The key to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' longevity? Hard work.

About a month after last season ended, Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano received a text from a friend that read: "I'm watching one of your players run in the sand for an hour."

Later that morning, another text flashed on Pagano's phone: "Now, I'm watching your player swim 30 minutes in the ocean."

When Pagano finally asked for the name of the player, it was as if he already knew the answer: Ray Lewis.

The enduring face of the franchise is entering his 16th season — a feat impressive for any NFL player, much less an inside linebacker — and the secret of Lewis' longevity is really no secret at all.

The 36-year-old Lewis prides himself on outworking everyone, whether it's on the field, in film study or inside the weight room.

Lewis' 210 games played rank fourth-most among active players, but the others ahead of him are a kicker (Jason Hanson), long snapper (David Binn) and fullback (Tony Richardson). None of them have been in as many high-impact collisions or logged as many plays as Lewis.

That's why coaches praise him and players look up to him. Even baseball's "Iron Man" admires Lewis' durability.

"The fact that Ray has been able to play the game at such a high level for so long is amazing to me," said Cal Ripken, who holds the baseball record for consecutive games played at 2,632. "His passion for football is clear and I would imagine that it is that love of the game that keeps him going so strong. As a Ravens fan, I have enjoyed watching him play since his career began here in Baltimore."

Just like no one can talk about Orioles history without mentioning Ripken, the same goes for Lewis.

He is the longest-tenured Raven on this roster by six seasons (Ed Reed is second). The Ravens actually selected Ray Lewis in the draft before they had selected their team colors.

Lewis did not play in the Ravens' second preseason game, a 31-13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T Stadium Friday night, because he has been excused from team activities to deal with a serious family medical issue. He rarely misses time due to injury; he has played in 14 or more games in all but two of his 15 seasons.

Lewis is the team's ultimate survivor, lasting through three head coaches, two salary-cap purges (2002 and this year) and one trip into free agency. This year's first-round pick, cornerback Jimmy Smith, was 8-years-old when Lewis played his first NFL game.

While few players have lasted as long as Lewis, even fewer have been playing as well at this stage of their careers. Lewis was the highest-rated defensive player in an NFL Network poll of current players and ranked No. 4 overall behind Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson.

"He's still playing as well as any middle linebacker in football today," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I want him to play as long as he wants to play, and I think he'll know when it's time. But as he has told me before, it's not time."

Trying to figure out that "time" is as difficult as breaking a Lewis tackle.

He recently said he may retire this year if the Ravens win a Super Bowl, but he doesn't guarantee it.

"I don't know when it will all be over for me," Lewis told CBS Sports. "People want to use my age against me. They say I'm too old. People fear getting old. I don't fear that because now I have wisdom and a tough body to go with that wisdom."

When Lewis will end his Hall of Fame career has been a hot topic in recent years.

Four months ago, Lewis hinted that he will play for two more seasons, telling the NFL Network that he can't see playing football past 37. His contract runs through 2015.

"People would always ask me about when Ray would retire and I used to say, 'Next year," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Now, I don't even say anything. I don't even guess. To me, he could play 25 more years because he comes in every year in better and better and better shape."

No other great middle linebacker has played as along as Lewis.

Mike Singletary retired 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.

One of the reasons why Lewis can continue to take the field is how he takes care of his body off of it.

His offseason regimens over the years have included kickboxing, martial arts, swimming and wrestling. This past year, he's even picked up cycling because it improves cardio-vascular conditioning "without all that pounding."

"My world is a violent world," Lewis said. "That's why I train so hard. I don't know if I have ever found a man on this Earth that would flat-out outwork me."

Lewis can talk boldly after playing in 1,111 snaps last season. He missed only five of the Ravens' total defensive snaps and that was due to a thumb injury.

His 12th Pro Bowl season included 139 tackles (sixth-most in the NFL), two interceptions (including one for a touchdown), two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

There has been talk within the organization of reducing Lewis' snaps to extend his career. When asked if the Ravens are thinking about lessening Lewis' workload, Pagano said, "You can't take him out of there. It would take a tractor and chain to pull him off the field. Because all of those other guys feed off his energy, he raises everyone else's bar. They see No. 52 on all of those downs and it's all about accountability — we're not going to let this guy down."

Criticism of Lewis and his play appears to increase with each passing year, which only motivates him more to keep playing and proving them wrong.

"I listen to people that say, 'Oh, he lost a step,' " Lewis said. "Then you go watch film yourself and you see why players say he's still the best in the game. Bottom line, it's about making plays. It's not about running a fast 40. I'm not trying to run against Usain Bolt.

"As long as I take care of my body and I love the game like I did from Day One, I can honestly play as long as I want." 1. Jason Hanson, DetroitKicker2952. David Binn, San DiegoLong snapper2563. Tony Richardson, N.Y.JetsFullback2344. Ray Lewis, RavensLinebacker2105. Peyton Manning, IndianapolisQuarterback208A list of the most games played by active NFL players:

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad