Ray Lewis, Ed Reed

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are focused on helping the Ravens continue their winning tradition. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / September 7, 2012)

Shannon Sharpe remembers vividly the late-night conversations in his kitchen with a 25-year-old Ray Lewis.

It was 2000, and the young linebacker was staying with his new Ravens teammate in Sharpe's Atlanta home as he endured a murder trial that could have cost him his career and freedom. Even during those most trying times, Sharpe noted, the young man steered conversation to his future, to greatness. Not excellence, which Lewis had already achieved, but lasting, stamp-on-the-game greatness.

"A lot of people talk about wanting to be great," advised Sharpe, then preparing for the 11th season of his own Hall of Fame career. "But you've got to pay the price. You've got to do what other people can't or won't."

When Sharpe, now an NFL analyst for CBS, thinks about why Lewis has endured beyond any reasonable expectation, he thinks of the way Lewis embraced his message.

For Ed Reed, the quest never carried such a grand arc. Oh, the Ravens safety worked like a demon as a young player, going to 6:30 a.m. spring practices at the University of Miami, throwing his body into every game with rare abandon.

"But everything is moment-to-moment with Ed," says his former coach, Brian Billick. "He and Ray share the same passion, but with Ray, there's a calculation. With Ed, it's all on the surface."

Perhaps this explains the ambivalence that has marked the twilight of Reed's career. Where Lewis stated his unequivocal plan to return for a 17th season in the moments after last season's agonizing playoff loss to the New England Patriots, Reed avoided interviews. Instead, he serenaded the locker room with a soul tune by Teddy Pendergrass, emphasizing the portentous line, "I think I better let it go."

He did little to clarify his plans in the offseason, talking one week about playing five more years, then skipping a mandatory minicamp and musing about the comforts of staying home with his young son and watching the NFL season from his couch. Come late July, however, Reed was back to practice, crisscrossing the field to break up passes like a man 10 years his junior.

As Lewis, 37, and Reed, 34, approach the late stages of their all-but-certain Hall of Fame careers, they might appear to be on divergent paths — Lewis' a straight course to Baltimore's sports pantheon, Reed's a more jagged trail of retirement threats and contract gripes. In reality, say teammates and coaches, the most enduring pillars of the Ravens defense are more similar than they are different.

Both begin relentless conditioning regimens just a few weeks after the end of each season. Both bury their heads in game film, looking for any pattern that might set up a miraculous play against next week's opponent. Both see mentoring — Lewis for the world to hear, Reed in more private moments — as essential to their continuing thirst for football.

"If you look up the word 'professional,' it'd be those two guys — the way they prepare, the way they act on the field and in the classroom," says first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "These guys are such high-profile players that you could walk in and expect to see such an ego that nobody can talk to them — but that's the furthest thing from these two guys."

Fourth-year cornerback Lardarius Webb has made a point of studying both men. "Anytime I see Ed walking around the locker room during the season, same as Ray, they always have their playbook in their hands, their film in their hands," Webb says. "I'm like, 'Man, we just got a 10-minute break out of a meeting. Why is he over there at his locker watching film? Why isn't he getting a break like all the rest of us?' It's like they never come off of our opponent."

'He looks younger'

Everyone who cares about the Ravens has already said so, but it's amazing to lay eyes on the trimmer version of Lewis that emerged this summer. It's not just that his body looks more cut; his face is leaner, almost youthful.

"That's the sign of a man who understands the game, that always evolves," says fellow linebacker Jameel McClain. "He came in faster, stronger, slimmer, all of those things. I mean, he looks younger."

Football analysts have latched on to Lewis' statements about staying relevant in a pass-happy game that demands agility more than brute force. But sitting at his locker after a recent practice, the dean of the Ravens alludes to deeper motivations for his offseason of swimming, biking and sucking down blended concoctions of pure vegetable juice.

"I've had a lot of sick people in my family," he says. "I didn't do it for sports. I did it for lifestyle, just to live longer."

Lewis isn't the first great athlete to be driven by fears of mortality. Mickey Mantle assumed he would die young, like all the other men in his family. So the great New York Yankee drank and caroused, figuring he'd never live to suffer the effects. It's typical of Lewis, say those who know him well, that instead of taking a fatalistic view, he has sought to improve his health.

Even as a young player, Lewis, who has already played longer than any linebacker in the Hall of Fame, demonstrated a rare analytical bent. He watched veteran stars Sharpe and Rod Woodson — their diets, the way they focused on stretching and flexibility as much as strength or speed, their ability to relax completely when a day's work was done.