Ray Lewis cradled the Lombardi Trophy like a precious newborn, his eyes wide at an incredulous sight as he walked through a haze of smoke, beneath fierce, red eyes and through the end zone tunnel. He briefly handed off the coveted hardware, grabbed a handful of grass stalks from a patch specifically reserved for the occasion and began to shimmy and shake to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” just as he’s done countless times to cap pregame introductions.
One last squirrel dance sent an estimated 75,000 fans crammed into M&T Bank Stadium into a frenzy - certainly one worth an hour’s wait. As the Ravens and their faithful flock publicly celebrated the team’s Super Bowl XLVII win, the last dance of Lewis’ last ride practically brought down the house.
“There is nothing in the world, no place on this Earth, that is better than Baltimore,” Lewis told the roaring throng. “This city, we believe in each other. From day one, from 1996, we’ve believed in each other, Baltimore.”
On a cool, cloudy afternoon when he both quoted scripture and egged on a few of his teammates to replicate his signature dance moves, Lewis sounded humbled by the vision of a home stadium so packed that city police officers stopped permitting fans to enter because the venue had reached capacity 35 minutes before the ceremony finally began.
“I said this was my last ride,” Lewis said, “and every moment, every time I’ve stepped into this stadium, what I see is pure love.”
The fans jammed into every available nook and cranny of M&T Bank Stadium - as well as the expected 100,000 who lined a 1.5-mile parade route that began at City Hall, albeit nearly an hour behind schedule - shared the sentiment with the star linebacker, whose final game was Sunday’s Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The standing-room-only area on the field and the lower bowl were full by 12:15 p.m., when fans entering the stadium were directed to the upper deck. Many of those purple-clad fans who followed at the end of the parade stood outside, disappointed they couldn’t enter but unwilling to miss the excitement of the event.
“What a ride,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said as he hopped off a Humvee at the stadium. “Way more (people) than I expected. The stadium is full, ... the streets are (packed).”
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led cheers at City Hall before Ravens ownership, coaches, players and staff were loaded onto Humvees and flatbeds driven by Maryland National Guard personnel.
“They underestimated us and what happened?” she asked a raucous crowd in War Memorial Plaza. “We were victorious.”
During the parade, fans lined up along Pratt Street spilled past barricades to shake the hands of the Super Bowl champions. But it was an orderly celebration where reverence for the Ravens’ accomplishment was on display.
The stadium portion of the festivities finally began at 1:04 p.m. Ownership and administration were followed by coaches, then the special teams, offensive and defensive units. Special introductions were reserved for quarterback Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP who entered to the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and Lewis, who later delighted fans by bouncing, along with his teammates, to “Seven Nation Army.”
“Baltimore, we did it!” beamed Flacco. “Super Bowl champs, baby.”
Added safety Ed Reed, who had a camera strapped to his ski cap: “The best team in the world is right here.”
Head coach John Harbaugh - who showed up early to M&T Bank Stadium to apologize for the delay in the start of the parade and lead the assembled fans in a cheer - talked about the unique relationship between Baltimore and its football team.
“We talk about the team,” Harbaugh said. “Look around - this is the team. This is who this stadium is packed with - the Baltimore Ravens team. Together.”
Later, before a montage of the championship season was shown on the high-definition end zone video boards to end the half-hour ceremony, the coach stated the obvious and still drew loud, long applause from his fervent fans.
“The city’s gone crazy ... for the world champion Baltimore Ravens,” Harbaugh said.