Brendon Ayanbadejo: My 10 best memories from last year’s Super Bowl season with Ravens

Brendon Ayanbadejo went from undrafted free agent out of UCLA in 1999 to a Super Bowl champion linebacker and special teams ace on the Baltimore Ravens last season. Ayanbadejo, who has joined the FOX  Sports team and will be on FOX FOOTBALL DAILY as well as write for FOXSports.com, offers up his 10 highlight moments from last season.

By Brendon Ayanbadejo, FOXSports.com

10. The meeting

Coach John Harbaugh has always encouraged us to be ourselves, to be honest, and engage in open dialogue on any and every issue.

He believed this type of engagement is the difference between just another team and a tight-knit group that becomes a family. After a 9-2 start to the season we were in the midst of dropping three games in a row, and it appeared on the outside the Ravens were falling apart.

A coaching staff looking to get every drop of fight out of its players, and players looking to conserve what energy they had left to make a playoff run, were on a collision course in a difference of mind and might.

I will never forget as I sat there and watched this whole dynamic unfold. I thought to myself, man Ray Lewis is not here. Lew and Harbs worked so closely together the last five years in gauging how hard to run the horses.

After suffering a torn triceps tendon Ray was in and out of Europe doing rehab.

As Harbs’ stance on wearing pads softened due to the demands of several veteran players, I also saw Coach Harbaugh grow right in front of us in that meeting.

Not only did he agree to the demands of his players out of humility, he also vowed to be a better coach. In a game of mind over matter, mental toughness, and fight through it mentalities, Coach Harbaugh did the opposite.

He submitted to his players.

The meeting ended, we didn’t have to wear pads in practice that day. We went out and laid an egg. The old adage give them an inch and they will take a mile rang more true than ever. But this is where the story gets even more amazing.

The same veteran players pleading to not wear pads ended up chewing the team out for a sub-par, typically called a horse s–t practice before Coach Harbaugh could utter a word.

As we got together in a huddle to do our team break a bond was formed. Just as Harbs vowed to be a better coach, it was our turn to be better players out of humility. This one single event galvanized us as we recommitted ourselves in that moment to win the Lombardi Trophy.

9. “Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle”

After getting our tails whipped on Monday Night Football, 34-14, in San Diego during Week 15 of the 2011 season, our rematch with the Chargers in 2012 was highly anticipated.

I had 30 of my closest friends and family at the game. My sister, mom, best friends Pedro and Joe all had pregame field passes as I knew this could well be my last football game on California soil.

Everything didn’t quite start out according to plan. We didn’t have the lead most of the game, so it didn’t sound fathomable that anything about this contest could make my top 10 most memorable moments of the 2012 season.

However, nickel-and-diming our way back and facing insurmountable odds, one fourth-and-29 play gave this Ravens team a resilient belief that we could accomplish anything.

We would need this same stick-to-itiveness as we would be challenged to our wits’ end several more times en route to a Super Bowl victory. I am not a religious man but I did look to the gods as I stood on the sideline next to my brother, Femi, and watched Ray Rice bob, weave, slash, dash, slice, and eventually smash his way to a first down that needed an instant replay review by the officials to determine if he actually crossed the first-down mark.

To this day, Philip Rivers will not acknowledge the first down play by Rice. A Justin Tucker field goal at the end of regulation tied the ballgame. Another field goal by Tucker in OT won it. Rice’s dash was the single greatest play I had witnessed in my professional career and possibly the single most important play in any game I have ever been a part of.

8. The return of the GOAT

After tearing his triceps versus the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, everyone thought they had seen Ray Lewis play his last game.

Ray already knew he was going to retire after the 2012 season. People didn’t know for sure, even though it was speculated. Ray was focused and determined to make a comeback for the playoffs and he would also announce his retirement upon the week of his return.

Ray had dreams of grandeur and going out on top.  Heading into the wild-card matchup against the Colts, the biggest story of the week, and possibly the season, was the return to Baltimore of Chuck “Strong” Pagano, who missed almost the entire season fighting leukemia.

Not only was Pagano returning to face a Baltimore team he had worked for the previous four seasons, Pagano was also returning to the gridiron with his Colts.

Pagano’s remarkable return could have been the emotional lift that could rally a good team to a great team. Ray Lewis master-mindedly aimed to cancel this emotional high out with an announcement of his own.

