Outside a movie theater in La Place, La., a middle-aged white woman was ranting at a police officer, inching closer and closer as if bent on getting arrested. Jeanne Hall rarely exploded in rage, but she'd had it. First the cashier declined to sell tickets to Hall for the six children going to the movie with her. Recent rowdiness, the cashier explained, had prompted the theater to place restrictions on unaccompanied children entering the establishment after 7 p.m. Then the officer, called over by the cashier after Hall protested, told her she could take her daughter and two sons into the theater, but the three teenage black males could not be admitted because Hall was not their parent or guardian.

Never mind that the officer was upholding a theater rule, Hall was cursing him for refusing to accept her explanation that those three boys were around her house so much they might as well have been family. She was digging in for a fight, causing a commotion that startled other customers as they passed by. Then one of the boys, 16-year-old Ed Reed, stepped in. "Let's go," he calmly said to Hall. "We can rent a movie at home."

Even at that age Reed could read a situation and react deftly. He could see that the officer would never understand the relationship he had with this woman he called Mama as easily as she called him Son. It was time to move on. There were bigger obstacles to get past in life.

Ten years have gone by since that night, but here's one thing that hasn't changed about Ed Reed: When he senses trouble--or opportunity--his instincts take over, and he reacts quickly and smartly. What's different now is that he's a two-time All-Pro for the Baltimore Ravens and those decisions occur on the field. In fact, he's the poster boy for the NFL's newest breed: the playmaking safety. The Dallas Cowboys' Roy Williams may hit harder, the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Dawkins might be a better cover guy, and the New England Patriots' Rodney Harrison might have more championship rings, but no safety is drawing more raves than the 26-year-old Reed.

New York Jets coach Herm Edwards says Reed "should be a 60-interception guy before his career ends." Patriots coach Bill Belichick says Reed "has every quality you'd want in a football player." One NFC scout insists that Reed means as much to the Ravens as linebacker Ray Lewis, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Ray is going to be steadier on every down," the scout says, "but Ed Reed makes more plays."

"He's the best safety in the league," says an AFC personnel director. "His instincts, the way he positions himself, his ability to close on the ball--all those qualities are unusual for a safety. And he's a terrific runner after an interception."

There was a time not long ago when free safeties roamed the deep middle like centerfielders, and strong safeties were known primarily as headhunters. With more teams using three- and four-wideout sets and big, athletic tight ends, safeties are expected to be more physical and versatile than ever before. Some play like linebackers, bullying their man in the box. Others have cover skills once only associated with cornerbacks.

Then there's Reed, whose skills are so numerous and varied that the Ravens don't even bother to label him as a free or strong safety. With his uncanny ability to anticipate plays, Reed makes all the coverage calls. Though only 5'11" and 200 pounds, he can light up a ballcarrier, but his specialty is frustrating quarterbacks.

Last year Reed turned in one of the best seasons ever by a safety. He intercepted a league-high nine passes, returning them an NFL-record 358 yards, and made 89 tackles; for all that he was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, only the third safety to win the award in its 34-year history. Expect more of the same from Reed in 2005, especially with Baltimore's switch to a 46 defense, which will mean more blitzing, more man coverage and, consequently, more chances for Reed to make big plays. "Teams might beat me sometimes," Reed says, "but if I get my hands on the football, they're in trouble."

Reed's instincts baffle not only opposing teams, but his own coaches as well. On one play in a win over the Buffalo Bills last season, he abandoned his coverage zone in the middle of the field and lined up over the tight end. A flustered Drew Bledsoe threw an incomplete pass in the tight end's direction anyway. After the game Ravens secondary coach Johnnie Lynn asked Reed why he had improvised, an especially risky move with Buffalo in the red zone. "It just felt right," Reed replied.

"The man has a gift," Lynn says. "You can teach keys, reads and schemes, but feel? Nobody teaches what Ed has."

Munching on dry-roasted pistachios at the spring game of his high school alma mater, Destrehan, in April, Reed watched his brother Edwin, a junior wide receiver, and reminisced on his days playing for coach Scott Martin. Reed is respectful of his elders, particularly Martin, who helped him become an All-State defensive back and kick returner. "Back then everything was simple," Reed said. "It was, 'What do you want me to do, Coach? Because I'll do it.'"

Says Earnest Byner, who was the Ravens' player development director in 2002 and '03, "Ed has that old-soul mentality. He loves being around older people. His instincts are God-given, but his maturity comes from how he grew up."

That maturity, however, came slowly to Reed, who frequently skipped classes during his first two years at Destrehan. He took remedial courses and his grades were poor. The second-oldest of five boys, Reed says he had supportive parents who worked long hours. Ed Sr. was a ship welder and crane operator, and Karen was a hospital worker. His family's four-bedroom home was comfortable enough. What Reed lacked, he says, was focus.

Early in his junior year he made a decision that would change his life: He asked Jeanne Hall, the secretary for the assistant principal at Destrehan, if he could move in with her family. Hall was a mother figure to many of the school's discipline cases, several of whom were athletes. She offered her home, a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood less than a mile away from the Reeds, as an alternative to roaming the streets and getting into more trouble; it was a place where aimless kids could hang out and study, play video games or watch movies. "Ed didn't have the self-discipline to get his academics straightened out by himself," says Hall, who agreed to take him in. "He knew we would challenge him."

