The celebration had already started as Ray Lewis and fellow linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made the short drive to M&T Bank Stadium for the last time that Lewis, at least as an active player, would ever walk into the house he has protected all these years. Ravens fans all across the spectrum dusted off their No. 52 jerseys, leaving newer, less-faded ones of teammates a decade younger in their closets. A billboard thanking Lewis for 17 years of passion was erected within walking distance of the stadium. On his way into his house, Lewis passed through a tunnel of purple, dozens of fans yelling out his name while reaching out to put their fingertips on the living legend's crisp black suit. As he warmed up on the field before the game, the stadium was uncharacteristically filled as fans folded up their tailgates early to take in the scene. After bumping into offensive linemen Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda, he walked over to the sideline, where he wrapped his arms, glistening with sweat, around the greatest Olympian of our -- and probably any -- lifetime, Michael Phelps, who credits Lewis for inspiring him to win another half dozen gold medals last year. Lewis crouched in the middle of a ring of Ravens players, screaming out a battle cry as young players such as Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones and Anthony Allen listened intently. After hugging Smith, guard Bobbie Williams and linebacker Terrell Suggs, Lewis was the last of the Ravens off the field, and his descent to the locker room was stalled by more embraces with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. An NFL Films camera crew, which strapped a microphone to Lewis Sunday, trailed him all the way. About an hour later, nearly every cell phone in the bleachers was being held in the air as the defensive starters were announced. Finally, after safety Ed Reed bolted out of the tunnel, it was time for maybe the most anticipated moment the stadium had ever seen. Nelly blared. Fireworks burst. Goosebumps crept their way up the arms and legs of everyone in the building, from fans -- including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Orioles All-Star Adam Jones, Phelps, and actor Josh Charles -- and impartial media members to his Ravens teammates and their opponents. As Lewis did his signature pre-game dance one last time, the stadium was as loud as it has ever been, at least before an opening kickoff had been booted. And believe it or not, Lewis played better than expected, especially considering the 37-year-old had missed the past three months with a torn right triceps, one that was supported Sunday by a black arm brace that looked like something out of "Iron Man." The Indianapolis Colts felt his presence early when Lewis barged into the backfield and tackled running back Vick Ballard for a loss. He would record a game-high 13 tackles and he would later lament dropping an easy interception on a tipped pass. But his return no doubt inspired his teammates one more time, though it won't be the last. With the 24-9 win, the Ravens advance to play the Denver Broncos in the divisional round Saturday. Fifty-two ain't done yet. But this was the last time we will see Lewis, up close and personal, at M&T Bank Stadium, where he has poured his heart out for years. Because of that night in Atlanta more than a decade ago, Lewis will leave behind a complicated legacy, but it has been an honor to cover Lewis the player, arguably the greatest middle linebacker in football history. And you can't deny the impact that Lewis has had on the city of Baltimore, which said goodbye the right way Sunday. It was obvious that the outcry of love, thanks and appreciation touched Lewis, as a combination of sweat and tears smeared his eye black as he did a victory lap around the stadium after the game. "Everything I did to get back, if it wasn't for my team, it was for my city," Lewis said after the game. "If my effort can give you hope, faith or love, then so be it. I'll give everything I have." You have, Ray, and your city, inspired one last time, loves you for it.
Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.