As he continues to fight through blocks, chase down ball carriers and rack up tackles with stunning regularity, it's hard to imagine Ray Lewis wondered nearly five months ago if his promising football career had ended way too soon.
Early in his second training camp last July, after suffering a freakish neck injury that sent Lewis on a scary helicopter ride to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, he faced a reality that brought him to tears.
"I realized [his career] could end in five minutes, 30 minutes, whatever," said Lewis, who spent several days in the hospital before rejoining his teammates. "I just thank the Lord that it didn't. I found peace with Jesus, [wondering] was it over? I think I'm a better person now."
As he prepares for Sunday's Memorial Stadium finale against the Tennessee Oilers, the NFL's most promising young middle linebacker is seeking to turn his peace into anger for another Sunday.
When the league announces its Pro Bowl selections tomorrow, Lewis -- with a league-leading 183 tackles -- could make the list for the first time, at the tender age of 22.
Rest assured, Lewis is thinking more about getting his hands on Oilers running back Eddie George than he is about the award.
"I never dwell on things like that," Lewis said. "If I make [the Pro Bowl], I make it. If I don't, I don't. I don't like setting myself up for failure. I just want to play football and have fun with it. My attitude is I don't want to talk about being the best. I work at being the best every day."
The Lewis package, which compelled the Ravens to draft him late in the first round last year, includes many impressive parts. Start with his ability to either hit a hole or move laterally to bring down a ball carrier. Working behind an improved defensive line that includes tackles James Jones and Tony Siragusa has allowed Lewis to emerge as an anchor in the Ravens' 4-3 defense.
Then there is his speed. Remember the way Lewis spotted San Diego running back Eric Metcalf a good 15 yards in Week 5, before running him down from behind to save a touchdown?
And remember the questions about Lewis' size -- 6 feet 1, 235 pounds -- as a rookie, raising doubts about his ability to hold up against huge blockers and backs over a 16-game season? Watch the replay of him meeting Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis head on last month, before dropping "The Bus" cold.
"He's one of the best linebackers I've ever seen," Jacksonville pro personnel director Ron Hill said of Lewis. "He's one of the few guys I've seen hit Bettis and match up with the guy."
Ravens left defensive end Rob Burnett said, "On top of everything else, I think what makes Ray is his attitude. People said he was too small, that he couldn't do this or that. But Ray's mentality is you can't tell him what he can't do. That's the way he approaches the game. It's not a chore to him."
Lewis clearly enjoys his job, which he typically tackles at about 100 miles an hour. Try getting him to take a day off from practice, regardless of the nagging injury he might be fighting.
"It's hard to gear down," he said.
Lewis walks through the locker room with the swagger of a guy who says he belongs, directing playful trash talk at teammates in a way that suggests he wants to be no place else. He usually can be heard taunting or barking encouragement on the practice field.
"Ray is full of life, full of enthusiasm, and he tries so hard to do well," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "He plays the game with so much energy and enthusiasm. The key this year is the hard work he did during the off-season. You can't slow him down."
Ray Lewis is used to learning as fast as he plays. As a freshman at the University of Miami, he had 17 tackles in his first game, sparking an All-America career that spanned just three years. As a Ravens rookie in 1996, he made his share of mistakes, especially in pass coverage, but still led the team with 142 tackles.
Lewis wasn't satisfied.
"I had an ankle and a hip pointer [problem], so I had to get stronger, and I let the film room take over," he said. "I just studied more, kept focusing on reading keys quicker. I was just reacting last year. I had to think about what I was doing more."
As for his Pro Bowl future, he said, "I have young legs. If it doesn't happen, I'll be back next year."
NOTES: Siragusa (hand fracture) is expected to play Sunday, although his practice time will be limited this week. The Ravens have reached a tentative agreement with the Chicago Bears to play their first preseason game on Aug. 8, 1998, at their new stadium in Camden Yards.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Tennessee Oilers
Site: Memorial Stadium When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11 (subject to blackout rule)/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Oilers by 2
Tickets: 2,900 remain
NFL leaders in tackles:
Ray Lewis, Ravens, 183
Hardy Nickerson, Bucs, 175
Stanley Richard, Redskins, 162
Marvcus Patton, Redskins, 161
Stephen Boyd, Lions, 157
Pub Date: 12/10/97