CANTON, OHIO — Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was enshrined among the legends Saturday night, but few of the inductees in the prestigious Pro Football Hall of Fame could match the pageantry or the charisma he displayed throughout his 17-year career.
Lewis socialized and marched among 103 of the Hall of Famers who attended his induction. Now that he has been presented with his gold jacket and had his bust unveiled, he will be remembered forever as one of the best to ever play the game.
But Lewis was more than just a tremendous linebacker. As the consummate professional, he was the total package of an extraordinary player who showed great leadership. His strong work ethic was a result of his overwhelming fear of failure.
He was the master entertainer who never met a camera he didn’t like.
“We have tissues in the bag for this,” said Roberta Donahue, 57, who drove from Eldersburg with her husband, Jeff, to watch the induction. “He’s the greatest football player and we’ve watched all his games. He has always been an entertainer with playmaking abilities. The leadership showed throughout his entire career.”
Every player in Canton has been recognized for his play, but some took the game to another level. Quarterback Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts brought the NFL into TV households when they beat the New York Giants in the 1958 title game, dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Quarterback Joe Namath gave the American Football League instant credibility when his New York Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III in January 1969.
And now Baltimore is back in Canton again with Lewis.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Matt Shannon, 40, a Ravens fan who lives in Columbus.
Lewis didn’t have the impact of a Unitas or Namath, but he gave the Ravens instant credibility. Former Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013, is the greatest player in team history, but Lewis became the face of an organization that has become one of the league’s best.
That wasn’t the case in 1995. The move from Cleveland to Baltimore made the Ravens the most hated team in the NFL. They had no logo, no team colors and no tradition. Worse yet, they had almost no money.
But Lewis gave the franchise energy because of his magnetic and colorful personality. He gave the Ravens swagger and eventually two Super Bowl titles — after the 2000 and 2012 seasons.
“People knew the Ravens because of my dad,” said his daughter, Diaymon, who introduced Lewis at the Hall of Fame ceremony.
And then there was the “Squirrel” dance, possibly the greatest player introductory dance in pro sports.
“The dance was cool, awesome,” Donahue said. “That dance got everyone going and it was perfect for the start of every home game.”
“People would like to see Sugar hit that thang,” said Lewis of his dance Saturday night.
Those are the things that transcended Lewis’ play on the field. He had that charisma, the showmanship and the wardrobe that put him in line with other Hall of Famers such as Deion Sanders, Deacon Jones and Namath.
Lewis was Showtime. He brought that endless amount of energy Saturday night, moving and jumping on stage. Lewis was the only inductee who wore a wireless microphone as he gave thanks to his teammates, former coaches and family members.
“Few players can bridge that gap from athlete to entertainer,” Shannon said. “I grew up a Browns fan, but I followed the team when they moved to Baltimore. I have stuff chucked at me, peanuts thrown at me when I go back [to Cleveland] for a game. Browns fans are terrible. Ray became the face of the team and has started since day one, he and J.O. It was a new team, new defensive mindset and it was all great.”
The rest of the nation has had a chance to get more of a firsthand look at Lewis this week. He has been humble at times but also arrogant. He has preached, and yet gone on some of his silly rants that make no sense.
That’s vintage Ray Lewis.
Regardless, his teammates have always admired and respected him. With Lewis, he could talk the talk and then back it up. And then he would get his teammates to believe they could pull off similar miracles. He would “lay hands” on Jacoby Jones and make him believe he could return a kickoff for a touchdown. He did. Twice in 2012.
He could sit next to running back Jamal Lewis on the bench and tell him that “this game belonged to the Lewis boys” and Jamal Lewis would break off a 60-yard rush. Those moments aren’t just fantasy but documented.
Besides the two Super Bowl titles, Ray Lewis was selected to the Pro Bowl 13 times and was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice. Eight times he finished a season with more than 100 tackles.
During Lewis’ time in Baltimore, four of the Ravens defensive coordinators became head coaches. Since he retired after the 2012 season, the Ravens have been to the playoffs only once.
There are too many to rate.
“He was just exceptional on the field,” said Dave Adams, 46, of Hanover, Pa. “There were many hits, the two Super Bowls, the final ride — all were special. We came here five years ago for J.O. and we decided then that we were going to come back when Ray got in. He had outstanding leadership, and he made everybody better.”
Lewis’ home was often the meeting place for other players to study film during the middle of the week. He practiced like he played and his offseason workouts at Oregon Ridge were legendary.
Near the end of Lewis’ career, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had to speak to him about slowing down in practice and saving himself for the games on Sundays.
He was a totally committed player.
Earlier this week at a breakfast with former Colts running back Lenny Moore, Lewis thanked him and others such as Jim Brown for paving the way for African-American players.
He has complimented and been compared to Chicago Bears legendary middle linebacker Dick Butkus and admired the leadership of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene.
But Saturday night was Lewis’ moment. Those Ravens fans in attendance had forgotten anything Lewis might have said or done in the past.
“Ray is Ray,” Shannon said laughing. “I think it was Joe Flacco who said he listens to Ray speak and never understands what he is saying. I agree. He says some crazy stuff sometimes. But I would run through a wall every time I’d hear him say something. He is a great motivator and was great for the game, as well as the Ravens.”
And that’s why he was paid the ultimate tribute Saturday.