I was far too young when Len Bias passed away to have any vivid memories of the Maryland legend.
As I got older, I remember asking my father to describe Bias to me. He struggled for a second and then spat out, "Glenn, watching Len Bias was like watching poetry on a basketball court. It was beautiful."
I spent much of my adulthood trying to determine which athlete might possibly live up to such a standard. Some were too violent, some were too plain and some just simply weren't good enough to warrant consideration. But then there was Ed Reed.
It's not that difficult to quantify Reed's legacy as a great Baltimore athlete. He was poetry in motion. But in a strange way, he was so much more even than that.
In this era, we often have to justify our fandom of particular athletes. The entire world knows too much about them. Before someone can finish asking you who your favorite athlete is, they're immediately prepared with overwhelming ammunition to bring your choice down a few pegs. It could be their obsession with social media, their rap sheet, the disrespectful comments they made to an entire group of people, the way they shrunk in major moments and/or important games, how they tried to force themselves into the spotlight, being busted for steroids, an abrasive relationship with fans or any other number of things.
But no one had any ammunition when you said your favorite athlete was Ed Reed. In fact, it was regularly quite the contrary, wasn't it? When a stranger found out you were a Ravens fan, it didn't take long for them to exclaim something like, "You know who I love? That Ed Reed, man! That's my guy!"
It wasn't just that opponents like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had the ultimate respect for Reed. It's that even opposing fans tended to have the ultimate respect for Ed Reed. He was one of the most revered, respected athletes of his generation despite never in his adult life being the player that received the most attention on his own team.
And STILL that doesn't even seem to be enough to define Ed Reed.
During this era in which we've had to defend our favorite athletes with sentences that began, "Yeah, but," we can describe Ed Reed with sentences like, "Yeah, and."
For example, your Steelers fan friend might have said, "I hated the Ravens, but I loved that Ed Reed. Boy, was he fun to watch." And you can respond by saying, "Yeah, AND he's held an annual Thanksgiving event in which he feeds more than 600 families in Baltimore. Oh, and he takes more than 50 kids on a shopping trip every holiday season, too."
Or your Patriots fan friend might say, "I have the ultimate respect for Ed Reed. Tom Brady literally had to identify where he was on the field on every single play." And you can say back, "Yeah, AND did you hear he started a program with The SEED School of Maryland where he's giving away scholarships to kids who exceled on the field and in the classroom?"
Maybe your Redskins fan friend might say, "I'm so insanely jealous you guys had that Ed Reed. That guy was the greatest ballhawk I've ever seen." Perhaps you might retort with, "Yeah, AND he's taken 200 kids every year out of inner city schools for enrichment trips in the business world or other areas where they can imagine career opportunities."
Your Cowboys fan friend might say something like, "Dude, when I wasn't busy rooting on the Lakers, Notre Dame football and the Yankees, I loved that Ed Reed. Every time he touched the ball I thought something magical might happen." You'd say back, "Yeah AND he holds free health and wellness camps for 500-plus kids every year. Oh, and you forgot about Duke basketball."
Or even your Steelers fan friend might say, "I have booed every Ravens player that's ever come through Heinz Field. But I couldn't boo Ed Reed. He's just way too good and always brought it in the biggest games." And you might say, "Yeah, AND every single person in our city seems to have a story about a time he greeted them warmly with the biggest smile on his face. And he's literally building a park in his hometown, New Orleans. Oh, and somehow he also always looks TOTALLY boss at all times."
That's more of what defines Ed Reed's legacy in Baltimore. On the field, poetry in motion. Away from it, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.