|Ed Reed has delivered years of greatness for Ravens fans, but he longs for a Super Bowl title. (Getty Images)|
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It's another ridiculously humid morning in the Baltimore area and Ed Reed is running around with about 100 kids at his camp, with the heat index at 105 degrees, wearing a vest carrying about 10 pounds of additional weight, no less. For as excited as these youngsters are to be learning from the future Hall of Famer, the most enthusiastic camper seems to be Reed himself.
When a teenager intercepts a pass at the end of Monday's session, and takes it to the imaginary house a la Reed, the safety is the first to greet him in the end zone, sprinting over to congratulate him. Even the most monotonous of drills -- instructing group after group of kids on proper technique to run through a ladder exercise -- has Reed's face aglow, as he urges them on, running alongside some of the youngest campers, stressing the need to stay focused and listen to their parents and teachers along the way.
As the hours mount and the sun settles directly above the glistening facilities at Stevenson University, baking the Division III school where the camp is being held, one thing is abundantly clear: Ed Reed loves football, as much as he ever has. In what has been a murky offseason, with veiled and not-so-veiled threats of a possible holdout, Reed trading shots with critics on Twitter and making cryptic remarks about the Ravens and his future and the business side of the game seemingly overshadowing all, to see the 33-year old in his element, between these lines, is to see a man at peace.
Make no mistake, the deep thinker still has much on his mind, and things to contemplate, as he revealed during a rare exclusive sit-down interview after the campers had departed, but those who know Reed best are confident that he will be back in the purple and black on Sundays this season. I can't imagine any absence of more than a few days at most.
"Everyone is talking about a holdout," said one of Reed's close family members. "Ed isn't going to hold out. He told me he isn't going to hold out. He speaks his mind about some things, gets some things off his chest, but he's never said he is going to hold out. He'll show up when he has to be there and he'll play out his contract."
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Reed, set to make $7.2 million in the final year of his deal, stopped just short of proclaiming that he won't hold out. He did concede he goes back and forth about it, but his love of the game has not waned. It is a passion instilled in him from a very young age with his father taking him to the park religiously to play, and watch, sports.
"I love this game, and I put my heart and soul into it," Reed said. "You could see it out here today. I'm sure the Ravens are confident I'll be there for camp, because they know how much I love the game, too. But I'll say this, they're not going to get me for cheap, not a chance.
"People don't know everything that has gone on behind closed doors, and what's been said. A lot of people out there want to judge you, but they don't know what goes into this, and they don't see both sides when it comes to contracts and this business.
"They want to say it's about money, but it's about more than that. I speak up, because there are a lot of guys in this league who can't. I fight for the little guy. This isn't just about me. The things I talk about don't just apply to me."
A chat with Reed has its twists and turns. It can start with discussing the compensation of football players, in this most dangerous of sports, relative to other major pro athletes. In the next breath, on to the violence in hip hop vs. the music of his youth, "that was more about love, more about inspiring each other." Then on to his desire to one day write a screenplay based on his father, an exceptional athlete himself who forged Reed's love of sports. And his work ethic, as Reed remembers hearing his dad leaving their humble home at 4 a.m. to head to work at the shipyard.
Reed is an open book, and will speak what is on his mind, with no interest in "being corporate," as he puts it. ("Football doesn't make us," he said. "It's part of our makeup, but it's not who we are.") He is honest. Maybe too brutally honest for some, which is just part of what makes him such a lightning rod with many detractors.
He also happens to be fairly complicated. And sensitive. It's a combination that can agitate Ravens brass and fans at times.
But lest we forget, the man is also something of a football genius, that rare breed who strikes fear in the likes of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, (Reed's 57 interceptions lead all active players, he has scored 13 touchdowns, holds records for the longest returns in league history and as recently as 2010 he led the NFL in interceptions despite being limited to 10 games). Whether it be the world of art or music or business, the most creative and talented are often also those whose egos are most easily bruised, who on some level can't help really caring what others think of them.
Combine all of the above, and you have the makings for what has transpired with Reed, the Ravens and the city of Baltimore during this contentious summer, with everything he says or tweets under scrutiny as an aging defense tries to spearhead a Super Bowl run with the clock ticking on Reed and Ray Lewis.
