really the last thing that was on my mind. I never really thought about pain a lot. I just thought about really just getting through it – the next day, the next day, the next day – and kept stacking days on top of each other.  So, I started feeling good real quick, and that’s when I started getting really excited.”

Then, Lewis spoke about his other family, his real family and children in Florida who were his other priority during his convalescence. He got to see all of his kids play football and got to be a father in the fall for the first time.

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