I don’t recall exactly which team it was against, or in what year it happened, but my definitive image of Ed Reed, naturally, is of him making an interception. I know I was a teenager at the time. I might be remembering one interception or a collage of several, or even a false memory that feels real because he did so many similar and more impressive things since the supposed day when I witnessed this particular interception.
I remember the play like this: The camera focused on the opposing quarterback and his line as he dropped back to pass, which meant that the Ravens’ safeties were off-camera. The quarterback went through his reads, and as the pass rush was threatening him, he threw the ball deep down the middle of the field. The camera followed the spiraling ball through the air, which created a sense of uncertainty, of possibility, of what was to come.
Just as the ball was about to reach the intended receiver — who was in the air, holding out his hands expectantly — a black figure darted across the screen, snagging the ball out of the air.
For a second, the man behind the camera is as confused as the receiver who thought he was about to make a catch. The video lingers on the empty-handed receiver after he falls to the ground, as if the scene had gone off-script and needed to be redone. Then realizing what has happened, the camera shifts quickly to the right of the receiver, where Reed is standing, holding the ball with one hand and juking in place. He was trying to find a route to the opponent’s end zone.
Reed moved elegantly. He made me think of Bruce Lee advising people to be like water. Reed’s movements weren’t forceful. He had a unique form of fast. He didn’t have Adrian Peterson’s fast, which was chaotic and powerful, as if Peterson was moving the ground and the world beneath him. And he didn’t have Devin Hester fast, which looked as if Hester was being fast-forwarded while everyone else played at normal speed. Reed moved in a constant, mesmerizing, and almost effortless manner. It was like he was dancing, shifting his body weight slightly from side to side to avoid the arms of tacklers, but somehow never slowing his forward momentum.
After the interception, Reed finds a path and runs down the right side of the field, holding the ball carelessly with one hand.
Reed’s way of holding the ball went against everything that players are taught, and yet one of the smartest players to ever grace the field ran with the ball like he was playing in the backyard with his friends. To me, it felt like he was teasing the other team, daring his opponents to take the ball from him. But it also looked like he held the ball that way to maintain his running style, so he could sway from side to side and keep his arms out for balance.
As Reed is running down the right side of the field, it becomes clear there is no way that he can get to the end zone; the path is too clustered with bodies. He gets about 25 yards down the field before he is tackled. But then he does something so ridiculous and fun that it makes holding the ball like a sparkler seem sensible.
As he is about to hit the ground, Reed tosses the ball up. You can see in real time that the ball isn’t knocked out, that he lets it go on purpose. Chris McAlister, who is running behind Reed, grabs the ball out the air and continues to run. I’m not sure if McAlister scores or not, but I remember laughing so hard at what I’m seeing. I laugh at Reed’s borderline irrational trust in his teammate, vision to know where McAlister was, and then sheer audacity to try something like that in a crowded area.
(After some digging, I may be remembering Reed’s interception against the Colts in the 2006 playoffs, but I don’t need to know the play itself. The memory stayed because of how ambitious, reckless, and courageous Reed was.)
That play exemplifies why I loved and still adore Reed. He was never safe, and he was super intelligent. His tendency to leave his assignment and gamble on plays came from knowing opponents so well that he could anticipate their every move. But it’s one thing to know, and another to be brave enough to bet on that knowledge.
Reed could do his own assignment well, but he wanted more than that. He wanted the ball. That meant he had to operate outside of the defensive scheme at times, putting him at risk of getting embarrassed if he failed. I admired that he took that chance and succeeded so often that he earned the trust to continue doing so. Every game, he dared the opposing quarterback to challenge his intelligence. When they underestimated him, they paid for it.
Of course, after the few moments when he gambled and lost — when he chased after the ball and gave up a big play, or he fumbled because the ball was knocked out of his hand or tossed badly to a teammate — a commentator or writer would be quick to bemoan his recklessness. And even Reed would be angry at himself on the sidelines, or accept the blame in a locker room interview or press conference afterwards.
That didn’t stop him from gambling again the next game, though.
To me, Reed was the perfect embodiment of a free safety and what a great athlete should be. He was good enough to play his role, but intelligent and daring enough to know when to break the mold and change the game. He was unafraid to do ridiculous things like toss the ball in the air while being dragged down, hoping that a teammate will catch it.
I didn’t even care if the pitch worked. The result didn’t matter; the idea itself represented the best thing about watching Reed. That he could do what no one else would even think of doing, and make it seem like a matter of course.