'“He definitely inspired me,” said Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. “Just the passion and how he is dedicated to his craft to be the best. You don't see too many guys who play like that. That's definitely what makes him the best linebacker to ever play the game.”

From the beginning

After a decorated career at the University of Miami, Lewis, a native of Lakeland, Fla., was the second player ever drafted by the Ravens, 26th overall in the 1996 NFL Draft. By selecting Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden in the first round, general manager Ozzie Newsome laid the foundation for one of the league's most talent-rich organizations.

“Ray Lewis will not only be remembered as one of the greatest to play his position, he will also be thought of as one of the greatest players in NFL history,” said Newsome, himself a Hall of Fame player. “And he is one of the greatest without a doubt. He had the one quality all of the best have: He made all the players, coaches and people around him better.”

Lewis started from his first game, in which he recorded an interception against the Oakland Raiders, and by his third season, he was already regarded as one of the top defensive players in the league. He would go on to be named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year twice and to make 13 Pro Bowls.

The past two seasons have been difficult for Lewis, who was too often relegated to a cheerleading and mentoring role on the sidelines. He missed four games with a toe injury last season and even before he went down, he struggled to keep up with running backs or discard blocks as he had in the past.

As soon as he tore his triceps on Oct. 14 against the Dallas Cowboys, national football commentators began contemplating the end of Lewis' career. The injury is usually season-ending. And many wondered if the 37-year-old Lewis would want to gear up for another run.

This thinking seemed naive to those who have studied Lewis closely during his time in Baltimore. This is a man who vowed to return for a 17th season mere moments after the Ravens suffered an agonizing loss in last year's AFC Championship Game.

With that defeat still fresh, he began working out — biking and swimming — as many as seven times a day. He rebuilt his diet around purified juice concoctions and showed up for training camp looking as trim and youthful as he had in a decade. Lewis scoffed at the notion that preparing for a season had gotten harder with age.

Would this man, for whom the will to be great is as old hat as breathing, let an injury dictate his ending? Not likely.

Lewis said he was up on his bicycle 10 days after the triceps surgery with absolute determination to return for a last playoff run, an intention he conveyed with a phone call to Newsome. “I told Ozzie, ‘We need to talk, because I'm not going out like this,'” Lewis recalled.

He has been back at practice for almost a month now, and his locker-room demeanor has offered little hint that retirement might be looming. From his familiar corner perch next to Rice, Lewis woofed and hurled good-natured insults across the room, the muscles of his torso a marvel for a guy approaching middle age.

But make no mistake: Lewis is an old man in professional football years. As he winds toward the end, consider the sweep of his career.

The test of time

Start by looking at the guys he played with when the Ravens debuted in Baltimore in 1996. Most have been out of the league for a decade or more. Ogden is up for the Hall of Fame this year. Even ageless kicker Matt Stover hasn't put his foot to a ball since 2009.

Check out some of Lewis' linebacking partners over the years. Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware, both of whom joined him in his second year, have been retired since 2005. Adalius Thomas, who briefly surpassed Lewis in the eyes of some, hasn't played since 2009.

It feels only natural to associate Lewis and Reed, the veteran pillars of the Ravens' defense. But Lewis had played six seasons and established himself as the best defender in the game before Reed ever donned an NFL jersey.

“He's amazing,” Boulware said. “A lot of guys who play a long time, you see their productivity slip, but he really hasn't dropped off that much. He's one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game.”

Boulware said that when people think of the Ravens, there's no question whose name comes first. “It's Ray,” he said. “He's the face of that franchise and deservedly so.”

Teammates talked of soaking up his wisdom in the last few weeks he's around. “You take it for granted having someone like him on the team,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a teammate since 2006. “When he told us, I started thinking about things I could probably ask him or try to pick his brain about, how to be great not only on the field but off the field.”

Such longevity rarely leads to happy endings in sports. But Lewis has largely avoided the ignominy of the faded legend — Unitas wearing No. 19 for the San Diego Chargers, Muhammad Ali getting pounded against the ropes by Larry Holmes, Michael Jordan struggling to dunk in a Washington Wizards jersey.

Lewis always said he would know when it was time to go.

On Wednesday, he offered few hints of what would come next, though he said, “It's a new chapter that I've already pre-planned out.”

He'll be there to watch his son, Ray Lewis III, play at Miami next season. He has been a national pitchman for products such as Under Armour apparel, Old Spice deodorant and EA Sports video games and has long been talked about as a possible television analyst. He also delivers inspirational speeches to everyone from church congregations to small-college athletic teams.

Lewis appeared utterly calm about his decision as he spoke of God calling him to the next phase of his life.

“The emotions are very controlled, because I never redo one day,” he said. “Every moment I've ever had in this building, what this organization has done for me, what this city has done for me, what my fans have done for me, what the mutual respect for different players have done for me around this league, I can never take any of that back. That's the ultimate when you leave this game. You leave it with one heck of a legacy.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com