Baltimore Ravens

Coaches, players throughout the NFL salute Ray Lewis

The news of Ravens legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis' upcoming retirement triggered plenty of strong reactions around the league.

Respect, homage and sadness were all expressed upon learning that the defensive icon will walk away from the game after 17 years, two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and one Super Bowl victory where he was honored as the Most Valuable Player for his hard-hitting contributions.

"It will definitely be a blow to the league to lose another guy like Ray Lewis," Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. "He definitely inspired me, just the passion and how he's dedicated to his craft to be the best. To lose a guy that is so inspirational with his words and how he has approached the game is going to be tough. That's definitely what makes him the best linebacker to ever play the game. He will never be forgotten. He will be missed always."

Lewis' rich legacy is defined by tackles punishing enough to break running backs' collarbones, and an intimidating stare that spawned fear in quarterbacks.

During his younger days, Lewis' speed allowed him to routinely chase down running backs and wide receivers he dwarfed in size. Lewis' game was much more than brawn and athleticism, though.

The 37-year-old defensive star was an emotional, inspirational force who played the game with a child's joy and a wise man's knowledge gleaned through countless hours studying his opponents.

"Tremendous player, tremendous career," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "He's had a great career, he's a great player."

With Lewis' retirement papers to be filed with the league during the offseason, the countdown starts toward his future enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lewis is regarded as a lock to become a first-ballot selection in five years when he'll become eligible for Hall voters to induct him into the Hall of Fame that's located in Canton, Ohio.

"The game is built around linebackers, and Ray Lewis is one of the best," said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker. "His attitude was like mine, he loved to hit people, and he wouldn't come out of the game. Like me, he set the standard for middle linebackers, but he played longer than most. He was special."

Some of the notable mementos from Lewis' career are already in the Hall's collection of memorabilia, waiting for him to join them. That includes Lewis' Super Bowl XXXV Most Valuable Player jersey, a signed game ball from that victory over the New York Giants and the cleats and gloves he wore on Oct. 16, 2011, when he became the first NFL player to register 40 career sacks and 30 interceptions.

When Lewis dons the yellow jacket in Canton, he'll join the other standard bearers at middle linebacker, greats like Huff, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke, Joe Schmidt, Chuck Bednarik, Jack Lambert,
Willie Lanier and Harry Carson.

 In terms of longevity, 13 Pro Bowl selections and the production of 2,643 tackles, 31 interceptions and 41.5 sacks, Lewis' production trumps the luminaries from past eras of football. Statistics for tackles and sacks weren't officially kept back then, though.

"Ray Lewis became not only the face of the Ravens organization, but, with Ray as their centerpiece, he created an identity for the franchise as a defensive team," Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan said. "Like Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Joe Schmidt, Ray was the quarterback of the defense. He earned his teammates' respect and confidence. They believed in him because of his leadership skills and abilities.

"It's always difficult to compare players from different eras, but he was certainly a dominant player. Was he as dominant at his position as Lawrence Taylor? He's certainly right up there. It's hard to imagine him not being in the Hall as soon as he can be, but that's up to the voters."

Lewis, who's attempting to make his comeback from surgery on a torn right triceps that sidelined him for the past 10 games after recently being activated from the injured reserve-designated to return list as
the Ravens prepare for Sunday's opening-round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, was particularly impactful in big games.

He throttled the Giants in the Super Bowl. He overwhelmed  Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George on the road to the Ravens' lone Vince Lombardi trophy.

"One of the top five guys maybe to play the position," said ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, a former Denver
Broncos linebacker. "When you look at his career, what he was able to accomplish over the years, the longevity, the excellence, you start doing a shell game with those top five guys to play the game, Ray Lewis is somewhere in there."

One of Lewis' trademarks was his diligence about conditioning, constantly challenging the limits of his body through strenuous workouts that including running hills with heavy dumbbells in each hand, swimming, cycling, martial arts and yoga.

Lewis did everything possible to ward off the end of his career and remain a viable player even when his range and durability declined in recent years.

"I thought, 'Shoot, the guy could play forever and would play forever,'" said Colts coach Chuck Pagano, a former Baltimore defensive coordinator. "He's obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he'll be sorely missed. He took great care of himself. Nobody trained as hard. He knew that was the only way to be able to stay and play at the level that he was able to play at and be as productive as he was in the latter years. It's just a testament to his work ethic."

Lewis' career 50 takeaways ranks second all-time among linebackers with only Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham with 53 ranking ahead of him.

Only six players, including Lewis, won more than one NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

"You can't say football without Ray Lewis," said former University of Miami teammate Warren Sapp, an NFL Network analyst. "He provides a comfort that you can't outrun him, you're not going over the top ofhim, you're not going to go through him."

Lewis is the NFL's active career leader for tackles ahead of London Fletcher, who has 2,361 tackles while playing a dozen more games than the Ravens veteran.

"He's a great player who has achieved and done it all," Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "Anything you can ask for in a middle linebacker, he's done it all and beyond."

In AFC North competition, Lewis thrived, including 273 career tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, five interceptions and 22 pass deflections against the Bengals.

"He's had a tremendous career, tremendous mpact," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Ray Lewis' former defensive coordinator in Baltimore."His mentorship to other players, his leadership is hard to describe. I had a chance to visit with him briefly before Sunday's game. I said to myself, 'He doesn't look a day older than when we drafted him. I'm happy for him. It's disappointing for the game after what he's done."

He also has an extensive Rolodex of phone numbers,talking football and life constantly with younger players like San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis.

Lewis became known for his trademark "Squirrel" dance prior to kickoff and for his fire-and-brimstonespeeches to exhort his teammates.

"When I played with the Ravens, you didn't want to let Ray Lewis down, no matter the situation," Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said. "You wanted to win at all costs."

Lewis' passion for the game left a lasting impression.

He won't be forgotten.

"In the era of football where the money dominates the minds of each individual that plays the game, there is a dollar sign hanging over everybody's head," Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson said. "Ray Lewis found a way to motivate grown men, who make millions of dollars, go out there and dedicate themselves for 60 minutes and sometimes put their bodies on the line in a way that not every other individual can do. I'm a guy that is a rah-rah guy and I watched Ray Lewis tapes to get myself ready tomotivate my team."

How does Ray Lewis stack up with Hall of Fame linebackers?

As Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis prepares to retire after this season, here's a look at how the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year stacks up against a handful of legendary middle linebackers already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During most older players' eras, the NFL didn't keep statistics for sacks and tackles. The earliest that Lewis is eligible for Canton as a first-ballot selection would be the Hall of Fame Class of 2018:

Seasons Honors Tackles Interceptions Sacks  
Ray Lewis 17 13 Pro Bowls 2,643 31 41.5
Dick Butkus 9 8 Pro Bowls 1,022 22  NA
Mike Singletary 12 10 Pro Bowls 1,488 19 7
Chuck Bednarik 14 8 Pro Bowls NA 20 NA
Jack Lambert 11 9 Pro Bowls 1,479 28 NA
Ray Nitschke 15 3 Pro Bowls NA 25 NA

-- Aaron Wilson