"Don't judge me, or say something attacking me, and not expect me to say something back," Reed said. "There are so many people out there always looking to tear somebody down, without even knowing him. Unless you know a person, how are you going to judge him? You can't express how you feel about your profession, about your career, without someone wanting to tear you down?
"I preach to myself all the time not to let it bother me, to let it go, not to worry about people who want to hate. I don't care as much as I used to, but you still hear it. ...
|Age and injury concerns could be playing a part in the Ravens' reluctance to go long-term with Reed. (Getty Images)|
Reed, who starred in a playoff game a few years back days after losing his younger brother, remained calm as the sun beat down on us in the bleachers, relaxed behind his shades. His words, in any one sound bite of a radio interview, or as a snapshot, could come off as a screed, when in reality he is merely expressing how he is feeling in that very moment. With Reed, it's always subject to change.
One day he might hint of a holdout. The next, he'll hit the golf course, a siren call to him, surrounded by his closest confidants, good friends and financial advisors Brad Davis and Brad Schwartz, and he could be in a totally different mindset.
No one I talked to in Reed's inner circle thought the man would walk away from the game. But could Reed, who feels underappreciated by the team at times, and felt betrayed when some teammates weighed in on his contract dealings with the Ravens, miss some time the opening week of camp? Would he stir the pot some in that regard, maybe rattle the Ravens' cage a bit to make a point, and possibly spur more dialogue?
Perhaps. But that, too, is part of the business of football, and in a sport without guaranteed deals, Reed wouldn't be the first player to exert what leverage he has.
There is a game of chicken going on here. Reed and the team talked quietly about a new contract after the lockout, according to sources, and the Ravens presented a multiyear deal two days before the 2011 season opener with Pittsburgh, a deal that would keep Reed below $8 million a year (a threshold far less accomplished safeties like Eric Weddle and Michael Huff have reached). From Baltimore's perspective, Reed is much older than those two and has experienced serious neck and hip injuries in recent years as well, making an already touchy negotiation even more delicate.
If Reed has another monster season, could they really let him get away in free agency? But then again, Baltimore is tight against the cap, still must secure Joe Flacco long-term, and has given Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs big deals in the past few years.
Add in the fact that the team has to deal directly with the player in negotiations -- Reed is currently without an agent, and not actively looking to hire one right now -- and the propensity for bruised feelings escalates further.
Reed parted with former representative Eugene Mato some time ago, and, seeing how players and former college teammates have gone broke or lost millions getting bad advice from or being taken advantage of by agents and associates, he is very careful about who he trusts.
"Do I have an agent? No," Reed said. "I am him. Should I hire an agent at some point in time? Possibly. People say I should have an agent, but there are problems on the business side with that, too."
So for now, Reed takes counsel from Davis and Schwartz, from his friends, and from his family. With this football camp in Maryland over, he will host one more in his native Louisiana, and he continues to work with parks and recreations projects through his Ed Reed Foundation, including getting a three-acre multipurpose sports complex constructed in New Orleans.
He'll head to Georgia to spend more time with his son, and swap fatherhood stories with good friend Reggie Wayne ("He's taught me that it's more important to be a Pro Bowl dad than a Pro Bowl player"). And by then the start of camp will be near.
Reed doesn't need the money (notoriously frugal and far less splashy than most NFL stars, he has saved millions, friends say), but is still searching for that first Super Bowl ring, and the Ravens came a dropped ball in the end zone from playing for a championship a year ago.
It should be noted that Reed seemed genuinely touched that defensive coordinator Dean Pees stopped by camp Monday to say hello, and they continue to be in contact. And Reed broke down every huddle at his camp with the chant, "1,2,3 Ravens!" Staying away from camp, for more than a day or two, would be a shocker.
Before too long you'll probably find Ed Reed back at his locker, purposely situated in a part of the locker room populated by undrafted free agents and relative no-names. There he's most at home, looking to impart wisdom of matters on field and off, and preparing for what could be yet another All-Pro campaign.