Now Reed had to persuade his parents to let him move out. Karen was 13 when she lost her mother to breast cancer and Ed Sr. was 19 when his father died of lung cancer. A close-knit family was important to both parents, but they also wanted the best for their children. Only a few months earlier Ed Sr. had told him, "Son, you don't ever want to make a living doing what I do." He and Karen realized Ed Jr. had a chance to go to college on a football scholarship, and they could see he wasn't going to make it unless his grades--and work habits--improved. After assuring his parents that he would come home often, Reed got their consent for the move. "It was hard to let Ed go, but I didn't want to tell him that," Karen says. "I knew Mrs. Hall, and I knew she wanted to help him."

Jeanne and her husband, Walter, a foreman at an oil refinery, provided Reed with a structured lifestyle. After football practice each night, for example, he usually napped until 9:30, then studied with Jeanne until midnight. His grades gradually improved, and he enrolled in tougher classes in his senior year. He was becoming more confident in his schoolwork, so much so that one night late in his junior year he shooed away Jeanne when she tried to help him with his math homework. When she checked his work later, Jeanne found all correct answers. "I actually can learn," Reed told her.

Since then, Reed says, he's been obsessed with realizing his potential. His motto became: Listen, learn, then lead. "There was something inside of me that [the Halls] brought out," Reed says. "And once I realized what I could do, I wanted to take it to another level. I saw if I did things right, people would follow me."

As a senior he had 83 tackles and seven interceptions and was recruited by Miami, LSU and Tulane. He chose Miami, where he was a two-time All-America safety, helped the Hurricanes win the 2001 national title and graduated with a degree in liberal arts. By his senior year he had established himself as one of Miami's leaders, on and off the field. Each weekday morning before the season he would wake up at 5:30 and direct his teammates through their off-season conditioning drills. At night he would join his friends and teammates at one of the area's many clubs, usually to make sure they avoided trouble.

After he was selected with the No. 24 pick in the 2002 draft, Reed gravitated to fellow Miami alum Ray Lewis. The two players watched game tapes for hours at Lewis's home, and they trained together in the off-season. Some teammates jokingly called Reed "Ray Jr.," but he didn't mind. He'd found another mentor, another Jeanne Hall. His interception total has increased each year in the pros--five as a rookie, seven in '03, then nine--and he's played in the last two Pro Bowls. "Some stars would be challenged by the rise of an Ed Reed," Ravens coach Brian Billick says, "but Ray isn't."

Says Reed, "When I called Ray after winning [Defensive Player of the Year], he told me, 'Let's do it again.' We want to keep that award [in Baltimore]."

It's likely that Reed will one day succeed Lewis as the leader of the Ravens, but the young safety is in no hurry. For Reed it's all about respecting his elders, because "that's what you're supposed to do. Learning from people who might have a little more insight than you is a big part of leadership." In fact, Reed continues to speak almost daily with Hall, who is still generous with advice, and still calls Reed "her son."

Last December, Hall and her 24-year-old daughter, Leslie, were waiting for Reed outside M&T Bank Stadium after the Ravens' 37-14 win over the New York Giants when Leslie's cellphone chimed. It was Reed, who asked them to walk down the street, where he was waiting in his Range Rover. He was worried that fans would recognize him and delay their exit. "Who do you think you are?" Leslie said with a laugh. "You act like you're somebody special."

But when Jeanne and Leslie finally reached the SUV, they heard shrieks and screams behind them. Leslie whirled and saw several fans racing toward Reed's vehicle. A few minutes later, with the stadium in Reed's rearview mirror, Leslie reluctantly apologized. "I have to give you your props, Edward," she said. "You really have become pretty important after all."

• For Jeffri Chadiha's Inside the NFL, go to SI.com/chadiha.


The Best of the Rest
Ed Reed isn't the only young safety ringing bells in the NFL. These three game-breakers also made the Pro Bowl last year.

Michael Lewis
EAGLES, fourth season

In Lewis and Brian Dawkins, Philadelphia has the league's best starting duo at safety. Lewis is known as a big hitter, but he's improved his coverage skills. "He fits in with the aggressive mentality of their defense," says Giants running back Tiki Barber. "You rarely see him get beat over the top, and he does a good job of covering tight ends and making plays in the box."

Troy Polamalu
STEELERS, third season

With 67 solo tackles and five interceptions, the former All-America at USC had a breakout season in '04. He packs plenty of wallop in his 5'10", 212-pound frame and, like Reed, is dangerous with the ball in his hands. "He takes chances like a lot of great players do, and he usually delivers," says his coach, Bill Cowher. "He has a great feel for the game."

Roy Williams
COWBOYS, fourth season

He has all the physical tools--size (6'0", 226), speed and explosiveness--to dominate receivers. Williams also is an excellent tackler who excels at run support and lighting up receivers who stray into his area. "He's not the best safety when it comes to coverage," says Giants wideout Amani Toomer, "but when he tackles you, you definitely know it's him."

Ravens Safety
 Move over, Ray Lewis. Your teammate has become the best player on the NFL's best defense. Setting the standard for game-breaking stars in the secondary, Reed owes his success to a life-altering choice he made in high school.
PHOTOPhotograph by Jeffery A. Salter PHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTER SECOND HOME Reed had loving parents in Karen and Ed Sr. (right), but found academic discipline with Jeanne and Walter. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY MIAMI VISELewis (left) and Reed, who both played for the Hurricanes, have won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. PHOTORON CORTES/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/ABACA (LEWIS) PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (POLAMALU) PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WILLIAMS)