I WAS NOT READY TO BECOME A RAVEN. I WAS READY TO BECOME A CARDINAL. ALL THE TALK BEFORE THE 1996 NFL DRAFT SAID THAT I WAS HEADED FOR THE ARIZONA DESERT. ON DRAFT DAY, I'm sitting in the green room at Madison Square Garden watching the first few picks walk out: Keyshawn Johnson to the Jets, Kevin Hardy to the Jaguars. Arizona is on the clock, and then the phone in the green room starts ringing. I'm leaning forward, about to go pick it up, but the call was for Simeon Rice. Soon he was on his way out to the stage to shake commissioner Paul Tagliabue's hand.
Now Baltimore is on the clock, and the phone rings again. It's Ozzie Newsome. "Are you ready to become a Baltimore Raven?" he asked. "I guess so," I said. It wasn't that I had preconceived notions about the team. I just had no knowledge about the Ravens—other than they were the new team in town from Cleveland—and from the looks of it, neither did they. They had no logo, no jersey, no colors, no nothing! Before I walked out on stage, someone handed me a white hat with black letters that said BALTIMORE RAVENS and a matching black coat with the team name outlined in white. I was just like, All right, we'll just figure it out. Make it work.
We didn't have much in those early years. Our stadium was super old. Our fan base was nonexistent. Back then Baltimore was practically a Steelers town. During those games you'd look up and see a third of the fans in the Ravens' Memorial Stadium waving Terrible Towels.
We were all rookies in a sense, trying to find our way in a city where football hadn't been around for 13 years. Part of the reason we struggled was because no one was really used to anything. Also we had guys on the squad who were holding us back. But by 1998 they were mostly gone. Ozzie had replaced them with guys like Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, Kim Herring and Duane Starks—guys like me who were going to work hard to get better and prove we belonged.
Our offense was good out of the gate, thanks to our Pro Bowl QB Vinny Testaverde, but our defense was laughable. Literally. The running joke in Baltimore was, Who has the best offense in the NFL? The Ravens and whoever they're playing. But Ozzie brought in Tony Siragusa, Michael McCrary and Rod Woodson, and laughing at us became a risky proposition.
I can't remember when in the 2000 season I thought, You know what? We're really good! Because we struggled. We went four straight games without scoring a touchdown, and we went through two quarterbacks. We won games, but some were by close margins. It wasn't until we played San Diego in Week 15, when we secured a playoff berth, that we figured, Why not us? That approach took us from a home game against the Broncos to Tennessee to Oakland to Tampa, where we trampled the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Our formula—dominant defense plus mistake-free offense—may not have been the prettiest, but it was effective.
This year's team went about it with much more balance. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have the offense humming, while the defense remains a force when everybody's healthy. Along with seeing Ray Lewis, my 1996 draft classmate, go out on top, I really wanted Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata—guys I played with who were already super successful in terms of Pro Bowls—to make it here. I want them to enjoy retirement as much as I do: with no regrets and nothing but love from fans who are constantly thanking you for bringing out the best in Baltimore. We may not have had much back when we started, but man, did we build something to behold.