Roger Goodell says he'll continue to use Ray Lewis as a sounding board

More than any defining play that Ray Lewis made or accolade that he earned, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will most remember the leadership that the long-time Ravens middle linebacker brought to both his team and the league.

In a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Thursday, Goodell said he was saddened but not surprised about Lewis' announcement Wednesday that this season, the linebacker's 17th, will be his last in the NFL. Goodell expressed confidence that Lewis will remain involved with the league long after he retires.

"It's very unique to have a player play 17 years in the NFL, and the second thing is to play with one team and to really, truly become the identity of the brand of football that they play," Goodell said. "It's passionate, emotional, physical. That's the kind of game Ray plays, and that's the kind of game the Ravens pattern themselves off of. That's a great thing for the Baltimore community, the Ravens' fans and for the team to have that kind of leadership. That's what it is: it's leadership. That's what he provided to the team, to the NFL and to the Baltimore community.

"There comes a time for everybody. You're saddened to have someone so special to the game of football leave the field, but I know that he's the kind of guy who will stay involved and who, one way or another, will continue to make a contribution back to the game of football. He's a special guy. Obviously, he's an incredible football player, but he's also made enormous contributions off the field."

Goodell, who began his tenure as NFL commissioner in September 2006, acknowledged that he has spoken to Lewis regularly over the years about issues facing the league and its players. Lewis has long been a sounding board for both teammates and opposing players.

"He's a tremendous voice of reason," Goodell said. "He's someone that has a unique pulse of the players and that's helpful to me. That perspective is important to hear, and he would always share that with me whether he called or I called him. ... He means a great deal to this commissioner, and I could tell you that I will always seek out his input. He will stay involved, I'm certain of it, in football and that perspective that he has is something I'll reach out for on a regular basis."

On Sunday, in a wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, Lewis, 37, is expected to play in his 247th NFL game and his his 19th postseason contest. He was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV, selected to 13 Pro Bowls and earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Lewis' career is expected to earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, when he's eligible in 2018.

Beyond that, Goodell said Lewis has provided a model on playing the game in a physical, yet clean, manner. When the league sent out tapes to teams about proper tackling techniques, it cited Lewis as a positive example.

"I think he's a great example to that point, how you can play the game in a very physical way but play it fundamentally sound, using the right techniques, techniques that are safe for you and safer for the opponent," Goodell said. "Watching him play, it's just always 110 percent effort on every play. He's giving it his all, he's got incredible passion. He's a fierce competitor and you saw that in the way he played the game. It's something I admire and I love to watch him play."

Lewis' NFL career was in jeopardy when, following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, he and two companions were involved in an altercation that resulted in the stabbing deaths of two men. Lewis was charged with first-degree murder. He ultimately pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and was fined a then-record $250,000 by the NFL.

A year later, Lewis led the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Dominant on the field, Lewis also rehabbed his image, becoming one of the faces of the league.

"It's one of the reasons I admire him so much. He was able to take obviously an unfortunate incident, and he grew from a bad situation and he made very positive changes in his life and the lives of many others. That's a great thing," Goodell said. "He's a great example of someone that can do that, and I think we should all admire that. Obviously, everyone would like to avoid making mistakes, but it's not reality in life. It's what you do and how you deal with those issues, and he's clearly been a positive influence on and off the field."