HAS A FOOTBALL TEAM EVER MIRRORED ITS CITY MORE CLOSELY THAN THE 2012 RAVENS? KNOWN FOR ITS ICONIC BRICK WAREHOUSES AND SEEDY WIRE UNDERBELLY, A TABLEAU OF GRIT AND GRIME, BALTIMORE EXUDES THE SAME TOUGHNESS AS ITS GLARING, snarling, spitfire linebacker. For 17 seasons Ray Lewis transformed a bone-crushing game into an art form. His hustle unrelenting, his brutality unforgiving, he was the hardest-nosed player in a hardscrabble town.
Baltimoreans might drape themselves in purple on Sundays, but they've always worn blue collars as a badge of honor. Ever since the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" after seeing the flag still flying at Fort McHenry, it has been a city of underdogs poised to make a valiant stand. So, too, were the Ravens this season.
Baltimore hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in the Big Easy but only after enduring a long, hard road to get there. Super Bowl champions? Go ahead, keep pinching yourself.
This team was left for dead in mid-December after losing its third straight game, a 34--17 beatdown by the Broncos in which Joe Flacco suffered ignominy. As Denver cornerback Chris Harris crossed the goal line to complete a 98-yard pick-six, Flacco attempted a touchdown-saving tackle but landed facedown on the turf. He lay sprawling like a bearskin rug, futility personified; the pose became known as Flaccoing—Baltimore's unforgiving take on Tebowing.
"We had to do a little soul-searching after those three losses because it was so embarrassing," says nosetackle Terrence Cody. "We had to find ourselves."
Just like the city of Baltimore, the Ravens project a rough facade, but they, too, possess a refined inner harbor. This was no ordinary football team: Taboo in most NFL locker rooms, sexual orientation was discussed on a near daily basis by the Ravens.
Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo became known as the gay ambassador for his public support of same-sex marriage. That support drew the ire of Maryland state politician Emmett Burns Jr. but never any backlash from teammates, even those who espouse opposing views. Ayanbadejo and center Matt Birk, an advocate of traditional marriage, maintained their friendship despite the difference of opinion.
Debating an issue that divides a nation, finding mutual respect in disagreement, the Ravens' bond strengthened, Ayanbadejo says, because "we consider ourselves a tribe, a family. There was something special brewing here. We're brothers." Just how tight-knit was this group? In December nearly two dozen players mugged for a camera while wearing purple T-shirts that proclaimed PUNTERS ARE PEOPLE TOO.
MANY SUPER BOWL CHAMPS have been called teams of destiny, a moniker that running back Ray Rice affixed to the Ravens during the postseason, but even Hollywood would have a hard time buying this script.