Sports columnist Mike Preston has covered Ray Lewis pro football career from the start. He reflects on Lewis career and his induction into the Hall of Fame. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Ray Lewis never put any limits on himself. Even as a young kid growing up in Lakeland, Fla., surrounded by poverty and crime, Lewis not only told his best friend, Kwame King, that he was going to make it out, he vowed that he was going to make it big.
The second of the Ravens’ two first-round picks in their inaugural draft in 1996, Lewis set his sights not just on becoming an immediate NFL starter, he wanted to become the best middle linebacker in the NFL. After establishing himself as a perennial Pro Bowl performer, Lewis promised Ravens owner Art Modell that he’d deliver him a championship.
Lewis learned Saturday afternoon that he can now check off another box and revel in the highest individual honor of a player’s career. Exactly five years after he played his last game and went out as a Super Bowl champion, Lewis was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“It’s so fitting from this perspective: You tear your triceps in October, right, and you fight your butt off to get back and I come out and I say, ‘This is my last ride.’ Nobody knows where it ends,” Lewis said after the newest Hall of Fame class was introduced during the NFL Honors awards show. Lewis did his trademark dance after he was introduced. “Then, for it to end in New Orleans, for my last ride to walk off a football field forever a champion and then now to be here five years later and now to walk off a Hall of Famer, I don’t know who else writes that story. It’s the greatest story.”
Regarded as one of the best defensive players of his generation, Lewis’ selection was considered little more than a formality after he played 17 seasons and garnered 13 Pro Bowl selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and won two Super Bowls, earning Most Valuable Player honors for the Ravens’ victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis has talked about how much it would mean for him to be elected in his first year of eligibility and how symbolic it would be to be voted in this year. Saturday marked the five-year anniversary of the Ravens’ 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, the last of Lewis’ 249 career NFL games, including the postseason. The announcement also came on the eve of Super Bowl LII, or 52, the number that Lewis wore with distinction throughout his Ravens tenure.
“I think the most important thing was family for me, to see mom, to know the story, the journey. And I dedicated my entire career, my life to her and to share that moment today, it was different,” Lewis said. “Me and all the guys were talking about it in there because it’s this moment of finally giving mother something that now I can rest. Right. I’ve been gone a long time. Now I can finally rest.
“I want to go fishing with a cigar now and just sit back. I don’t want to work out every day now. And the second thing is growing up as a child, I know what that looks like, Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, who dreams of being that category, sitting with those guys? And to walk up there today and see all of those guys walk up there it was the most amazing thing ever to be mentioned with these guys and now we’ll be family for life.”
Lewis will head a star-studded 2018 Hall of Fame class that also includes wide receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and safety Brian Dawkins. Former Houston Oilers linebacker Robert Brazile and former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer also got in as senior finalists and ex-NFL executive Bobby Beathard was voted in as a contributor.
Moss and Urlacher join Lewis as first-ballot entries.
Now 42, Lewis will become the second homegrown Raven to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, joining offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, Ozzie Newsome’s other first-round selection in 1996.
“For 17 years, we could point to No. 52 and tell the other players: ‘Follow his lead. Practice like Ray practices. Prepare like Ray prepares. Be a great teammate like him.’ It was our privilege to have him as a Raven,” Newsome said in a statement released by the team. “We are all better for having him here. His play on game days speaks for itself. Even in that small group who have the honor of being a Hall of Famer, Ray stands out. When you talk about the great players of all time, no matter position, he is among the greatest of the great.”
Lewis attended Ogden’s Hall of Fame induction in August 2013 and said that’s the only time he’s been to the Hall of Fame.
He’ll have his induction day on Aug. 4, and there will undoubtedly be hordes of Ravens fans that descend on Canton to take it in. Ogden was a generational left tackle and the best Raven on the offensive side of the ball for much, if not all, of his career. Lewis, though, has long been known as the franchise’s iconic player, his name synonymous with the organization.
