For most of Ray Lewis’ 17-year NFL career, his face — eyes burning, mouth bellowing exhortations — was the face of the Ravens.
Johnny Unitas’ flinty gaze and stooped shoulders had symbolized pro football for earlier generations of Baltimore fans, and Lewis followed in the great quarterback’s footsteps, becoming an icon for the new era of purple and black ardor.
The Ravens made that association official Thursday morning, unveiling a bronze statue of the retired linebacker only a few feet from the statue of Unitas that greets visitors outside M&T Bank Stadium.
“I know that here, we feel complete now, honoring arguably the greatest player ever in Johnny … and he gets to share — we didn’t take this lightly — he gets to share the plaza with the greatest linebacker of all time,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said before pulling the cover off the sculpture of Lewis.
The muscled bronze captures Lewis in the middle of his famous “squirrel” dance, which he briefly performed for the hundreds of Ravens fans who attended Thursday’s ceremony. Thousands more will take their first glimpses of the statue Sunday when the Ravens open their season at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Honoring me is honoring everybody here,” Lewis said near the end of a sprawling, 31-minute speech. “Because everybody here had a hand in me.”
The crowd included Lewis’ family, former teammates O.J. Brigance, Michael McCrary and Duane Starks and famous friends such as Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and swimmer Michael Phelps.
Lewis thanked dozens of people personally, stopping to tell short stories about many of those in attendance. He recalled how his mother, Sunseria, didn’t have enough money for equipment when he first signed up for pee-wee football in 1985. He relied on a $15 loan from a friend to buy his first pair of cleats.
“I made up my mind that day that my mother’s tears would become joy,” he said Thursday.
Then Lewis, dabbing away his own tears, looked at his mother in the crowd and said, “Mama, we did it.”
Lewis was the second player ever drafted by the Ravens after Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore for the 1996 season. He made 13 Pro Bowls, was named Defensive Player of the Year twice and helped lead the Ravens to two Super Bowl wins, the second coming in his last professional game.
He wore a Super Bowl ring on each hand at the statue ceremony, where Bisciotti praised him as “the greatest leader in the history of the NFL.”
Unitas’ family was on hand for the unveiling, which the great quarterback’s widow, Sandy, deemed a joyous occasion.
“Who wouldn’t enjoy watching Ray?” she said. “He’s a very talented, gifted man, but he worked hard, like John did. John had a lot of respect for Ray.”
She grinned and added, “I’m sure they’ll have some great conversations here.”
Unitas picked his friend, local sculptor Fred Kail, to design the original statue, which was unveiled in 2002, just a few weeks after Unitas’ death. Kail also worked with Lewis to create the new sculpture over the last 11 months.
“John would be honored to be up there with him,” Kail said. “When I did John, the one thing he said is, ‘I don’t want to be up there by myself.’”
Kail said Lewis saw a mold of him doing the squirrel dance in the corner of the sculptor’s studio. It became the inspiration for the 9-foot-tall, 1,200-pound final version.
“He turned around and said that’s it over there,” Kail recalled. “He said if you do all these other poses, like linebacker poses, it could be anybody. He said the dance is the signature. Everybody will know that one.”
Kail said his one remaining wish is to sculpt an image of Unitas’ teammate, Lenny Moore, somewhere in the stadium’s vicinity.
Lewis was a more divisive figure than Unitas. Fans in other cities never forgot the murder charges he faced in 2000 — dropped when he instead pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice — and criticized his vocal Christianity as hypocritical.
But Ravens boosters at Thursday’s ceremony said their faith in Lewis never wavered.
“We still loved him unconditionally because he was one of us,” said Leon Mitchell of Baltimore. “He might not have been born here, but he’s here with us now. I love that man.”
Mitchell’s only complaint? The statue doesn’t feature an inscription declaring Lewis one of the greatest linebackers ever. He and others made note of the juxtaposition of Unitas and Lewis, offense and defense, side by side.
“It works perfectly to me,” said Larry Thomas of Baltimore, who was wearing a Ravens shirt he bought in 1996, just after Lewis was drafted. “I love Johnny U. He had the prettiest pass I’ve ever seen. So to me, they fit together perfectly.”
The crowd grew raucous as Lewis led them on an emotional journey through his career. “Who’s house?” one man called. “Ray’s house!” another replied. Lewis, still thick-shouldered in a dark gray suit, gave the throng a thumbs up.
At one point, he turned to Phelps and said, “Everything you did, it pushed me to never let you see me quit.”
The record-setting Olympian seemed almost dazed by Lewis’ words.
“I really couldn’t think straight,” Phelps said. “I almost started getting teary-eyed. I can’t even say what he’s meant to me as more than a friend, more like a brother. … I think the time we’ve spent together has been some of the most incredible time I’ve ever had with anybody.”
Lewis offered equally powerful thanks to McCrary, Brigance and others from his past. He saved his final words for Baltimore, the place that took him in.
“I will forever be a part of this city,” he said.
Then the beat from “Hot in Herre” kicked in and the real man danced alongside the bronze one.