Passion. Leadership. Dominance. Beast. Champion. These are just some of the words that come to mind when thinking about Ray Lewis, the 37-year-old inside linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens. Earlier this week, Lewis announced that this would be his last season playing football. The 17th year player and MVP of Super Bowl XXXV decided that he will hang up his jersey after a decorated career and a long season of rehabbing his torn left triceps. However it is not his Super Bowl MVP award, or his 13 Pro Bowl selections, or even his two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards that define the legacy of Ray Lewis. Rather, it is what he means to the Ravens’ franchise that makes him so special. It is what he means to the game of football.
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For nearly my entire life I have been watching Lewis emerge from the tunnel at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, signature walkout dance and all, ferociously screaming to hype up his teammates while sending chills down the backs of his opponents. Drafted by the Ravens in 1996, Lewis has spent his entire career in Baltimore, and is the only player on the roster that remains from their inaugural season. He represents everything a leader should be – intelligent, intense, intimidating. Most importantly, he demonstrates a characteristic that only exists amongst the greatest leaders in sports history – he makes those around him play better. Anybody sharing the field with him is under serious pressure to perform, as they are not just playing for their team, but playing for Ray.
Lewis’s leadership is so visible that one does not even have to watch football to recognize that he is damn important to his team. He demonstrates that intensity, passion, and glory can be rooted in anybody– not just the quarterback. In other words, he singlehandedly transformed modern notions of football by making defense cool again. He proved that defense wins championships, and provided kids around the country with a role model who leads not only by tongue, but by example. While Lewis has an affinity for making game-changing plays, it is the dirty work that he prides himself on, as he has led the Ravens in tackles for 14 out of his 17 years.
If you ever want to feel inspired, just type “Ray Lewis Speech” into YouTube and click one of the countless results. One of my personal favorites is the uplifting and motivational speech he gave last year after his team got eliminated from the playoffs. Even for a leader, it takes some serious guts to give a speech like that. This is a man who garners so much respect that his teammates would probably kill for him, while ironically he would likely die for them. As arguably the greatest leader in modern sports, he has even popularized the famous intense pregame scream-speech ritual, and his mere presence serves as a disruption to offenses. As a result, his presence on the field tomorrow may very well guarantee a Ravens’ victory against the Indianapolis Colts.
Lewis has not played since injuring his triceps in Week 6 against Dallas, but he will be on the field tomorrow and plans to give everything he has left into this final playoff run. Before I heard that Lewis would be on the field not just for the first time since October, but possibly for the last time in his career, I had picked the Colts to come away victorious against Baltimore’s inconsistent offense and injury-stricken defense. However when I saw Lewis announcing his retirement, and declaring his dedication to leave nothing behind for these final few games, everything changed.
This Ravens’ team will rally around the return of Lewis. This is a man that means everything to them, a man that has been their leader for 17 years, and a man who never gives anything less than his greatest possible effort. At 37-years-old, the legendary linebacker is still feared by opposing offenses, and I expect Lewis and his fellow defensive teammates to thoroughly disrupt the comfort zone of Indianapolis’s rookie phenom quarterback, Andrew Luck.
Lewis is an icon of this football generation, and we will be lucky to ever see another player who so seamlessly combines raw talent, undying dedication, and bone-chilling leadership. His retirement announcement left a huge pit in my stomach, as the Ravens’ team and franchise will simply never be the same without the ferocity of Lewis as their perpetual wildcard. The Ravens have long prided themselves on stellar defense, and this could not have been done without the future Hall of Fame linebacker as their anchor. These final playoff games for Lewis and the Ravens marks the end of a very special era for football. Thanks for the memories, Ray. And enjoy Canton, you deserve it. Ravens over Colts by 13.