NEW ORLEANS — There’s snow on the roof. But is there any fire left in Ed Reed’s belly?
That’s the question the Baltimore Ravens safety has been asked about this week — far more than anything about the San Francisco 49ers, his team’s opponent Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII.
It’s the first for Reed in his Hall of Fame career. And it’s being played a few miles down river from where he first made his mark at Destrehan High.
But will it also be his last? Sometimes it seems like Reed, prematurely gray at 34, has a different answer for every query:
- “I didn’t say I was definitely coming back, but I’m planning on it.”
- “When I say I’m thinking about retiring, that’s me sensing my body physically to see where I am, where I feel.”
- “Do I think this is my final game? No, not at all.”
- “I’m not about to say this is my last game. Now if that’s what it takes to get the guys pumped, though, I would say it.”
- “We’ll see when we cross that bridge.”
That bridge crossing could be here soon.
Eleven years in the NFL plus, as he points out, countless games since he was a child — on Thursday, he pointed out a scar on his forehead from when he ran into a mailbox during a long-ago street game back in the St. Charles Parish community of St. Rose — have taken their toll.
He has been bothered by a nerve impingement for several years, one that nearly led him to call it quits in 2010. This season, Reed suffered a torn labrum early that still affects him. He brings in a personal physician each week, “paying out of my pocket for my physical well-being.”
But above that, Reed has become increasingly aware of the long-term effects of head injuries.
“I feel effects from it,” he said of the concussions he has suffered. “Some days, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did my memory go?’ I mean, who doesn’t wake up and forget things? But there have been some things that honestly put up a flag.”
Reed certainly doesn’t want to face the prospect of going through dementia or depression issues that apparently led Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau to commit suicide last year.
“I’m worried for my family,” said Reed, who has a son, also named Ed, although he gave no other details about the child. “For my family, or for any family to go through something like that, God forbid.
“But to be honest with you, none of us know our time or how we’re going to go. Sometimes the way you live can have an effect on the way you go.”
Reed acknowledges the way he plays may have contributed to his problems and those of others. This season he was fined $105,000 for hits on defenseless receivers. A one-game suspension was overturned.
“It’s a kid sport,” he said. “But we’re just grown men playing it. We’re not out there trying to hurt someone. It’s what we signed up for, though.”
And even if Reed does decide there’s another season or even two left in him, the Ravens may not agree.
Reed will be an unrestricted free agent for 2013, and the Ravens are unlikely to continue playing him anything near the $7.2 million he received this season. Reed has not always seen eye-to-eye with coach John Harbaugh, although that relationship improved this year.
“Ed Reed is a mentor for our players,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a spiritual leader, he’s an emotional leader and he’s a big part of who we are.”
More, some say, than even retiring linebacker and fellow Miami alum Ray Lewis whose pre-, in- and postgame histrionics have been on full display during his Last Ride Tour to the Super Bowl.
“It’s been such a blessing to play with that dude,” Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe told ESPN. “He’s just so much of a leader that’s behind the scenes. He don’t need the cameras or anything. He’s a guy that you respect because he really don’t care about being in the limelight.”
On the Ravens’ Mt. Rushmore, Reed is one of the faces.
“When we drafted Ed, safeties weren’t valued that much,” said Brian Billick, Baltimore’s coach when Reed was drafted with the 22nd pick in 2002. “But he’s been special because of his leadership, his understanding of the game and his way he’s translated that understanding to the field. I know it doesn’t happen much more in this day and age, but I’d hate to see Ed finish his career as anything but a Raven.”
Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome has been noncommittal on Reed’s return.
“That’s something Ed and I will talk about when all is said and done.” Newsome said. “Ed doesn’t have an agent, so it’s just going to be Ed and me.”
The Ravens could put the franchise tag on Reed to keep him one more year, but only if they’re able to reach a deal with quarterback Joe Flacco.
But the likelihood is that, if Reed is playing next year, it won’t be with the Ravens. It could be with Bill Belichick at New England, which has played Baltimore in the past two AFC Championship Games.
Belichick has long expressed his admiration for Reed. After the Ravens beat the Patriots in this year’s game, Belichick sought out Reed and told him, “Finish it.”
Reed cuts the sleeves off his hoodies because he likes the way they look on the Patriots coach. More than that, he’s mindful of how Belichick has not hesitated to add players late in their career, such as safety Rodney Harrison.
On Thursday, during the players’ final pregame media session, Reed sought to diffuse the Belichick connection.
“Would I play for Bill Belichick?” he asked. “Yes. What football player wouldn’t want to play for coach Belichick? But my heart is in Baltimore. I’ve said since I came into this league I didn’t want to be one of those guys who winds up jumping from team to team.”
No matter what happens, this has been a happy week for Reed. He’s finally in the Super Bowl — in his hometown, no less. And it hasn’t been as a fading veteran.
Elected to his ninth Pro Bowl, Reed was one of two Baltimore defensive players to start all 16 games. His 58 tackles were his most since 2006, and his four interceptions gave him 61 for his career, most among active players in the league.
“Even when it doesn’t look like Ed is playing a big role in our defense, he is,” defensive coordinator Don Pees said. “There are things we ask him to do, positions we put him in that have an impact that can’t be seen by the media or on TV.”
Reed played the key role in a pivotal point of the season. After a 43-13 loss to Houston in October, Reed, along with safety Bernard Pollard, talked Harbaugh out of practicing in full pads the following Wednesday, expressing other team frustrations as well.
But when the practice went poorly, it was Reed who called out his teammates for letting down their coach.
“I think that’s ultimately what pushed us over the edge from being a good to being a potentially great team,” linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told ESPN. “And a lot of it came to fruition because of the kind of man Ed is.”
Reed was known for that kind of leadership at Miami, too. But with the Ravens, he’s taken a public back seat to the flamboyant Lewis.
Known for his acts of generosity and support in back home — Friday is Ed Reed Day at Destrehan High — Reed generally avoided the media spotlight in Baltimore. He even dressed and groomed himself shabbily to give the impression of a semi-recluse.
That seemed to change when the Ravens beat the Patriots. In the locker room afterward, Reed was joyfully singing, “I’ve got two tickets to paradise.”
And since the team’s arrival in New Orleans, Reed has clearly relished what may well be his one and only Super Bowl, smiling and laughing through interview sessions.
“This is awesome,” he said. “To come home, to be in Louisiana, playing in the Super Bowl … I really can’t explain it. Everything I’ve been through to get to this point. I’m just trying to enjoy it and not hold everything in.”
And he hasn’t even gotten to game day yet. One computer model for the game shows the Ravens winning, Reed clinching the victory with an interception.
“That would be perfect,” he said. “You dream about finishing under the shower of confetti.”
But by “finish,” does Reed mean this season or his career?
“When Ed says he’s just focused on the game right now, he means it,” said Janne Hall, the secretary at Destrehan High, whose family Reed lived with during his senior year. “Nobody knows what he’s going to do.
“I don’t think Ed knows.”