In my effort to divert attention away from yet another Hard Knocks season featuring Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, I draw your attention to the 20th anniversary of the original Hard Knocks series. Yes, the Baltimore Ravens were the first team to be featured in what was experimental series on HBO. I recently went back to rewatch all six episodes and found that, for the most part, they aged well.
In 2001, the very young Ravens’ Nation and the Ravens’ organization were basking in the glow of their Super Bowl XXXV Championship, and Brian Billick was all too happy to open the doors to his team’s preparation to defend the title. In fact, Billick served as the tour guide. He walked viewers through the process of how camp was organized, how his players prepared for the season, and the difficult part of cutdowns.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
The first of six episodes followed the formula of introducing viewers to Billick and the players who would be followed closely throughout the camp. The veterans were LB Ray Lewis, TE Shannon Sharpe, S Ron Woodson, DT Tony Siragusa, and WR Qadry Ismail-a group that was hardly tight-lipped in front of a camera. We also met rookies; 1st round pick TE Todd Heap, 7th round pick DE Dwayne Missouri, and UDFA’s DB Reggie Waddell, LB Kenny Jackson, and QB Ortege Jenkins. The contrast between the aw-shucks newlywed Heap (who professed to find signing autographs awkward) and the other rookies scrambling for a spot and having worked through challenges in life was compelling.
We see Coach Billick early in the first episode during a family trip to a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota (remember he had been the offensive coordinator with the Vikings before coming to Baltimore). He gave us a look into his psyche, “People talk about being arrogant, egotistical, eccentric. I don’t think those are bad qualities as long as you don’t take them to excess.” Okay then, Brian, own it.
In the first episode we also saw Ray Lewis walking through his home in Owings Mills while it was being renovated. While not quite “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” I’m confident he put more money into that than any of us reading this are worth. There was lots of purple (Prince would have been comfortable paying a visit) and an oversized Bible was openly displayed. Lewis described himself, “My heart is pure. I’m probably the most humblest(sic) person you’ll ever know.” Okay.
We saw the van lines trucks taking equipment to camp-a somewhat tone-deaf shot to include for Baltimore fans, but thankfully they were not Mayflower trucks. Once arriving at Westminster’s Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College, we are introduced to a two-story tall banner that would be a constant presence in this series. It displayed a picture of the Lombardi Trophy, the team logo, and the phrase “Defense Begins.”
As we are introduced to the other players, I was struck by Todd Heap’s sincere humility (I suspect he had Ray beat in that regard), Qadry Ismail and Ron Woodson’s love for their families (and Woodson’s mansion in Pittsburgh), Shannon Sharpe’s preparation (Billick would say he was “the consummate professional. He prepares as well as anyone I’ve ever been around.”), and Goose being obnoxious with his detest of training camp and showing off his wealth by flying into camp via helicopter.
Ismail also had a humbling moment when he was asked for an autograph by someone who clearly mistook him for his brother Raghib (Rocket), the former Notre Dame star. He rolled with it well, seemingly quite used to that happening.
Late in the episode, we saw the first team meeting of camp, at Westminster’s Best Western Hotel (still there and still a Best Western). This included the rookies singing (a gift Heap clearly did not receive), but fortunately some of the other rookies departed from the tradition of singing school songs and went to more popular material, a move that seemed to please the veterans, even Goose.
Notable quotes from this episode:
Billick to the team, “We know how to handle adversity. Can you handle success? We’re not going to hide from the face that we’re World Champions. Some people are afraid to be champions. We’re not.”
Goose, “If we don’t win the Super Bowl, this season is a failure.”
Episode 2 began with a well-attended team bible study lead by the team chaplain. Afterword, Woodson stated, “Football is a small part of life.” He was entering his 15th season and no doubt his perspective helped him achieve such longevity.
We watched backup QB Randall Cunningham take rookie QB Jenkins under his wing, but to no avail. Jenkins received the first visit from “The Turk,” the traditional name for the assistant who comes to collect players to receive the bad news with the dreaded “Coach Billick wants to see you, grab your playbook.” Billick said cutting players is the hardest thing a coach has to do, and remembered being cut twice himself during his playing career. He was an 11th round pick by San Francisco in 1977, was cut, signed by the Cowboys, was cut, then went back to BYU and began his coaching career the next season. He was 6’5”, 230 lbs. in his playing days as a TE.
It became clear in this and later episodes how much Lewis, Woodson, and Sharpe enjoyed each other’s company. They hung out together, challenged each other, they cut on each other, and worked harder than anyone. They also laughed a lot off the field, and it was hard watching this and not laughing with them.
We also saw the first hijinks of camp, where Goose pinned the tight ends (his target was Sharpe) in the trailer they were meeting in by propping a heavy table against the only door. When they emerged, Sharpe was looking for retribution, which we would see him get later.
The players enjoyed a day off, with the veterans complementing Billick for not pushing them too hard. We saw Goose head to the eastern shore in his helicopter, Qadry playing dad with his three young kids, and Heap picking out, then putting together furniture for his new home and his wife Brittney, oops, Ashley. We saw in the first episode how she was mistaken for Brittney Spears (at the height of her popularity in 2001) and who, at a quick glance, did somewhat resemble her.
The series, and the Ravens’ season, took a sudden turn early in the third episode when star running back Jamal Lewis went down with an ACL injury that ended his season. Although this is not mentioned in the broadcasts, the Ravens had lost RB Priest Holmes to free agency after the Super Bowl, which seemed only logical at the time. It sure hurt in 2001, though, when Holmes gained 1,555 yards rushing for Kansas City while the Ravens’ team gained only 1,810.
Billick spoke to the team next day, saying “I will not tolerate self-pity. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself because we just lost a great player, then we’ve got no chance.”
There were still some light moments, however. Sharpe somehow got ahold of Goose’s truck keys and moved the truck out of the hotel parking lot. He demanded and received (somewhat) an apology from Goose as “restitution for being humiliated on national TV.”
We saw plenty of coaching moments from practice during this series. In Episode 3, my favorite was Defensive Coordinator Marvin Lewis yelling at rookie Waddell, “We’re not on scholarship anymore Reggie.”
Billick made it plain in his pre-game talk to the team before the first scheduled pre-season game, “If all else fails, knock somebody down. If we see that, the rest can get taught.”
That game did not get played because of problems with the turf at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and the episode ended as the team busses headed back to Baltimore.
Next week I’ll finish up my review of the 2001 Hard Knocks series. I’ll tell you why the fifth episode was my absolute favorite and do a “Whatever happened to …?” regarding the stars of the show.
Also, Shannon Sharpe had hip replacement surgery on Saturday-let’s wish the Hall of Famer a speedy recovery.
Until then, good night and good luck. No, that was Edward R. Murrow.
Remember to get your pets spayed and neutered. No, that was Bob Barker.
Clearly a work in progress here, but aren’t we all? Have a great week!
Jim Johnson is a passionate sports fan and a proud University of Maryland alum. Prior to joining BSL, Jim wrote about Terps and ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker “The Courtmaster” and becoming a frequent “expert” guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. With BSL, Jim previously covered Maryland and the Big Ten. Back with BSL for a second run, Jim will be providing some historical look back articles, with a particular focus on the Ravens / Steelers rivalry.