BALTIMORE, MD. — Not even Joe Flacco could downplay the moment as “The Last Dance” approached.
Normally a reticent man, the Ravens’ ordinary Joe turned to his wife the night before his team was to face the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s AFC wild-card playoff game and made a request that put into perspective what was about to happen.
“It’s one of the coolest things in football and we’re going to miss it around here,’’ the Ravens’ poker-faced quarterback said of “The Squirrel,’’ the odd pregame dance his teammate Ray Lewis had made famous well in excess of its choreographic value.
“I wasn’t always necessarily a fan of it before I got here, but as soon as I saw it for the first time in person, I was drawn in. I actually told my wife last night to make sure you bring your video camera so you can sit up in your seat and capture it. She said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m not going to bring a camera to the stadium and look like an idiot.’
“I said, ‘You got a bag don’t you? Just stick it in there.’ So, hopefully she captured that moment. It will be pretty cool to be able to look back on it some day.’’
That is what all of Baltimore and all of pro football will have to do now because, four days before returning from the torn triceps that sidelined him since Oct. 14, Lewis announced he would retire whenever his 17th season ended. What that meant was that, despite relentlessly pounding the Colts, 24-9, last Sunday, he had danced his last dance in Baltimore.
Lewis played more games at middle linebacker than anyone in NFL history. He played with a relentless, barely controlled fury, an intelligent assassin who will retire as one of the most dominating defenders of his time and one of the best linebackers to ever strap on pads.
As things developed, he also became the greatest dancing linebacker in football history, a man who took an old friend’s steps and made them first a local obsession and then a national phenomenon.
“This guy in my hometown named Kirby Lee used to always do this dance called ‘The Squirrel,’ ” Lewis recalled. “I told him, ‘I’m going to do that dance some day.’ He was like ‘You’re not going to do it.’
“Then one day they introduced the defense and I came out and just did it. Of course, the crowd went crazy. After that they were like, ‘We need to see those dance steps again,’ so then it just kept on going and I started adding music to it and movie clips to it. It was a good time.’’
Lewis has been through many good times and some nearly unbearable ones. He saw both his career and his freedom nearly taken away from him when two men were killed in his presence 13 years ago, early in the morning hours after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, and somehow not only put that behind him but rose above it, scared straight enough to become an icon in a city that will always think of him as dancing through the night.
In time, he came to love Baltimore and Baltimore loved him, a fact never more evident than in his final game there, when head coach John Harbaugh sent him back on the field to play fullback in the “victory formation’’ as Flacco took the final snap.
As he rose, Flacco intended to hand the ball to Lewis in a final acknowledgement of what the day had become, but when he turned, well, last dance!
“He’s already dancing (again),’’ Flacco said. “Then everybody just jumped on him.’’
Soon after, Lewis took a victory lap, pounded his heart and pointed toward the fans that had refused to leave until he did. It was the end of a day whose anthem was penned by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen: “Last dance.
“Last chance, for love.’’
Last dance but not last game, which meant for Lewis the music hadn’t stopped.
“I’ve already turned my iPad in to get Denver film,’’ Lewis said. “We saw (Denver) earlier in the year. Now we get them again with all our guys back. We’re really looking forward to it.’’
Last dance? Not yet.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald and Pro Football Weekly.