Preston: Ray Lewis will retire as the greatest middle linebacker to play the game

There is really only one more appropriate ending for the Ravens' Ray Lewis, and that won't come for another five years when he takes his place in the NFL Hall of Fame as the greatest middle linebacker ever.

Lewis, 37, made the announcement Wednesday he will retire at the end of the season, and even though it was a sad day for Baltimore sports fans, it was a great one also.


Unlike John Unitas, Baltimore's other immortal football player, Lewis gets to end his career in a Ravens uniform. No other city or team will get to see him do his introductory dance which will be on display one last time Sunday when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC wild-card game at M&T Bank Stadium.

Often in sports we use the word great, but that should be reserved for players who transcend the game and re-invent the position.


That was Ray Lewis, a.k.a 52.

There have been other great ones like Chicago's Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, Pittsburgh's Jack Lambert, Kansas City's Willie Lanier, Philadelphia's Chuck Bednarik and the New York Giants' Sam Huff, but none of them were the complete package like Lewis.

Some were smart like Huff and Bednarik. Others were bruisers like Butkus and Lambert. Lanier could run and so could Singletary, but none of them would be on the field in third-down passing situations in today's game. Ray Lewis could do it all.

"I think Butkus was the best at stopping the run, but Ray Lewis could stop the run or get back in to play pass defense," said former Baltimore Colts running back Tom Matte, who played against most of the top middle linebackers. "He had such speed and agility. I'm prejudice of course, but there was none better.


"I'm happy to see him retiring as a Raven. He is the last of a dying breed, a player who never wanted to play anywhere else."

Lewis was exceptional because he was the first middle linebacker who could run sideline to sideline and still cover a tight end or running back one-on-one down the field.

He was never a brute who was going to shock and shed tacklers, but his game was one of power, speed and finesse. He studied and prepared for every game as if it was his last, and he made others great around him.

It didn't seem like Lewis would make this incredible Hall of Fame journey when he arrived in Baltimore 17 years ago. On his first day here, he sat in the hallway at the team's old training facility in Owings Mills wearing a blue pinstriped suit, dark sunglasses and several gold chains around his neck.

He looked like he weighed about 220 pounds.

"That is going to be your middle linebacker?," I asked Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome at the time. "Damn, he is skinny."

"Yes," replied Newsome. "Wait 'til you see the finished product."

It's been 13 Pro Bowls, one Super Bowl trophy and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards since. Lewis is only the sixth player in NFL history to win the Player of the Year award multiple times, and the only middle linebacker except Singletary.

And here's something else that separates Lewis from the others: He played 17 years. Few of the great ones come close to his longevity.

There are other intangibles which made Lewis great. In his prime, former Ravens head coaches Ted Marchibroda and Brian Billick had to slow him down in practice because he always played at game speed.

Remember in 1997when we all held our collective breath after he collided with fullback Kenyon Cotton in practice and there was speculation Lewis might have suffered a severe neck injury?

Lewis challenged and dared his teammates to be great and he often delivered the pre-game "boomalachers", the famed speech entitled "Where Would You Rather Be?", before a lot of big games.

"He never disappointed," said Marvin Lewis, the Bengals head coach and Lewis' first defensive coordinator in Baltimore. "He always said he wanted to learn the game as a coach and he was motivated to be the best. He made everybody else better and he took the leadership role on his shoulders even as a young player."

Through 17 years, Lewis left a trail of battered bodies. He tackled Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenall so hard that he broke his collarbone in 2008. Against Cincinnati in 2000, Lewis was so destructive on the field that running back Corey Dillon declined to go back in the game late in the fourth quarter.

The next day, Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet was fired.

Lewis might be the only defensive player to hit former Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis so hard that he once knocked him backwards. In the 2000 AFC divisional round, Lewis pile drived quarterback Steve McNair into the turf late in the game, and also train wrecked running back Eddie George several times. He single-handedly killed the Titans franchise for several years and basically forced George into early retirement.

"Those were two special moments, when he laid out Eddie George one-on-one in the open field and then when he intercepted that pass and returned it for a touchdown," said Marvin Lewis of the playoff game against the Titans.

The turning point in Lewis' career came on September 29, 1997, when San Diego running back Eric Metcalf caught a pass in the left flat and darted over the middle. Lewis changed directions and ran Metcalf down after a 62-yard gain to the Ravens' 12-yard line.

Metcalf had been timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.3, but Lewis caught him and pulled him down with one hand. Middle linebackers weren't supposed to run that fast.

That's when you knew the Ravens had something special in No. 52.

Through the years, I've had a good relationship with Lewis. There have been some rocky times in the past couple of seasons because I saw a player starting to lose some of the attributes which had made him great.

But at least in every practice I've watched since the team moved here for the 1996 season, and there have been many, I always took the time, even for 10 to 15 minutes, to watch Lewis and future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden practice.

That was my privilege, my honor to watch greatness at work.

I often wondered how this on the field marriage between Lewis and the Ravens would end. I didn't want to see him go out like Unitas, gimpy legged and wearing a San Diego Chargers uniform.

I'm actually glad to see Lewis come back from injury. I'm glad he'll come out of the tunnel one more time to dance because it's something we all can savor one more time.

It's fitting for the fans, the city and Ray Lewis, the greatest middle linebacker to ever play the game.