OWINGS MILLS, Md. — At the 2001 owners meetings, NFL Films founder Steve Sabol approached the Baltimore Ravens with a request that broke the biggest commandment in the super-secretive league.
Let cameras inside locker rooms, meeting rooms and the homes of players and coaches for an entire training camp. The footage would air on a weekly national television show.
Then-Ravens owner Art Modell immediately placed his stamp of approval on the opportunity, understanding the value of increased exposure for the defending Super Bowl champions. Personnel chief Ozzie Newsome wasn’t supportive of the idea at first, but he also didn’t fight it.
It was up to Kevin Byrne, the team’s senior vice president of public relations, to talk to coach Brian Billick, and Byrne fully expected him to veto what amounted to an unprecedented intrusion. Instead, Billick embraced the nowhere-to-hide concept.
“You know, the year after a Super Bowl, people feel that teams get a little lazy,” Billick told Byrne. “Well, nobody’s going to be lazy with a lot of cameras around, and that includes my coaches who might whine about it.”
“Hard Knocks” was officially born.
Now, after 77 episodes and 18 Sports Emmy awards, the most acclaimed sports series on television is celebrating 20 years by chronicling the Dallas Cowboys this month. But the show is forever rooted in Baltimore.
The members of that Ravens team believe the program’s most memorable moments over the years — from Rex Ryan’s “snack” speech to Chad Johnson’s “child, please” catchphrases to William Hayes’ dismissal of the existence of dinosaurs — are part of football lore because of Baltimore’s larger-than-life stars and their hijinks, which turned the fledgling project into must-see TV.
“Had it not been very good then, I’m not so sure there would have been a Year 20,” said Shannon Sharpe, who was a tight end on that team. “We take a sense of pride that the Ravens were the first and we’re the gold standard by which all other teams have been measured by. We had so many personalities; our head coach was a personality. So it meshed. It was the perfect storm at the perfect time.”
An estimated 1.2 million homes tuned in to HBO that summer to get a peek at the harsh training camp realities and hilarious shenanigans among players.
The Ravens would get a rough cut of episodes about 12 hours before the show aired, and team officials asked only once for a scene to get cut. It showed secondary coach Steve Shafer calling a player “a coward,” and the team didn’t want someone to carry that label.
Outside of that, Baltimore’s drama was there for the world to see. Football fans around the country watched running back Jamal Lewis suffer a season-ending knee injury, defensive end Roshaun Matthews abruptly quit and the entire team refusing to play the preseason opener at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium because of poor field conditions. The show also featured a young Joe Douglas (the future Jets GM) informing players to get their playbook — which everyone knows is a precursor to getting cut.
The foundation of the first season of “Hard Knocks” was Baltimore’s cast of characters. It was no-holds-barred with the likes of a loquacious Sharpe, wisecracking Tony Siragusa (aka Goose), newlywed Todd Heap and a precocious Ray Lewis, who celebrated the end of training camp by arriving home and eating his steak on bread to show his “country” side.
After the Ravens lost Lewis for the season and struggled with new quarterback Elvis Grbac, their title defense ended that season with a 27-10 defeat in Pittsburgh in the divisional playoff round. But Baltimore remains the only reigning champion to appear on “Hard Knocks.” The Ravens also remain one of the show’s most interesting cast of players assembled.
“It literally was the most unique team ever,” said Qadry Ismail, a wide receiver for that Ravens team. “We had this uncanny chemistry where funny meets this incredible, amazing Hall of Fame players. No one felt bigger than the other guy. You just had this camaraderie. You had this cool factor.”
A look back at the season that started it all for “Hard Knocks”:
The goal of “Hard Knocks” was to take viewers behind closed doors. Strangely enough, the best scene of Episode 2 was the result of a closed door.
Sharpe still remembers turning the handle to the door of the meeting room and being unable to get out. Siragusa had barricaded the tight ends in with a table.
“Once I realized we were locked inside, I already knew who did it,” Sharpe said. “When pranks were pulled and things happened, you know to a certain degree who would do something like that and it was Goose.”
This started a playful prank war between Sharpe and Siragusa. Sharpe famously declared he wanted “restitution,” and he stole Siragusa’s truck in order to get an apology.
“Hard Knocks” was football’s answer to reality shows such as “Survivor,” and Siragusa thrived in the instigator role. As soon as he arrived at camp in a helicopter, Siragusa was a troublemaker for his teammates and coach alike — he drove Billick crazy by finding creative ways not to weigh in.
When Siragusa first learned about the show, he told the director that he would start fights at practice or throw a rookie in the cold tub, if they wanted. Siragusa was told just to be himself — but up to a limit.
“I wanted to set the place on fire a little bit,” Siragusa said. “Have it smoke out and stuff, but we couldn’t do that [s—] because we were on TV.”
The Ravens’ rookie show ultimately stole the show.
All first-year players had to perform for the team, and Heap started off by dressing up like Billick. He pulled his shorts up to his chest and wore a large black hat because that showed off, as Billick said, his “swagger.”
The main act was undrafted rookie linebacker Tim Johnson, who delivered a spot-on impersonation of Sharpe, from his mannerisms to the inflection of his voice to his wardrobe.
