He wanted to become such a great player that one day, people would talk about him the way his granddad talked about Jim Brown and other legends of the NFL.
On Friday, the day before his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lewis got to feel like that little kid again. At a luncheon for the 2018 class and past inductees, the former Ravens great came face to face with Dick Butkus and “Mean” Joe Greene.
Butkus was the great Chicago Bears middle linebacker to whom Lewis was often compared. Greene was the face of the “Steel Curtain” defenses that defined the Pittsburgh Steelers long before they became Lewis’ archrivals.
“What I just soaked in for two and a half hours was what I dreamed as a child,” Lewis said during a session with reporters after the luncheon. “I have never in my life experienced this level of greatness and this level of respect from people everybody wants to make you compete against. … But you walk in that room, we’re all one.”
Later Friday, Lewis would receive the honorary gold jacket given to all Hall of Famers at a ceremonial dinner gathering past inductees.
He’ll speak last at the enshrinement ceremony, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday night. Fans who didn’t make the trip to Canton can watch on ESPN or the NFL Network. Lewis’ daughter, Diaymon, will introduce him.
The famously loquacious Lewis said there’s “no way” he’ll stick to the recommended 15 minutes for his speech. He predicted high emotion over a 22-25-minute talk.
Lewis will anchor a class that includes former Houston Oilers linebacker Robert Brazile, former Washington Redskins executive Bobby Beathard, former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins and former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss.
Wide receiver Terrell Owens is also a 2018 inductee, but he chose not to attend the ceremonies this week.
Lewis spoke glowingly of his fellow inductees, from contemporaries such as Urlacher and Dawkins, to old-school linebacker Brazile, whose career he said he recently researched.
“This class, it’s a beautiful class from day one,” he said. “This is a hard class, a really talented class.”
The admiration flowed back toward him.
“I was a fan,” Urlacher said of his appreciation for Lewis. “When we played other teams with good players, I was a fan. … I would stand and watch the other team’s defense. I watched Ray.”
He joked that when the Bears played the Ravens at Soldier Field in 2005, Lewis blamed him personally for the season-ending injury he suffered in the game, even though they were never on the field at the same time.
“There was a little rivalry there, but I think also mutual respect,” Urlacher said.
Brazile said he pulled away from the game for a long time after his career ended.
But he was at his mother’s house in Mobile, Ala., one Sunday when she said, “Come here and sit down.” On the screen in front of her was a Ravens game.
“See that boy right there, No. 52,” she told her son. “He can play.”
Brazile took a gander and quickly agreed. “I grew to be a Ray Lewis fan,” he said.
Lewis was the second player drafted in Ravens history behind left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Ozzie Newsome selected both in the first round in 1996, the team’s initial season in Baltimore.
Ogden went into the Hall of Fame in 2013, a few months after Lewis wrapped up his 17-year career with a victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Now Lewis is joining him as a first-ballot selection, in Newsome’s final season as Ravens general manager no less.
Lewis said he and Ogden smoked cigars together earlier in the week and reminisced about what they accomplished.
“I’m like, ‘J.O., we did this,’ ” he said. “Like, ‘Bro, you went in five years ago and now I’m here.’ It was a culture that me and him walked in that locker room — and you did not like those locker rooms, trust me — but I tell you what, what we built and what we had, what I have in Baltimore personally, for me to spend my entire 17-year career in Baltimore, that was God’s plan.”
Other Hall of Famers who played with Lewis on the Ravens include safety Rod Woodson, tight end Shannon Sharpe and cornerback Deion Sanders. Newsome is in the Hall of Fame as a player.
Lewis hopes former Ravens safety Ed Reed will join him in the Hall of Fame next year, Reed’s first on the ballot, and that current Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs will add to the tally after he retires.
Lewis shared a warm hug with Suggs on the field before Thursday night’s Hall of Fame Game between the Ravens and Bears.
“For him to take that leadership, now he’s that guy,” Lewis said of the player he mentored. “That embrace, it was powerful for me because I watched the youngster that I once raised come up. And now Ed, possibly [going in] next year, it’s like me being inducted again.”
Lewis said that on the eve of his enshrinement, he felt part of a team that goes beyond the baseline brotherhood between NFL players or former Ravens.
“You can’t get cut from this team,” he said of the Hall of Fame. “Nobody can move you down from first team to second team. There ain’t no, ‘I’m better than you, you’re better than me.’ It does not matter. The only thing that matters is that you’re a Hall of Famer.”