His hits landed with an audible thud. His fiery pregame speeches provided motivation for two Super Bowl-winning teams. He was revered in Baltimore and jeered everywhere else.
For 17 seasons, Ray Lewis’ NFL career was defined by noise. As he nears entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lewis finds himself seeking the opposite.
“When the completion of things started to rattle off in my life and I started to take a hard look at what I accomplished, I just want to sit in silence,” Lewis, 42, said. “I ride in my car now with silence unless I’m playing jazz music. I don’t watch anything on television that confuses where I am right now. I chase so many sunsets.”
On Saturday, five years after he played his final game in the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Lewis is expected to be announced as a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.
Lewis’ candidacy will be reviewed by a selection committee and the conversation about him is expected to be brief. One of the best defensive players of his generation and perhaps the top middle linebacker in NFL history, Lewis is considered a near lock to join fellow 1996 draft pick Jonathan Ogden as the only homegrown Ravens to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s the most humbling and nerve-wracking thing you’ll ever go through in your life,” Lewis said. “If the knock comes on my door, I enter football heaven. I sit with the greats of all greats.”
Lewis’ career had a humble beginning and a storybook ending. His legacy, though, is complicated.
For many fans outside Baltimore, Lewis’ reputation will forever be marred by a 2000 altercation in Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV that left two men dead. He was initially charged with murder but eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Although he became one of the NFL’s most celebrated faces in the aftermath, the specter of Atlanta loomed in national coverage as Lewis announced that he was going to retire and prepared to play his last games in 2013.
Last year, the retired linebacker showed he has not lost his touch for controversy. He interjected himself into the Ravens’ debate over signing Colin Kaepernick and subsequently kneeled alongside a dozen Ravens as the U.S. national anthem played before the team’s game in London. That action spurred more than 80,000 people to sign a petition calling for owner Steve Bisciotti to remove the statue of Lewis from outside M&T Bank Stadium.
Still, Lewis remains synonymous with the only organization for which he played and helped provide an identity. Lewis’ elaborate pregame dance essentially became the official start of a football Sunday in Baltimore.
“Ray is one of the ultimate football players,” said Ed Reed, Lewis’ longtime Ravens sidekick. “You’re talking about a guy who dedicated his time, his effort, his time away from his family, his body for the game of football. Ray knew he was a great football player, and he became a great artist at playing football.”
He made the Pro Bowl in 13 of his 17 seasons and was a seven-time first-team All Pro. Lewis won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis’ impact is revealed by the number of his defensive coordinators and linebacker coaches who got head coaching jobs, his defensive teammates who received big contracts and the next generation of Ravens and other NFL linebackers who patterned their game after him.
“Even to this day, most people identify the Ravens with defense and a lot of that, if not most of it, emanates from what Ray brought to the table. He made a lot of people around him better,” said Phil Savage, the Ravens’ director of college scouting from 1996 to 2002 and later their director of player personnel. “Ray had a big impact on the league beyond just the playing field. He put people in position to have positions of influence throughout the NFL. He had a quarterback-like impact on the league and that’s very difficult to do from the defensive side of the ball.”
A diamond in the rough
As a young area scout still finding his footing in 1996, Lionel Vital watched Lewis closely during the 1995 college season. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he thought. “He was like a one-man gang on a good defense.” His initial scouting report, though, was treated with skepticism. Lewis didn’t have elite speed and he weighed 220 pounds soaking wet, not an eye-catching combination for an NFL middle linebacker.
But Vital had backing from veteran linebackers coach, Maxie Baughan. Weeks before the draft, Baughan traveled to Miami to work Lewis out. The only problem was Lewis was in Tampa. As Miami officials tried to reach Lewis, other NFL coaches and scouts grew tired of waiting and left. Not Baughan.
“We kept vigil,” Baughan said. “It took a whole day to get that straightened out and I was the one who waited. I’m glad I did.”
Baughan asked every linebacker prospect to drop and then pivot as if he were covering a running back up the sideline. Baughan then threw the ball as far as he could to test the linebacker’s speed and ball skills. Not once did he get a ball over Lewis’ head.
“Only guy in 20 something years that I coached that I couldn’t throw it over his head,” Baughan said.
The 1996 draft started with a bang for the Ravens. Ogden, the mammoth tackle from UCLA, fell to the fourth pick and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome took him. The Ravens wanted a cog for the middle of their defense with their pick at No. 26. The player they coveted was taken by the Detroit Lions nine spots earlier.
With the Ravens on the clock, Lewis was the best linebacker on their board. But he expected to play somewhere else. Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, who was selecting 27th, called to say he’d be selected by the Packers.
“I’m telling everybody in the suite, ‘I’m going to be a Green Bay Packer,’ ” Lewis said. “Next thing you know, the 26th pick is up, and I see my name called. Ozzie Newsome calls and says, ‘Ray, this is Ozzie Newsome. Congratulations, I’m drafting you to Baltimore.’ ”
Lewis and Newsome still joke about Lewis’ response. “Baltimore, who?” Lewis asked, a fair question given that the franchise didn’t have a name or a logo yet.
