BILLICK CAME OUT SWINGING FOR EVENTUAL NFL HALL OF FAMER

Brian Billick told off the world on his star defensive player, Ray Lewis.

It was about time for Super Bowl XXXV.

Lewis, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ star middle linebacker, had been linked to the murder of two men in Atlanta. It came just after a Super Bowl that the Ravens hadn’t even played.

Here was Billick, cast in the role as Lewis’ protector – as if this rugged defender that could knock down anyone in the NFL needed a protector – in a pushback role to NFL media.

I’ll never forget Billick – watching on TV, of course – telling the media they weren’t qualified to cast themselves into the role of cop reporter. I can still remember, “We’re not going to retry this.”

That particular incident took place about one year earlier. All charges had been dropped against Lewis. Not enough evidence. If not for the glaring spotlight of the Super Bowl, all matters would have been ignored.

Don’t ask, Billick was telling the media. He was, in fact, demanding it. It might have been the most memorable part of that year’s Super Bowl, in fact.

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Truth is, Redlands’ Brian Billick has been surrounded by NFL Hall of Famers, ranging from Bill Walsh and Tom Landry in the 1970s to the 2018 inductees, Randy Moss and Ray Lewis. Billick sounded off to the world on Lewis just before Super Bowl XXXV. (Photo by Wikipedia Commons.)

It was Super Bowl week. The Ravens, 85-67 under Billick over nine seasons, were getting set to take on the New York Giants for the National Football League championship in 2000 – which they did, convincingly.

A few weeks later, Billick took time to share his thoughts with me.

On Lewis? No, I wasn’t asking him to retry. Or for any insight into the matter. Just how hard was it going through all that? How much of a distraction? Couldn’t have been much. After all, I told him, “you won, 34-7.”

“Boy, was that hard,” he told me in the same command performance manner he’d taken on with the media. “I still can’t believe I had to go through all that. How we, as an organization, had to go through all that. That never happened when I was at Redlands, believe me.”

Ray Lewis (Photo by Wikipedia Commons)
Ray Lewis was a mainstay on the Baltimore Ravens’ defense during Brian Billick’s 9-year tenure. (Photo by Wikipedia Commons.)

Billick, of course, was a star player at Redlands High, a 1972 graduate before setting sail to play at Air Force Academy and, eventually, at Brigham Young University. After a possible playing career was negated at Dallas and San Francisco in 1977, his coaching career started in 1978 in Redlands, of all places.

Two decades later, a myriad of assistant coaching stops along the way, Billick surfaced as Ravens’ coach.

Years later, Feb. 2, 2018, to be exact, Billick had another NFL Hall Famer. Lewis was, in fact, being inducted in with seven others, including another Billick protégé, wide receiving great Randy Moss.

Yes, Billick had worked in Minnesota – under head coach Denny Green – with a number of NFL Hall-bound greats.

Lewis was the focus on the ambulance-chasing media heading into the Tampa Bay showdown with the Giants. Billick admitted he was set for the showdown the media.

“Yeah,” said Billick, “I had to try and attract all the attention to me. I didn’t have to play. Ray Lewis did have to play. I needed his attention – all his attention – on that game.”

It was the old hit-‘em-in-the-mouth-before-they-hit-you routine. It worked.

Truth is, Billick has coached numerous Hall of Famers – Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Jonathan Ogden, and that’s a yes on Deion Sanders in Baltimore after his years in Atlanta, San Francisco and Dallas.

During Billick’s Minnesota days, there was, of course, Moon, plus Cris Carter and the great Moss.

No, don’t get him to talk about a missed field in the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta “Dirty Bird” Falcons. Carter, Moss and QB Randall Cunningham should’ve been more than enough firepower for the Vikings to win that game.

Billick has been surrounded himself by Hall of Fame talent. He was in Dallas for awhile. Anyone remember Tom Landry?

Also in San Francisco, albeit briefly, where Bill Walsh was running the 49ers.

When Billick’s command performance with media via Lewis had ended, what did he think?

“I’d knocked them on their ass.”

 

 

 

Part 2 – SUPER BOWL FROM TAMPA

Twenty-four years after Redlands’ Jim Weatherwax appeared in the first-ever championship game between the National Football League and old American Football League, one of the most coincidental connections in Redlands/Super Bowl history took place.

A pair of ex-Terriers showed up in the NFL’s biggest game.

Brian Billick, whose Redlands High School days were beckoning when the first Super Bowl kicked off in nearby Los Angeles, had a future in the NFL’s big game.

At Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the Baltimore Ravens – formerly the Cleveland Browns – stopped the New York Giants, 34-7, to win Super Bowl XXXV. The date: Jan. 28, 2001.

All those football eyes from Redlands were squarely on the Ravens. By-lines appeared under my name about Billick’s early years in Redlands – his friends, starting football as a ninth grader at Cope Middle School, plus some of his Terrier playing days which included subbing for injured QB Tim Tharaldson in 1971.

