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What I learned sitting on the roof in Houston and watching Ravens beat Texans in an empty stadium

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Originally published on September 22, 2020 during the plague

I must admit that there were long stretches during the spring and summer when I didn’t think the NFL would be playing football this fall so I wasn’t sure that making any “decision” to attend a Baltimore Ravens game would even be made available. But now that I’m back from Houston on my Week 2 adventure on the Lamar Jackson victory tour, I have some guy-on-the-road observations from the strangest road trip since Tom Green unleashed the fury or the magical mystery tour to London and Wembley Stadium on a day when the history of the franchise changed three years ago this week.

A thousand days later and on Sunday afternoon I found myself on the roof of a billion-dollar deserted stadium bowl next to the ghost of The Astrodome, wearing a mask and avoiding all human contact. This, after entering a parking lot with just 38 cars for an NFL game as a tropical storm dumped inches of rain on the soil where I’ve watched two Super Bowl extravanganzas this century.

Houston had a problem even before Lamar Jackson arrived.

There were just two of us from the Baltimore media at NRG Stadium on Sunday – Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun and me. We sat 12 feet apart and I enjoyed his company because I don’t really know him very well. I hope he was amused by my unique brand of in-game comedy that is often a little more blue than I work on the internet.

I have missed seven games – that’s total, home and away – in the history of the franchise that Art Modell brought from Cleveland in 1996. Most of them were when my wife was battling leukemia in the lost season of 2015. And one of them was last weekend against the Cleveland Browns to begin the 2020 season, when the NFL and the team are mandating that every media organization (except The Baltimore Sun) only get one media seat in the press box. My dude Luke Jones has covered the team for a decade at WNST (and soon at Baltimore Positive) so he took our seat at the stadium in Baltimore and I’m going to do the road games.

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Until times get better…

The observations from my world-traveling soul about airports and hotels and crawfish etouffee and the people who are moving mostly freely about the country during a plague are probably far more wide-ranging and significant than my thoughts about Greg Roman’s offense and the marvel of watching No. 8 scamper 14 yards for another first down whenever he seems to choose.

I’ll be talking football and Super Bowl 55 Tampa dreams with half of Kansas City this week at AM 1570 as we unleash the new Baltimore Positive and WNST platform.

And you can trust that I will have plenty to say about Lamar Jackson v. Patrick Mahomes from my studio office all week – and my couch next Monday night.

But, from the “stick to sports” side, let me start by stating the absolute obvious, but something that I think that sometimes gets lost on a maniac like me who has dedicated his entire life, business, sweat and debt – past and future – to Baltimore and the concept of a community sports team pulling a city together in all of the appropriate ways to inspire and move forward our society.

love football.

I really love football. 

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I love being at the game. I love the people. I love chatting with the players and coaches. I love the strategy. I love the draft. I love the pageantry. I love the sound. I love the history. I love the fans. I love the conversation, especially when it comes from intelligent people and astute football observers.

I was up all night Friday, drinking wine and talking football with a dear old friend. In a way only he can speak it. There is nothing I enjoy more.

I love that I saw Joe Namath play my first time at a Colts game at Memorial Stadium.

I love that my son, who is celebrating his 36th birthday today, saw Ray Lewis walk onto the field there 23 years later.

I have loved all 27 Super Bowl games that I have attended. My Radio Row weeks always produce some of the most memorable work of my career.

I love being the ultimate historian of modern Baltimore football and the experience of what the Ravens have done for my city and its people. I loved stopping my life for months at a time to write the Purple Reign books. I loved hosting the live radio shows from The Barn and every other place you’ve ever come to see a show. I loved having you on my roadtrips – everywhere from Seattle to San Diego, from Miami to Foxboro, from Tampa to New Orleans.

I know what Bob Irsay did. I also know what Johnny Unitas and Ray Lewis have done. I watched one of them in handcuffs. I watched Ray Rice punch his wife in a glass elevator. I watched Brian Billick lift a trophy in Tampa and then become magnanimous enough to become my business partner at WNST to raise money and awareness for Living Classrooms Foundation. I watched John Harbaugh lift a similar object in New Orleans with my wife and son next to me a dozen years later. Y’all still send me pictures and videos and memories from the purple 2:52 parade up Poydras to the Superdome and tell me it was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.

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I appreciate that.

But, like the history of the franchise we love, there are warts as well.

I can still confirm that the Pro Bowl is total shit and those preseason games we’ve been getting bilked for are clearly archaic given what we’ve seen the past two Sundays on the couch. I bought two PSLs that I relinquished because I couldn’t find anyone to buy a ticket after “The Knee” on foreign soil.

And I know what greedy, Trumped-up hypocrisy has been involved in lining the pockets of the Bob Krafts and Jerry Jones and Stan Kroenkes while Colin Kaepernick spoke some uncomfortable truths to their white power and privilege that is still being heard louder than ever in the silence of empty stadia during the national anthem while he has been very effectively blackballed by the powers that be in the National Football League.

