Ray Lewis had given countless speeches like this before so when he walked toward the front of the team auditorium Wednesday morning and started talking about brotherhood and seizing the moment, nothing seemed particularly amiss to his Ravens’ teammates.
Lewis then said something that was every bit as jarring as one of the trademark hits that he delivered during his 17-year career. He told his teammates that he was retiring following the end of the Ravens’ playoff run, which begins Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.
“Everybody was just pale-faced and shocked,” Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones said. “He threw the curveball at us and then guys just sat there, not sure what to do. We had another meeting, but guys had to sit there for a minute and try to gather themselves.”
Very few — if any — of his teammates even knew that Lewis, who will return to the field for the playoff opener Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium after missing the Ravens’ last 10 games because of a torn right triceps, was planning to retire. Their initial reaction was a mixture of shock and sadness.
Running back Ray Rice, who is one of Lewis’ closest friends on the team, fought back tears as he discussed the impact that one of the game’s best middle linebackers had on his career.
“It’s just one of those days where you just don’t prepare for these kinds of things,” Rice said. “Emotions, everything, we could talk about all of that. We will give all we’ve got Sunday for Ray. We owe it to him. We owe it to the organization. He’s done it for 17 years. What he gave to this city, what he gave to his fans, what they’ve given back to him, it’s something that I got to witness.”
Normally playful and always good for a quip heading into a big game, veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs was especially subdued. He and several other Ravens, including head coach John Harbaugh, Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith, stood behind reporters to hear Lewis’ 20-plus minute interview. It was the first time the 37-year-old had spoken to the media since sustaining the triceps injury in Week 6, and there was certainly no hint going in that he was prepared to announce his retirement.
“It was sad. I’m not going to lie to you. It affected me because for the past 10 years of my career, I’ve been sitting right next to the man and going to war on Sundays with the man,” Suggs said. “It definitely affected me a little bit. When he went up there [in the team meeting], I thought we were getting our, ‘Let’s go on a run to the playoffs,’ speech. Not that. Come Sunday, it will be the last time, potentially, he and I will be at M&T together. It was very sad, but now the emphasis is on getting the job done. It’s going to be one hard last ride and we need to make it one to remember.”
Lewis has played in 228 career regular-season games with the Ravens and Sunday will mark his 18th career postseason game. In recent years, speculation would begin this time of year that Lewis could be getting ready for the final game of his likely Hall of Fame career. But his teammates always shrugged that off, knowing how hard the middle linebacker worked and how much the competition and camaraderie mattered to him.
“We all thought the great Ray Lewis was going to play forever,” Suggs said. “I thought he was going to surpass Brett Favre and still be out there doing it well into his 40s.”
Lewis who turns 38 in May, acknowledged that the hardest part of his pending retirement was leaving his teammates behind. Even more than being named Super Bowl XXXV MVP, earning 13 Pro Bowl selections and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, Lewis said that he will cherish more the relationships that he built. Lewis became a “Godfather” of sorts to teammates and opponents alike, who went to him for advice and inspiration.
“I realized that I can do a lot of things to be great individually but I wanted to be known differently,” Lewis said. “I wanted to make men better.”
Rice said that after he was drafted by the Ravens in 2008, Lewis embraced him as if he was one of his sons. Countless other Ravens talked about the advice that Lewis dispensed and the motivating pep talks that he has given.
Torrey Smith met Lewis long before he became a Raven two years ago because he was a teammate of Lewis’ brother, Keon Lattimore, at the University of Maryland.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s Ray Lewis!’ I got here and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s my teammate.’ And that’s the way he likes it,” Smith said. “I respect him as a player, but just … what he meant to me as a person, he talked to me about a lot of different things. I’ve been through a lot of insane things growing up and even now, so just having him as someone to kind of lean on and talk to, as an older guy and a mentor, it has been a blessing.”
Asked if he was surprised that Lewis was retiring, Smith said, “You can’t be stunned. He’s played so long. He was playing when I was six. To understand that, I feel like a baby being there around him.”
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The Ravens have gotten a snapshot for life after Lewis the past two seasons as he missed four games last year because of a toe injury and he was sidelined for the final 10 regular-season contests this year. Now, their goal is to send him out in the best possible way.
“Ray is a guy who helped start it,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “He's a guy who played this game with reckless abandonment. He has built this. He is the face of this. Everybody in this surrounding area and Baltimore knows Ray Lewis and what this guy has done. He's been there, he's done that. It's an honor to say I suited up with that cat and went to battle with him.”
Then, Pollard added, “We need to get to Louisiana for him.”
New Orleans is the site of this year’s Super Bowl and what the Ravens hope will be Lewis’ last game. But they are going to have to get through Sunday first in what will certainly be an emotional scene for Ravens’ players and fans alike.
“That’s when it’s going to hit me the most, that’s when I think it’s going to hit the city of Baltimore the most, that it could be possibly his last time coming out of the tunnel,” Rice said. “I just really can’t prepare for that. The emotions are going to be too rough to even think about because Baltimore is Ray Lewis.”