Wolf, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and a three-time Super Bowl-winning executive, said he’s thought about how his career might have been different if the Packers had gotten Lewis.
“We thought we had him. Lo and behold, those Ravens snuck in there and picked him,” Wolf said. “I probably would have been a classified genius had we gotten him, but it wasn’t to be. It’s fun in this business when your evaluation is correct about a player. Our evaluation of Ray Lewis was right on.”
The weekend after the 1996 draft, a group of Ravens rookies filed off a bus and into the team’s Westminster facility and were put through a workout. Most of the rookies struggled through 10 towel pullups. Lewis took his shirt off, briefly stretched his arms and then asked what the record was for pullups. Strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons informed him they were a new franchise, so there was no record.
Lewis jumped up to the bar and effortlessly pushed out 30.
“Jonathan Ogden was the first pick, but Ray took over the leadership from the moment he got off that bus,” said Vital, now the director of college scouting for the Dallas Cowboys. “He elevated and changed everybody that worked with him — his coaches, his teammates. He carried the franchise to almost where it is today.”
Lewis was so assertive in the summer minicamps that the Ravens released starting middle linebacker Pepper Johnson in early July. The message was clear: It was Lewis’ defense. He flourished with 95 tackles as a rookie and a Pro Bowl berth in his second season.
“One of the first practices we had, we’re doing a 9-on-7 drill. It was one of the first days we had pads on and [head coach] Brian Billick was like, ‘OK, this is a thud period,’ ” longtime Ravens defensive coach Rex Ryan said, recalling an incident in 1999. “We had this running back — Errict Rhett, I think is his name — and he used to run his mouth all the time. He runs through the line and Ray hits him so hard that it literally sounded like a gun went off. I’m like, ‘God dog, I’ve never seen anybody get hit like this!’ ”
Lewis was already a three-time Pro Bowl selection when his career nearly ended in Atlanta in 2000. When Lewis returned to Baltimore and started preparing for the season, his legal problems mostly behind him, teammates and coaches noticed the changes.
“He was sitting in my office as low as any person could be,” said Marvin Lewis, the Ravens defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001 and the current Cincinnati Bengals head coach. “He just turned to me and said, ‘I want to learn the game how you know the game, I want to be the best, the ultimate linebacker who knows everything about the position.’ That day, we just stood at the blackboard literally for hours drawing things up on the board. It was incredible. He was at the crossroads of his life and he wanted to make football full time, all the time. That day was a major turning point in his life."
In the 2000 season, Ray Lewis led a record-setting defense that pummeled the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Coming full circle
Lewis doesn’t talk a lot about his sports idols. He’ll bring up Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali on occasion, and he has great admiration for Michael Jordan. It still pains Lewis that Jordan ended his career with the Washington Wizards and not the Chicago Bulls.
“The day Jordan put on another uniform, I made up my mind that I will never put on another uniform,” said Lewis, who earned about $95 million during his playing career, according to Spotrac.com, which tracks professional sports financials.
Newsome allowed Lewis to test the market as a free agent in 2009. That’s when Ryan was preparing for his first season as the New York Jets head coach. His team needed a middle linebacker and he signed Ravens free agent Bart Scott instead.
“Whether he would have come with us or not, I don’t know. There was no way I was going to do it,” Ryan said. “Ray Lewis was and is the Baltimore Ravens. The fact he only played with one color jersey, that’s appropriate. When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, you think of one person ... and that’s Ray Lewis.”
In Lewis’ last game, the defense that had been the backbone of the franchise for most of his tenure staged a goal-line stand to turn aside the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII and help the Ravens win their second championship. Two days later, Lewis’ “last ride” ended on a Humvee traveling through downtown Baltimore, throngs of Ravens fans celebrating the team’s Super Bowl win.
Saturday marks the five-year anniversary of his last game. The Hall of Fame announcement is on the eve of Super Bowl 52, the number he made famous. In those recent moments where he’s retreated into silence, Lewis has thought long and hard about what it all means, especially to his family. He was raised by a single mom and has six kids.
“It’s one of the greatest rewards I can give my mom. It’s one of the greatest lessons I can teach my kids. And it’s one of the greatest accomplishments I can share with Baltimore and Ray Lewis fans,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody will appreciate this moment the way I appreciate this moment right now.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Preston contributed to this article.
Ray Lewis at a glance
Born: May 15, 1975, in Bartow, Fla. Grew up in Lakeland, Fla.
College: University of Miami
Drafted: 1996 first round, No. 26 with the Ravens’ second pick
Career: 1996-2012 (17 seasons, 228 games), all with Ravens. Final game was Super Bowl win over San Francisco 49ers, Feb. 3, 2013.
Highlights: Two-time Super Bowl champion, including Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV; two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year; 13 Pro Bowls; seven All-Pro teams; 2,643 career tackles; only player in the NFL history with at least 40 career sacks (41.5) and 30 career interceptions (31)
Career earnings: Approximately $95 million, according to Spotrac.com, which tracks professional sports financials
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Family: Four sons, two daughters