Lewis, who expects to return from a torn triceps for Sunday's AFC Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts, announced the impending end of his 17-year career to a roomful of stunned teammates on Wednesday morning at the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills.
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Lewis' biography is one of extremes. A child of a broken home, he became a football prodigy, seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame from early in his career. Then, just as he neared his pinnacle, he faced murder charges that threatened his future. Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and he became one of the NFL's most divisive players — derided in opposing cities, deeply respected by his peers, adopted wholeheartedly by Baltimore, the city where he played his whole career and devoted his charitable efforts.
A fiery leader, he riled up teammates and home fans like no one else with his signature entry dance at M&T Bank Stadium. He ended up, finally, as an elder statesman, a sort of wise uncle to the generations who followed him into the nation's most popular sport.
A subdued Lewis said he came to his decision while spending time with his sons as he rehabilitated his injury in Florida. A man of outspoken faith, he talked of growing up without a father and not wanting his children to be without him any longer. He had to choose between them and holding onto the game.
“My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father — the ultimate sacrifice for 17 years,” he said. “I've done what I wanted to do in this business, and now it is my turn. It's my turn to give them back something.”
Though talk of Lewis' potential retirement had become common at the end of each season, the reality hit his teammates hard.
Some were still stunned when they recounted the meeting where Lewis informed them of his decision. For them, as for many fans, it's hard to imagine the Ravens without No. 52 dancing out of the tunnel, without the man underneath the jersey as a wise shoulder to lean on in the locker room.
“Today, I definitely didn't prepare for it,” said running back Ray Rice, holding back tears. “Mentally, he has raised me over the last couple of years. My locker is right next to his, and I just can't picture Baltimore without him. He has kids, but I was one of his kids.”
Lewis' retirement, along with the possible departure of safety Ed Reed, could signal a radical changing of the guard for a franchise built on stifling defense. That change had already begun this season, as the triceps injury held Lewis out of 10 games and the Ravens fell to 17th in the league in yards allowed.
He wanted to make his intentions clear before Sunday's game, Lewis said, so all Baltimore would feel the moment when he bursts from the tunnel in his traditional dance, hips swiveling and chest thrust out at the world.
“I think my fans, my city, they deserve it,” he said. “I think we will all get to enjoy what Sunday will feel like, knowing that this will be the last time 52 plays in a uniform in Ravens stadium.”
Accolades poured in from around the league and the wider sporting world as news spread that one of the faces of an NFL generation would walk away.
“A guy you could count on, a guy you could lean on, a guy that gave everything, every free moment that he had to help others, to help the city,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who will oppose Lewis on Sunday after working as Ravens defensive coordinator last season. “He's there to serve, and he's done it in numerous ways, and his legacy will live on forever — not only in that city but in the NFL annals. He will go to the Hall of Fame, and he'll go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, to play the position.”
Lewis' ride to greatness was hardly gentle. In 2000, just as he entered his playing prime, he was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta club. Following two weeks of a summer trial, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge after agreeing to testify against two former co-defendants. The incident would forever provide fodder for opposing fans, who booed Lewis lustily in enemy stadiums. But he turned his lowest moment into the stage for his greatest, leading the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV after one of the finest seasons ever by a defensive player.
With his unmatched style of prowling from sideline to sideline and his fiery pregame speeches, delivered in a sonorous preacher's voice, Lewis joined the pantheon of Baltimore sports heroes. What Johnny Unitas had been to generations of Colts fans, Lewis became to the city's new wave of football lovers, now clad in purple.
Lewis focused his charitable efforts heavily on Baltimore, along with his home state of Florida, establishing the Ray Lewis Family Foundation to distribute money to disadvantaged youth, providing free school supplies to thousands of city students and dispensing Thanksgiving meals, Christmas gifts and winter garments to hundreds more families. In 2010, the city rechristened a stretch of North Avenue “Ray Lewis Way.”
And then he played on and on, longer than any linebacker currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Lewis is sure to be enshrined after a five-year wait. In recent years, he played with and against players who had grown up using him as a character in video games.