Here. I took this video so you can see what the Ravens sideline looked like during the National Anthem and talk among yourselves…

And, while you might be feeling a little “divided” by their peaceful actions during the politically-charged part of every Sunday in America, you also now you know how they came together 30 seconds later and played very capable football – together – during a plague.

All in.

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During a worldwide pandemic.

To win a football game.

There are several Trumpers involved in the Ravens organization. There are also many, many Black Lives Matter advocates as well. And, some, well perhaps like you, they are on the “sidelines” of social media in American work and professional life right now and just trying to keep their mouths shut and just do their jobs and waiting to vote.

And, yes, please vote.

I love that my crazy, spinning world stops when yours does – and we all watch the game simultaneously for a common cause.

We all love the Baltimore Ravens.

We all love football in America.

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On Sunday, I learned how much I’ve loved the life I’ve had being a sports reporter at football games over the last three decades and the privilege of being an honest eye on Baltimore sports on behalf of the community for nearly four decades.

And, I truly believe that whenever you go to your first sporting event (or concert or whatever event you love to experience with a boisterous crowd) after all of this pandemic and political madness in our country, you will feel the same feeling I did yesterday when the whistle blows and the ball is in play.

It is now a “made for television” event and last week I watched on television because I had to. Turns out, we ain’t all as “free” as we’d love our freedom to be when it comes to watching our football in a stadium in 2020 under a leadership that has repeatedly lied to its people about a plague and used the NFL as a weapon and a shield for blatant racist attacks from the President of The United States when the Ravens took a knee in London.

Many in the upper deck said they would never go back 36 months ago.

Last weekend, football and my career and what I do for pleasure and to feed my family was taken away from me – just like all of you who have gathered downtown to tailgate, participate, cheer and watch Ray Lewis dance coming out of the East tunnel for the last quarter of a century after Irsay took the NFL away from my Pop and community in 1984. And I did find it uniquely “Texan” to be landing amidst a forming hurricane in Houston for an empty gathering while 20,000 “stars” were aligning to be a part of the Sunday night TV performance up in Dallas, where every Cowboy and Cowgirl is free to fill a quarter of the stadium.

And as much as I thought my trip in and out of Houston was going to be morose or even make me feel overwhelmingly sad, it was quite the opposite. Despite my rental car hydroplaning up I-45 and the hotel not letting me check in early and the fact that I didn’t get to see my cousin who lives there or break bread with Dan Pastorini on this trip to NASA, I am glad I went to Texas briefly this weekend and watched football from the crest of the moon over the pasture below at NRG.

From the 800 level high above Texas, I looked around that big, empty, retractable shrine to the oil money and the macho masculinity of ‘Murica and all things pigskin, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry – and I looked across that vacant empty press box at the venerable John McClain of The Houston Chronicle, who is everyone’s favorite football reporter. The General is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Pro Football Writers Association, the sage, our Yoda, a guiding light of wisdom.

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I was the world’s biggest Houston Oilers fan in the 1970s and 1980s. It literally defines everything I’ve ever done – my passion for football and Earl Campbell and LoveYaBlue. I read the work of McClain as a teenager because he covered my favorite team. Anyone who knew me as a kid would tell you that. More than the Orioles or the Colts, it was all Oilers, all the time – although perhaps not as much as Geddy Lee.

So I found it almost invigorating to see what I can only sincerely hope and pray is the bottom of my sports journalism world from the sky above the ruins of the former Astrodome, which was considered the world’s eighth wonder when I was born in the late 1960s (or right around when McClain started covering Bum Phillips and the team of Bud Adams).

Times change. Franchises change. Owners change. Coaches change. Players change. Domes change. Jerseys change.

And, yes, even sports reporters can change.

I went from Oilers to Ravens as Cleveland went from Browns to Ravens as the Colts went from Baltimore to Indianapolis as Houston went from Oilers to Texans and the Astrodome went to the same graveyard in our hearts that houses the ghosts and sounds of Memorial Stadium and the roar on 33rd Street.

Times changed and life changed with it.

We can change, too!

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I will never get accustomed to pulling into empty lots and walking into empty stadia and zooming my questions to the coaches and players wearing a mask. But I will never forget how we got here and how we need to get a vaccine for this virus and some leadership and partnership and fellowship in our country.

I’m hoping that a change is coming that will allow us to attend sporting events together safely.

Together.

Being in Houston on Sunday gave me hope that one day we’ll look back on this long, strange trip and know that we made it through something very difficult and painful by coming together.

Just like the Ravens did on the field against the Texans.

All in.

Keep the faith.

The Ravens might be leading – even more than just on the scoreboard – if you go back and watch that National Anthem video again.

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