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Brian Billick, whose high school play in Redlands was memorable in the early 1970s, eventually rose through the coaching ranks to take on of the most deadly defensive teams to win Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Baltimore Ravens)

Thirty years later, he was coaching the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

One of the Ravens’ receivers was speedster Patrick Johnson, a track & field sprinter who had raced to California championships in both the 100 and 200 less than a decade earlier. He wore Terrier colors. Picking football over track & field, Johnson played collegiately at the University of Oregon before getting picked in the second round by Baltimore in the 1998 NFL draft.

It was Johnson’s third season when Baltimore reached the Super Bowl. Twelve of his 84 career catches came in the Ravens’ 2000 season, two going for touchdowns. Tight end Shannon Sharpe (67 receptions, 810 yards, 5 TDs) was, by far, Baltimore’s top receiver. Running back Jamal Lewis (1,364 yards, 6 TDs) was the Ravens’ most dangerous threat.

Baltimore’s defense, led by linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Rod Woodson, end Rob Burnett and tackle Tony Siragusa helped keyed the Ravens’ drive to an eventual 16-4 record. Playoff wins over Denver, Tennessee and Oakland lifted Baltimore into the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Billick’s high school coach, Paul Womack, traveled back east to see his former player. He showed up at the team’s Owings Mill practice facility. Basically, Womack had free run of the practice facility.

Womack heard Billick telling Johnson – dubbed the “Tasmanian Devil” for his uncontrollable speed – he had to run precise routes. The ex-Terrier coach quoted Billick, saying, “Pat, I can’t play you unless you run the right routes.”

In the Super Bowl, Johnson snagged an eight-yard pass from QB Trent Dilfer. It was good for a first down. There was another moment, though.

“I ran right by (Giants’ free safety Jason) Sehorn,” said Johnson.

Dilfer delivered the pass. Into the end zone. The ex-Terrier receiver dove.

“It hit my fingers,” he said. “It’s okay. It ain’t all about me.”

Patrick Johnson (Photo by Baltimore Gridiron Report)
Patrick Johnson, a Redlands High product, is shown after one of his 84 career NFL receptions, turning upfield to display some of his world class speed. (Photo by Baltimore Gridiron Report)

As for Johnson, I got him on the telephone a couple hours after the Ravens’ big win. He was on the team bus, sitting beside teammates Sam Gash and Robert Bailey. At that moment, Johnson said the Lombardi Trophy was sitting about six feet behind him.

“I just had it in my hands,” Johnson said, “right before you called.”

LOMBARDI, LANDRY, SHULA … BILLICK!

Billick, for his part, later shared time on the telephone with me, sharing some of his innermost thoughts for the benefit of Redlands readers.

“I can’t believe I’ll have my name on that trophy,” said Billick, days after the big event in Tampa, Fla. It was a chance to reflect on guys like Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs and a man he once worked for in San Francisco, Bill Walsh.

Billick named those legendary coaches he’d be sharing Super Bowl glory throughout the years.

In the aftermath of the game. That trophy was held aloft. Billick was holding it. Showing it to players. To fans. An Associated Press photographer snapped a picture. One day later, the Redlands Daily Facts’ single page sports section on Jan. 29, 2001 was virtually all Billick and Lombardi Trophy. Confetti was falling all around him.

Framed around the Billick photo were two stories – one by local writer Richard D. Kontra, the other by-line was mine. As sports editor, I probably should have nixed the stories and enlarged the photo to cover the entire page.

Let the photo stand alone. Let it tell the whole story. As if everyone in Redlands, didn’t know, anyway.

One day after the enlarged photo, the newspaper’s Arts editor, Nelda Stuck, commented on why the photo had to be so large. “It was too big,” she said. “I don’t know why it had to be that big.”

Maybe she was kidding.

I remember asking her, “Nelda, what would you do if someone from Redlands had won an Academy Award?  You’d bury it in the classified section, huh?”

That’s the newspaper business for you. Everyone’s got a different view of the world.

A P.S. on Womack: Not only did he coach Billick in the early 1970s, but the former Terrier coach was Frank Serrao’s assistant coach in 1960. On that team was Weatherwax, who also played a huge role on Redlands’ 1959 squad.

It was a team that Serrao once said might have been better than Redlands’ 1961 championship team.

Another P.S., this on Weatherwax: While he had been taken by the Packers in the 1965 draft, the AFL-based San Diego Chargers also selected him in a separate draft. He played in 34 NFL games before a knee injury forced him from the game.

A third P.S. on Johnson: Billick’s arrival as coach in 1999 was one year after the Ravens drafted the speedy Johnson. That would at least put to rest any notion that Billick played some kind of a “Redlands” card at draft time.

One final P.S.: That Jan. 29, 2001 Redlands Daily Facts headline in the Super Bowl photo was simple. To the point.

“Super, Billick.”