Ray’s decision to return had been made long ago, but didn’t have a time or place to be said. Now was the opportunity, not only to emotionally propel his men through a wild-card game, but to issue a message that had enough wind in its sails to take his team on an emotion-packed ride to a Super Bowl victory.

I rode to the stadium that sunny day in January with Ray.  He said to me, “BA, I am nervous” I replied, “That’s a good thing Lew.”

His gospel music played softly in the background as he took in his surroundings and drove a little slower than usual, as to not forget the moment and not to have it rush by.

His favorite quote played over and over again in my mind “for these moments will never be again” and I watched the greatest linebacker in history be taken over by emotion and nerves, yet excitement.

This would be the last drive to his home of 17 years that would see him don shoulder pads, helmet, cleats, and the famous squirrel dance as he chomped on a pre-placed piece of grass turf on the artificial surface of M&T Bank stadium. The destination was a 24-9 victory over the Colts, a score that I had to look up on the Internet. But the journey … the journey was unforgettable

7. AFC Championship Game and Week 3, beating the Patriots

After losing to the Patriots on the last two plays of the game in the AFC title game the year before — a dropped pass in the end zone by Lee Evans would have given us the lead with a second to play followed by a missed field goal by Billy Cundiff, that would have tied the game in the 2011 AFC Championship Game in Foxborough, Ma. — we highly anticipated the Week 3 matchup against the Pats in Baltimore. This would be the first time the Ravens played the Pats at home since the infamous 2007, 18-1 season for the Pats.

That particular game will forever go down in infamy as Rex Ryan, then the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, called a timeout right before the play as the Ravens defense stuffed the Patriots’ offense on fourth-and-one.  That drive ultimately led to the Patriots coming from behind and to win the game 27-24.  There is plenty of bad blood between the teams, not to mention the wild-card trouncing of the Pats in the 2009 playoffs when the Ravens bulldozed into the northeast, handing the Pats a 33-17  defeat.

Prior to the season, we had a handful of games marked off as critical. Of course, the two games versus the Steelers were there, but this game was marked with a check, highlighted, underlined, and in bold letters. Looking at the schedule, this was marked as the most important game of the season. This wasn’t about getting even. But we did just that as Justin Tucker, our rookie phenom kicker, hit the game-winning field goal as time expired. Maybe one year too late, but right on time for the rookie. Of course, this one couldn’t end without controversy. If you ask the Patriots, they would tell you that Tucker narrowly missed. Yeah, right! Ravens win!

And now that getting even was out of the way, it was time for a little bit of revenge. We bounced the Pats out of the playoffs in 2009 and then in 2011 they took us down in the AFC title game. The deeper you go in the playoffs, the more the losses tend to hurt.

After a year of hard work, dedication, sweat, trials and tribulations we were back to where we were exactly one year ago: facing the exact same team in the exact same place.  Of course, we were banking on a completely different result. And we got exactly what we were looking for.

I wouldn’t say we had our way with the Pats, but we sure did beat ‘em up and break ‘em down in what quite possibly could have been one of Tom Brady’s worst playoff performances. I don’t blame any of it on Brady. He was facing a tenacious and overly prepared Ravens defense.

One thing we did differently in the playoffs versus the regular season was after practice instead of the coaches selecting the film and breaking it down position by position, the defense got together in a cohesive unit. The film study was led by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. In case anyone tried to get away with any “bitchassness,” we were ready for any type of speedball antics, if you can call it speedball. We hammered out the win and celebrated what should have been our second AFC championship in a row at Foxborough.

In the last four seasons, I had walked back into the locker room with an eventual L in the playoffs, including two championship games. We just know this one would be different. The lack of surprise is what ranks this Super Bowl berth seventh instead of second or third.

6. Re-election of Obama; passing marriage equality

There comes a time in life where every football player hits a crossroad. For some, it happens when you are a boy and for others it happens when you are a young man. For me, personally, I would have to say it happened when in college I learned that I was so much more than just a football player. The identity of whom and what we are should never be tied into one element. This is why you see so many of our promising young men have problems once the game leaves them. And one day it will leave us all. We are all so much more fascinating than our job, religion or heritage. There are dozens and dozens of things that I am before a football player. In November of 2012 something that is woven into the fabric of my DNA hit home — in a hard way.

