After years of chasing down running backs, all of the NFL's great middle linebackers eventually found something they themselves couldn't elude - time.
Mike Singletary decided to retire after 12 seasons, before his play declined. Jack Lambert walked away after 11 years because of a severe toe injury. And Dick Butkus stopped after nine seasons because of multiple knee injuries.
Now, in his 12th season, Ray Lewis is entering a similar stage in his career, or is he?
Unlike the past greats, Lewis said he is not close to calling it quits.
"It's incredible. Some people say you go reverse once you hit the 30 mark, but I think I'm going the other way," said Lewis, 32, whose Ravens begin their final minicamp of the offseason today. "So where I am right now, it's scary because now I can really see that my best football is ahead of me, and so that's what's more exciting than anything, for me."
Lewis probably can expect to play longer than Singletary, Lambert and Butkus because athletes train better now. But, in the same respect, Lewis has taken hits from bigger, stronger blockers than linebackers did in previous eras.
Recently, time and those hits have taken their toll on Lewis. He hasn't played a full season since 2003, and he has missed 24 games over the past five seasons because of shoulder and hamstring injuries.
But the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year contends he is healthier than he was over the past couple of seasons.
"I don't have any nicks, no real bruises," he said. "I just feel good. I feel real good. I'm happy right now."
Last year at this time, he was sidelined from minicamps because he was recovering from hamstring surgery. Last week, he was running all over the field, showing an increased hop in his step.
"When a talented player feels as good as Ray feels, I don't think there are any limitations in what you can expect from him," said George Kokinis, the Ravens' pro personnel director. "I still think he's at the top of the league among linebackers. I didn't see any falloff last season. In fact, I thought he got stronger as the season went on."
The Ravens say he still has great instincts and range. Others point out that he gets blocked more these days and doesn't make the same game-changing plays as he once did.
According to NFL statistics, Lewis finished 23rd in the AFC with 103 tackles last season, the fewest of his career when he has played 14 or more games. But with Lewis in the starting lineup, the Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 16 home games.
"Ray is still the leader, still the guy everyone looks to get us going, still the focal point of the defense," safety Ed Reed said.
Like most years, Lewis has skipped all of the Ravens' minicamps except for the mandatory one last week. He is not expected to attend this week's practices.
The Ravens, though, have never been worried about Lewis. He reported last week at 250 pounds, his playing weight last season, but looked trimmer.
Lewis said he has added kickboxing, wrestling and swimming into his workout regimen. Another change has been increased rest. According to Lewis, he has averaged 10 hours of sleep this offseason, compared with six in previous years.
"Rest is probably the No. 1 thing," he said. "It's really paid off, because right now I'm sitting at a place that I don't think I've ever been in my career."
That's why Lewis, who has two years remaining on his contract, isn't contemplating when his career will end.
"The adjustment that's happened in my life right now, I can't explain it," Lewis said. "My mom has been talking about it like every day. I'm just telling her the things that I'm doing in the weight room and the way I'm running right now, I've never felt that."
Age in upcoming season: 32
DICK BUTKUS Seasons: 9
Age in final season: 31
Age in final season: 32
Age in final season: 34