“I see [Johnson] coming out and he’s got this bucket hat pulled down on his head and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What is he going to do?'” Sharpe said. “It was unbelievable to hear. It might be one of the greatest moments in ‘Hard Knocks’ history.”
Best hard knocks ever.😂😂😂😂😂 https://t.co/PHJwq5WTwH
— shannon sharpe (@ShannonSharpe) July 27, 2018
Here’s a bit of trivia: Johnson had previously used that impersonation long before even knowing Sharpe. When watching the first episode of “Hard Knocks,” Johnson heard Sharpe speak and it took him back to his family get-togethers.
“We used to always talk like our uncles,” said Johnson, who is now the director of player personnel at Youngstown State. “So, I started talking like him. I started talking like we do in Alabama.”
Teammate Cornell Brown started rolling on the floor in laughter when he heard Johnson and encouraged him to mimic Sharpe in the rookie show.
Asked if he does any other impersonations, Johnson said, “I can do Warren Sapp. But I’m not Jamie Foxx or anything like that.”
Johnson still breaks out the act whenever he crosses paths with Sharpe. He also tends to get requests for it from others around this time of year, when the reruns are usually played.
“I’ll give a guy a little snippet of it every now and then depending on the situation,” Johnson said. “Most of the time, they’re pointing to the video and pointing to the old show, and they’re like, ‘That was hilarious.'”
A new level of notoriety
The widespread impact of “Hard Knocks” didn’t really hit Ismail until he walked into, of all places, a Chuck E. Cheese.
After the season, Ismail took his children for some pizza and was approached by a fan.
“Oh my god, aren’t you?” she asked.
Ismail said hello before realizing something was off.
“I really don’t recognize you,” she said. “But I recognize your kids.”
Ismail’s daughter, Qalea, and son Qadry were toddlers on “Hard Knocks.” At the team scrimmage, young Qadry screamed he wasn’t grumpy before having a small temper tantrum. That clip has been posted on social media by their friends throughout the years. Qalea has since graduated from Princeton, and Qadry is playing wide receiver at Mercyhurst.
“It took on a whole other level of notoriety,” Ismail said. “It went from football player to family person. I think it connected with a different level of audience.”
The football community also let Ismail know it was aware of the show. When the previews hit HBO, Ismail received texts from Randy Moss and Cris Carter about how the Ravens were talking about winning another Super Bowl.
“I remember that sticking out because it was like, ‘Yeah, the entire league was watching,'” Ismail said.
The Kardashians before the Kardashians
For Todd Heap and his newlywed wife, Ashley, it was a “Hard Knocks” honeymoon.
Less than a week after getting married, they landed at Baltimore/Washington International airport, where a film crew greeted the rookie first-round pick. Cameras followed the Heaps as they shopped for a mattress and a cell phone (the explanation of how texting works really dates the show).
Heap was also filmed carrying his wife over the threshold of their new home, which Heap says he was asked to do by the director.
“It was the Kardashians before the Kardashians,” Heap said. “I don’t know if I would ever foresee myself doing that if it was just Ashley and me walking into the house. There were things that were staged.”
Did it ever get to the point where Ashley asked him what he got her into?
“It was the whole time,” Heap said. “If I wasn’t used to it, she definitely wasn’t used to it. You try to make the most of it.”
Heap has watched other seasons of “Hard Knocks.” When the one with the Ravens comes on, Ashley will watch it. Todd would prefer to change the channel.
“I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness,'” Heap said. “I was so young. I look back at myself and shake my head. What was I thinking at that point in my life?”
Stephen A. Smith shares his thoughts on the Cowboys’ upcoming appearance on “Hard Knocks.”
Most fulfilling experience
Whenever the football season starts, Reggie Waddell puts on the first season of “Hard Knocks” and watches the episodes over again.
Waddell was one of the undrafted rookies profiled in the series; he’s perhaps best known for getting his clothes put in the ice chest for being late to a meeting. An undersized yet scrappy cornerback out of Western Illinois, Waddell was trying to land a spot on a defense that set the NFL record for fewest points allowed.
“When I go back and watch them, I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that was me,'” Waddell said.
When the first season of “Hard Knocks” concluded, Waddell had beaten the odds and made the team. But the Hollywood ending was short-lived. The Ravens cut Waddell after one game.
Waddell played two seasons in the Arena League for the Detroit Fury before giving up on his professional football dreams. He worked 10 years as a manager for Best Buy, where he would get recognized by customers. Waddell is now a manager at Verizon, where his district manager mentioned in a group chat that Waddell was on “Hard Knocks.” His co-workers even made a meme out of it.
For the past 15 years, Waddell has played flag football in the Dallas area with a target on his back. When players would catch a pass against him, Waddell would hear: “See, that’s why you’re out here. That’s why the NFL cut you.”
Waddell always laughs it off. He remains thankful to the Ravens for giving him a chance to play in the NFL and to “Hard Knocks” for providing memories that will last a lifetime.
“Coming from a smaller school and you’re featured on HBO. The first-ever season of ‘Hard Knocks,’ you’re on there,” Waddell said. “That was the most fulfilling experience ever.”