By nature, people are extremely curious as to why I am such an advocate for equality, particularly gay rights. If you ask me, they are just rights. It’s not like we have black rights or women’s rights. Oh, my bad, there was a time when we had to fight for those as well. So naturally LGBT rights are the evolution of women’s and minority rights, in my eyes they are simply rights.

In late August of 2012, I was attacked by Baltimore delegate Emmert C. Burns Jr.. I had donated Ravens tickets to a raffle in order to raise money for the passage of marriage equality in the state of Maryland. Mr. Burns wrote a letter to my boss, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti requesting a cease and desist; in essence a gag order. He wanted me to shut up and only be a football player and not comment on equal rights. To his knowledge, no other football players talk about LGBT rights. Well, he was wrong about that, too. This was shocking coming from a black man and a pastor. Nonetheless I kept doing business as usual and supporting equality.

On Nov. 6, marriage equality was passed in Maryland. This was a first time in American history that marriage equality was passed by popular vote. This alone says so much about the quality and compassion of the people in the state of Maryland. I know I had my hand in helping reach this monumental outcome that only won by a handful of votes. Without the actual people doing the right thing, this never would have been possible. Governor O’Malley did a great job in leading the way for this cause. The icing on the cake was the re-election of President Obama. I couldn’t see Mitt Romney giving me love at the White House, which we will talk about in my No. 4 moment.

5. AFC divisional round playoff game against Denver

After the 34-17 smackdown from the Broncos in mid-December, no one gave us a shot to beat the Broncos in the divisional playoff round in Denver. Well, no one but the Baltimore Ravens, our friends, family, fans and one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram, @itsvegasdave.

Leading into the playoffs, Dave bet $8K at 25-1 odds that the Ravens would make it to the Super Bowl. By now, we all know he made the $200k payout and the Ravens didn’t just go to the Super Bowl, but we won it all. Thinking back to the game, our mindset headed into Denver was get in and get out with the win.

Coach Harbaugh had a study conducted on the effects of high altitude on performance. We came to the conclusion that if we could play the game prior to 24 hours of our arrival that the low oxygen, high altitude would not affect our performance.

Anything after 24 hours and your blood oxygenation goes down until you are acclimatized to the climate. After handidly beating the Colts in the wild-card game, we had a little swagger and confidence.

As I had mentioned before we had Ray Lewis and Ed Reed conducting post practice film study. In years past we would bond over dinner together at a local sushi house in down the street from our practice facility. Harbs made sure he had dinner for us after meetings so we could continue to focus on the task at hand. Sushi and T-bone steaks mysteriously appeared in the cafeteria and I would steal some plates from Manny, one of our chefs, and those same entrées would end up at home.

This game started off like any other game. When you hear the National Anthem it makes everyone’s emotions run high.

We had scouted out Broncos kick returner Trindon Holliday, who appeared to have just as much negative-play potential as big-play potential. He was released earlier in the season by the Texans and was seen as a liability.

Our game plan was to boom the ball to him and potentially cause a turnover or take advantage of his aggressive play. Of course, everyone has a plan until they are hit in the face and Holiday went absolutely bananas on us – scoring on a punt return and a kickoff return.

All hope was not lost as we stayed in the game, the defense was playing tough and our offense had to score double time due to the letdown on special teams. That was a serious blow to my ego, being a career special teams ace. Coach Harbaugh was a former special teams coordinator so this chapped his hide, too. So let’s cut to the chase. Late in the fourth quarter, we were down 35-28 and we had a failed fourth-down conversion attempt. It looked and felt grim. One things the “hey diddle diddle Ray Rice up the middle” play taught us was to never give up. No matter what the obstacle is in front of you. And really it ended up being a life lesson in fortitude as well.

The defense got the ball back in the hands of the offense and it went to work with minutes left in regulation, which led to the Flacco-Jones 70-yard touchdown bomb to force overtime.

In overtime the mentality on our sideline was: We came this far there is no way we are leaving here without a W.

I think we were well beyond our 24-hour window for blood oxygenation and the exhaustion going into OT was the furthest thing from our minds. The Broncos, having had a bye the previous week and not having to climatize and playing in their home stadium would appear to be insurmountable odds for us.

We were determined to prove the naysayers wrong and prove Vegas Dave right as he had to be a kid in a candy store. Justin Tucker nailed a field goal we did the impossible. I watched Coach Harbaugh and Ray Rice kneel and hug each other on the field as I sprinted by them to go jump on our amazing rookie kicker, who was fist-pumping in the middle of the field.

4. My trip to the White House

It is not too often you get to meet face-to-face with one of your heroes. I would have to say it might be one of the sweetest perks along with having a phat championship ring with diamonds and bling all over it. Yes, I am talking about the White House visit, and as good luck would have it I didn’t get to meet former President Bush or even former President Bill Clinton, who was in office when my NFL career started in 1999.

Even though I am on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum than former President Bush Jr., I would never opt out on the opportunity to meet one of the most influential and powerful positions in the world, the President of the United States. I was so honored and humbled to meet President Obama I forgot everything I had hoped to say to him.

Of course, being the equal rights activist that I am people always ask me what I would say to the president. I immediately reply, “What took you so long?” in regards to championing equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. So when I shook his hand I said, “Hello President Obama, I am Brendon Ayanbadejo.” He replied, “I know.” I then let the stumbling begin and I told him, “You know I met the POTUS last week.” He replied, “I know.” I meant to say I had met the First Lady at a dinner in New York.

Then he commented on how proud he was of the stance I have taken for equality and how brave and honorable of a thing it was for me to do. I thanked him, of course, and for some reason I felt obliged to tell him I was a Chicago native. He was aware of that also and replied, “I know.” I chuckled and then thanked him for being such a great role model for our children and the future of America.

All of this happened in 5-10 seconds. A handshake that turned into a hug and I then went on my way. This embrace will forever be etched in my memory.  It was definitely one of the highlights in a career where I hope I am just scratching the surface. A few seconds that will last a lifetime. I can imagine by the time I am in my 60s or 70s I will be embellishing the story into that one time President Obama invited me to the White House.

3. Muhammad Ali visit

It’s not too often you get to meet face-to-face with one of your heroes, especially when it happens twice in less than a year! In early September of 2012 the greatest of all time — not Ray Lewis — the other GOAT, Muhammad Ali, graced our practice facility in the flesh. He had been with us digitally every year since Coach Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008.

In Harbs’ first year as the Ravens’ head coach one of his famed tales consisted of a great Ali story — the infamous Ali-Ernie Terrell fight.

Coach Harbaugh had mentioned to us that his father, Jack, was a huge Ali fan. Then again, who isn’t a huge Ali fan? Harbs had a story he wanted to share with us but said he couldn’t do it justice. So we had to wait for Jack Harbaugh to deliver the story to us in HD. So, Jack Harbaugh shows up one day and man he told his Ali “what’s my name story” about how Ali whooped the dog out of Terrell and how the fight wasn’t going to stop until Ali wanted to end it — until he felt Terrell respected Ali and called him by his chosen name, Ali, and not Cassius Clay.

From that day on we had a mantra, well only Harbs would say in team breaks, but nonetheless guys enjoyed it, at least I did.  “What’s our name” … and we’d yell Ravens three times with each one more emphatic than the next!

The following year Jack went and told the story to Stanford, where Harbs’ brother Jim was then coaching. The old man would work himself into a frenzy throwing lefts, rights, jabs, and uppercuts until he threw his shoulders out. He would throw those punches with everything he had. It was a bona fide shadow boxing championship fight, and the guys in the front row of the meeting room would catch spit and have sweat fly all over them.  Old coach Jack Harbaugh pretended to be Ali for a 14-round heavyweight throw down. It was magnificent to watch, especially because Jack Harbaugh is a few years older than Ali, and today Ali can barely whisper. Jack is in great shape, even for 74.

By 2012, Jack had told his Ali story several times to the Ravens and even the 49ers got a dose of the infamous Jack Harbaugh Ali story. So as Jack geared up to tell his tale on the field after practice one day a golf cart rolled up with a frail man I had never seen before decked out in Ravens gear.

The whispers began to swirl that it was Muhammad Ali approaching us. Quickly, the players and coaches were caught up in a frenzy. Jack was about to meet one of his heroes and we were about to meet that same hero, who was a legend greater than any of his kind in the pantheon of athletics.

Jack introduced the great Ali along with two of his daughters and then told his Ali story with just as much passion and vigor as he did when Ali wasn’t present.

When it was all said and done, Ali posed for a team picture. I was on one side holding up one the greatest American athletes the world had seen. Ray Lewis stood behind us and whispered into the champ’s ear for a good 30 seconds. I just tried to absorb all of the GOAT’S greatness and positivity. You could feel it radiating through the entire practice facility hours after he left us that day. I got to hold up a man with my two hands who used his two hands to shape an entire culture. A lot of who we are and what we do was all the influence of the GOAT Muhammad Ali.

