She has adored the Steelers with a first-love intensity since she first saw them play in 2005. We had just moved to the United States after having lived overseas. Born and raised in Germany, my wife had only watched one game in her life, the 2004 Super Bowl.
One night, I talked her into playing a Monday Night Football drinking game I learned in college. She picked the Steelers, mistakenly thinking that they were humorously named the “Stealers.” I got the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning at the height of his powers.
The Colts scored three touchdowns in the first quarter. By halftime, my wife was passed out on the couch. Rather than scaring her off, the experience converted her from a casual soccer and F1 fan into a devotee of the gridiron.
And the Steelers became her team.
Like any good Steelers fan, she developed a healthy hatred of Ray Lewis. Not just because he was and is the heart, soul and face of the Steelers’ biggest rival.
She also hates him for all the reasons it’s easy to hate Lewis. His outsized personality. His pregame dance, which has gone from inspiring to stale to kind of sad in the past five years. His bizarre Jesus complex. His belief that the investigation of his never-fully-explained involvement in a fatal stabbing amounted to persecution. The free ride he gets from analysts who don’t see that his skills have slipped. The fact that Haloti Ngata’s presence has hidden his slipping skills for years. And most importantly, all the times that he’s made the Steelers miserable.
But for all the times she’s wished he’d get horribly injured, my wife will still miss Ray Lewis when he’s gone. She even felt a little bad when he did go down with a season-ending injury this year. At the end of the day, Ray Lewis has been a part of her life as a football fan for as long as she’s watched the game. Not just a part, but a key element.
He’s been her villain.
As fans, we need our villains as much as our heroes. It’s not enough to like our team and want it to win. We also need to hate the other team and want them to lose.
Being a fan is not fun if we like the other team. They need to be bad guys so that we can feel more justified in supporting our own team.
Rooting against the guy who came back from a horrible injury or the guy who does a lot of charity work is hard to do. Booing the alleged murderer who is secretly washed up makes our fandom feel more righteous.
It also makes it easier to cheer for an alleged rapist.
The longer they’re around, the more the players we hate slowly worm their way into our hearts. They grow on us. We begrudgingly start to respect them. Even the most diehard Steelers fan secretly respects Ray Lewis, the way that he plays football and his body of work. He’s the type of player we’d love if he played for us.
We know in our hearts that the Steelers-Ravens rivalry would be less interesting if he weren’t around.
So even though we’ll shed no tears when Ray Lewis hangs it up, my wife and I will miss having him around to hate. We just hope that that day comes along soon. And painfully. And ideally at the Steelers’ hands.