When former Ravens safety and special-teams ace Bennie Thompson heard that middle linebacker Ray Lewis planned to retire after this season, his first reaction was to recount the impact Lewis had on the locker room.
"You could always see he was and is one of the greatest teammates," Thompson said during a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun. "Everybody comes around him and latches onto him. There was something good about him. You look at the Rod Woodsons, the Shannon Sharpes, Jamal Lewis, they all kind of gravitated to him. He was a great teammate to everybody.
"Playing with him, I went out there to play well and do well and I put in extra effort because I knew he was going to be out there working hard. I wanted to be sure he recognized me as giving an effort. I would tell him that the game meant so much to him and now it's time to move on and enjoy life."
Thompson said that the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was the only teammate he could remember that never fell asleep during a team meeting.
"When he first came into the league, he sat next to me at every meeting and I've seen a lot of guys fall asleep, but Ray never fell asleep," Thompson said. "He wanted to be a student of the game, which he became very good at. That's why, because he cared.
"You can't be a student of the game when you're asleep. He's a great person. I remember when he took me home with him to meet his mom. Ray is truly a great person. That's why all those guys that have been here can't say anything bad about Ray Lewis."
Thompson wasn't alone in expressing a strong opinion about what it was like to play with Lewis.
Former Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played with Lewis on the Ravens' Super Bowl winning squad during the 2000 season, recalled how Lewis took the extra step to connect with teammates.
"He was the best defensive player on the field every game he played in," said Dilfer, an ESPN analyst. "Off the field, he was the best. He had this unique ability to resonate with every single person in the locker room. And that’s hard to do. In the NFL, unfortunately, sometimes the guy who is most productive has the loudest voice and that messaging is wrong. Well, that’s not the case with Ray. He is the most productive player but his messaging within the locker room is always right. The biggest thing that goes unsaid about Ray is how much he invests in the relationships with his teammates. You see the antics.
"You see the enthusiasm, the passion on the field, but off the field he’s the first guy to go sit at a locker with someone that’s struggling with something, whether it’s football related or not football related. He has that personal touch. … You trust everything about him and he makes everybody better. There’s an intensity to him. That intensity is authentic. It’s genuine and it’s always directed at making the football organization better. … When I say he’s the best, really in my experience in the National Football League, I’ve never seen a person better than him at those three layers: preparation, leadership and play.” firstname.lastname@example.org/RavensInsiderCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun