Ray Lewis' face lit up when he gingerly walked into the Port Covington Wal-Mart on Tuesday, seconds after his entrance ignited a high-pitched roar from more than 200 kids who showed up for his annual holiday charity gift-giving event.
The Ravens' All-Pro middle linebacker slapped hands, posed for a few pictures, then got behind a microphone and told the group of children it was their love and support that has helped him stay positive and allowed him to maintain perspective during a frustrating stretch of the season during which he has missed four games with a foot injury.
"Your faces are the ones that keep me going," Lewis said, "even when I'm going through what I'm going through. I've heard the questions a billion times: 'How is your toe? When are you going to play again?' And all of that is awesome. But through my injury, in the time that I have been going through what I've been going through, the people that I've met, the people that I can make smile even through my pain ... there is no greater reward than that."
Lewis spoke with the media for a few minutes after addressing the kids, and while he didn't make any promises about whether he would play Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, he said he was optimistic he would be ready to play. He's "confident" he'll be back this season at some point, presumably putting to rest discussion his injury might be career-threatening.
"I'm feeling way better," Lewis said. "Way better. I thought I had a good chance the last four weeks to play, but the coaches are going to make those decisions. They're just being smart. I don't mind being smart. The warrior side of me of course is always going to want to get back out there."
Lewis invited more than 200 local "underserved youth" to attend the annual event, and they were invited to pick out gifts for themselves and their families from an assortment of items donated by Wal-Mart and the Ray Lewis Foundation.
"Sometimes you find yourself going through so much and you want to complain, but when you walk in here, you can't," Lewis said. "Because you know there are so many people here that aren't as fortunate. I told my mom, coming here, it always gets emotional for me. Because I was once here in my life."
Lewis acknowledged it has been difficult to stand on the sideline for the past month with his team battling for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. He knows he has only so much time left in his career to make it back to the Super Bowl. But he went to an autograph session Monday, the day after he missed his fourth consecutive game, and a 75-year-old woman mentioned to him that she was excited to meet him because she had just been diagnosed with cancer.
"How can you think about yourself with things like that going on?" Lewis said. "It kind of removes you from it all. The game is always going to be the game. Whenever it's time for me to get back on the field, I'm going to get back out there."
Lewis said he didn't speak with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning -- who has missed every game this season while he tries to recover from neck surgery -- but the two rivals did exchange a glance and a nod from afar.
"I looked over at him and smiled, and he kind of looked back and smiled," Lewis said. "It's not just me and him though. It's amazing what's going on around the league with some of the season-ending injuries. For me, not worrying about this being season-ending is a blessing in itself. It was strange feeling, seeing him standing there. We're used to going in there and [playing against each other]."
The hardest part of not being on the field?
"Seeing plays you could make yourself," Lewis said. "But there is a reason for everything. I know [people] have heard me say this a number of times, but when God removes you from one thing, he's trying to show you something else. And God has shared a lot with me the past couple weeks. And a lot of what he's said, I've shared with my teammates. I think this had to happen. If it didn't happen, we don't know where we would be right now. But with me going through what I'm going through, I was able to share a lot with my team, and I think we all started to get what the bigger picture is."