“It’s pretty clear Ray was the heart and soul of the Ravens for 17 years. If anyone is deserving of the honor, it’s Ray Lewis,” Ogden said. “As the first two draft picks in Ravens history, Ray and I came in with the same mentality that we were determined to create something special. From the beginning, the bond we shared was incredibly special. That connection is even stronger now, as everything has come full circle, and we’re able to stand side by side in the Hall of Fame.”
Years after he last played, Lewis still casts a giant shadow on the organization. A statue of Lewis in the middle of his elaborate pregame dance stands in front of M&T Bank Stadium, alongside one for former Colts great Johnny Unitas. Fans still come to the downtown stadium in droves wearing No. 52 jerseys and his presence, whether it’s at a game or a charitable event in Baltimore, garners much fanfare.
“Ray represented Ravens football perfectly. He established what it meant to ‘play like a Raven,’ which has become a standard we believe in and our fans understand,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It was an honor to coach Ray on the field and to maintain our friendship off it.”
Lewis’ passionate, hard-hitting and unrelenting style helped give a young franchise an identity that persists to this day. Lewis’ legacy is highlighted by the two Lombardi trophies that are on display just inside the front entrance of the team’s Under Armour Performance Center.
“It all comes back to Ray,” former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said this past week. “Building that tradition and sustaining it is an important factor in the Baltimore Ravens. ‘You might beat us, but you’re going to get the hell knocked out of you. You’re not going to win next week because we beat the hell out of you.’ That’s kind of the Baltimore Raven image and it starts with the guy we had there in Ray Lewis.”
After selecting Ogden fourth overall in the 1996 draft, the Ravens essentially settled on Lewis, an undersized linebacker out of the University of Miami, with the 26th pick. The linebacker they truly coveted, Texas A&M’s Reggie Brown, had been picked by the Detroit Lions nine slots earlier and Lewis was the top remaining linebacker on their board. At the time, the Ravens hoped they were getting a solid contributor to help anchor the middle of their defense. Lewis was much more than that.
He finished his career with 1,562 regular-season tackles, 41½ sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 31 interceptions and three defensive touchdowns. He’s the only player in league history to have over 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.
“Every time he stepped on the field, he was the best player on the field,” longtime Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware said.
Any review of Lewis’ playing career has to include his involvement in a post-Super Bowl XXXIV altercation in Atlanta that left two men dead. Lewis was initially charged with murder, but the charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
The early 2000 incident made Lewis one of the most scrutinized and polarizing players in the NFL. His former teammates and coaches say it also spurred a shift with the linebacker, who fully devoted himself to football. He won the first of his two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2000 and was the leader of an elite defense that smothered the Giants in the Super Bowl, making good on Lewis’ promise to get Modell a championship. Lewis waited 12 more years to win his second Super Bowl title, his self-proclaimed “last ride” ending with a Ravens coronation.
Five years ago, the Ravens completed a remarkable playoff run that capped the careers of some of the franchise’s greatest stars and seemed to seal the legacies of coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco. But their attempts to reload for another run have not gone as planned.
Beyond any statistic, Lewis, he of the fiery pregame pep talks and unrelenting work ethic, was known for his ability to inspire and elevate those around him. Capitalizing partly on Lewis’ success and the play of the team’s defense, a plethora of Ravens defensive coordinators or linebackers coaches got head coaching jobs and solid but unspectacular defensive players landed big free-agent deals elsewhere.
Younger Ravens followed Lewis’ lead, integrating themselves in his detailed film study sessions and his rigorous workouts. Safety Ed Reed was the Ravens' first-round pick in 2002, also out of Miami. He developed a close on-field relationship with Lewis that made the Ravens defense one of the gold standards in the league for nearly a decade.
Now, it’s a legitimate possibility that Lewis and Reed, who both played their final game as Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, will go into the Hall of Fame in back-to-back years. Reed is eligible next year.
“I believe my big brother is one of the greatest football players to ever put on a uniform,” Reed said. “Everything he displayed about the game — on the field and off the field — by being a leader and a constant professional truly set a great example for those around him.”