 2. Super Bowl parade in Baltimore

After playing in the 2006 Super Bowl with the Bears, there were no celebrations, or White House visits. We received rings for second place, but there is no parade for second place. Upon our return to Baltimore the city went bananas, but I had no idea what we were in store for when the entire city showed up for the Super Bowl championship parade. We started at the mayor’s office. Ray Lewis, Coach Harbaugh and Mayor Rawlings-Blake addressed a purple sea of people.

From there, we jumped into military vehicles meant to transport troops through rough terrain. Coach Don Martindale, known as Wink, Josh Bynes, Nigel Carr, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan and Jameel McClain comprised our group; basically, all the inside linebackers.

Ray Lewis, fittingly, was at the end of the parade in his own military Humvee.

As we paced through the streets of Baltimore the crowd was on the verge of barreling through the barricades and many young and wild fans did just that.

It wasn’t quite a mob rules mentality because the fans behaved themselves, which is to be expected, but there was an energy in the air. The fans wanted to be as close to us as possible but also wanted to adhere to the authorities. The authorities were outnumbered at least 400 to 1 but the energy was boiling over.

From the hundreds of thousands on the ground to the thousands in their offices and on bridges screaming with us, I tried to make eye contact and engage every single person I could to show my appreciation for their non-stop support over the last five years I had been in a Ravens uniform. Ravens fans had experienced the winningest franchise in the last five seasons and there was only one possible ending to this season that could quench the fans’ thirst for another championship.

I will never forget the energy of the moment. It’s like nothing I have ever felt. Typically, on a weekday morning around that same time of day, people would be at work just catching their wind and settling into a productive day. On parade day, people were just flat out going to miss work and school or take a nice siesta; not to nap but to cheer on their Super Bowl champions.

When we finally pulled up to the M&T Bank Stadium, it was bursting at the seams. We must have packed 100,000 people inside a stadium that typically holds 73,000. We saw Ray Lewis give his last dance at The Bank. We heard Ed Reed sing his last song — “Two Tickets to Paradise” — in purple and black. I also took my last stroll through the tunnel from the guts of The Bank and onto the field as we did before every game.

1. My no-brainer best moment not only of the 2012 season but my entire career: Winning Super Bowl XLVII

I had been carrying around some tough losses through the course of my athletic career that I had been beating myself up over emotionally.

As fast as we try to move on from our losses in our careers a lot of them tend to follow you around for a lifetime. Even losing the Little League city championship when I was 10 was always a moment I wanted back.

Losing out on what would have been a berth to the first BCS national championship game to Miami while I was at UCLA was a tear jerker. Losing two AFC championships with the Ravens, was brutal. And of course losing the Super Bowl to Peyton Manning and the Colts while I was with the Bears was the toughest one of them all.

When the confetti dropped we beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl so did the baggage, the regrets, the what-ifs, from a lifetime of past missed accomplishments. The tears came heavy and they came fast. I embraced coach Jerry Rosburg, our special teams coordinator and assistant head coach, and wept in his arms.

He had always been a father figure to me so it was quite fitting that we cried together. Within an instant, the slate was wiped clean and all that was left was that we were Super Bowl champions.

To this day I glow as I revel in the thoughts.

The first thing I wanted to do was find my family and bring them to the field so we could celebrate together.

I finally joined my older brother, Femi, as a world champion. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens as a part of the 2000 championship team. We would go down in history as only the second set of brothers to win a Super Bowl for the same team in different eras.

By the time halftime show was over and the power outage was fixed, it was easily the longest game I had played, timewise.

The media must have conducted interviews for two hours on the field. We even stopped and grabbed a postgame picture with Michael Phelps that is in our Super Bowl photobook.

Basking in the glory of our greatest athletic accomplishments with our teammates and families was the alpha and the omega for me personally.

For the rookies, it was the start of a great career. The chances are against them that they will ever reach the pinnacle of their sport again.

As an undrafted rookie free agent in 1999, I quietly walked into the NFL. On Feb. 3, 2013 with three Pro Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl appearances, and a world championship freshly under my belt I walked off the Superdome turf with my family in hand and forever stepped away from the game that opened up the doors of opportunity for a career that will be even more fruitful outside of the lines.