OWINGS MILLS - Sunday will likely be the final time Ray Lewis walks through the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium as a player.
The future Hall of Fame middle linebacker, and the face of the Ravens' franchise since its inception in 1996, announced Wednesday that he plans to retire at the conclusion of this season.
"Everything that starts has an end," Lewis told reporters on Wednesday after informing teammates of his plans. "That's life. And for me, today, I told my team that will be my last ride."
The second draft pick in Ravens franchise history, Lewis is regarded as one of the premier players of the last two decades and possibly the greatest player to ever man his position.
He was selected to 13 Pro Bowls - a record for middle linebackers. He was a 10-time Associated Press first-team All-Pro - also a record for middle linebackers. He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And he was the MVP of Baltimore's win against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
"He's probably going to be labeled the greatest middle linebacker of all time," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think that's an amazing legacy to leave. He was on a record-setting defense led by him, and he's done some amazing things. It's been awesome to play aside a giant such as that, a legend like that."
For nearly two decades, Lewis has been the unquestioned physical and emotional leader of a Ravens defense that's been consistently ranked among the best in the NFL for much of the past 14 years.
With Lewis leading the way, Baltimore has ranked among the NFL's top-six in total defense 11 of the last 14 years and has finished ranked lower than 10th just twice during that time period - 2002 and this season.
In 2000, Lewis led a record-setting setting defense that recorded four shutouts and established 16-game single-season records for fewest points allowed (165) and rushing yards allowed (978). And with Lewis as its catalyst, the Ravens' defense went 50 games without allowing a single 100-yard rusher during a stretch from December 1998 through December 2001.
Lewis has started more games (227) than any middle linebacker in NFL history. He's the Ravens' all-time leader in tackles (2,643) and fumble recoveries (20). He's second in team history in both interceptions (31) and forced fumbles (20). And his 41.5 sacks are fourth-most in franchise history.
He led Baltimore in tackles during 14 of his first 16 NFL seasons - the only exceptions being injury-shortened seasons in 2002 and 2005 - and he's the only player in NFL history with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.
"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," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "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. It has been a privilege and a joy to be with him throughout his career. We in the Ravens have been very fortunate to be around this great man and player."
Added Indianapolis Colts head coach and former Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano: "[Ray's] legacy will live on forever, not only in that city but in the NFL. He'll go into the Hall of Fame, and he's going to go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, to ever play the position."
Even as the 37-year-old Lewis' physical skills have progressively declined in recent seasons, he's remained an integral part of the Ravens' defense based on his leadership, preparation and knowledge of the game.
And while Lewis said, physically, he could play well beyond this season - a sentiment echoed by his teammates - Lewis pointed toward spending more time with his six children as a primary factor in his decision to retire. One son, Ray III, has signed to play football at the University of Miami beginning in the fall.
"God is calling in so many areas of life," Lewis said. "And my children, my children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father - the ultimate [sacrifice] for 17 years - whether it was jumping on a plane, jump right back, go to school and ... I don't want to see them do that anymore.
"I've done what I wanted to do in this business, and now it is my turn. It's my turn to give them back something. So, it's either hold on to the game and keep playing and let my kids miss out on times that we can be sharing together ... and I can't miss that."
But Lewis does have one more thing he'd like to accomplish in his final NFL season: winning a second Super Bowl.
He hasn't played since Week 6 - sidelined since suffering a torn right triceps against the Dallas Cowboys - but he returned to practice in early December - less than two months after sustaining an injury that typically involves a three to four month recovery - and said Wednesday that he expects to play Sunday when the Ravens host the Colts in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs.
"I probably went through one of the craziest 12 weeks of just training that I've probably ever been through in my life," Lewis said. "But I just think I'm where I should be. I'm way past where I was supposed to have been.
"I was supposed to have been out for the year. ... But as soon as I had [the injury], I made a phone call to Ozzie and I told Ozzie directly, 'We need to talk because I'm not going out like this. I'm not walking out on my boys like that.' ... And wherever it ends, it ends, but I didn't come back for it to end in the first round."
Added Baltimore running back Ray Rice: "I don't want [Sunday] to be the last time I play with him. I want to win just to keep it going as long as possible because week-in and week-out it's a do-or-die deal. We want to win on Sunday. ... We will give all we've got Sunday for Ray. We owe it to him. We owe it to the organization."