Ray Lewis has been approached many times in recent months and congratulated for his pending induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lewis warns that nothing is official yet and won't be for several months. But as someone who is always looking for a greater meaning, the former Ravens linebacker can't help but marvel at how everything has lined up.
Lewis, who played 17 seasons with the Ravens before retiring after the 2012 campaign, is eligible for the first time to be part of the 2018 Hall of Fame class. He'll learn Feb. 3 whether he's getting in, exactly five years to the day after he played his final NFL game, the Ravens' 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. The next Hall of Fame class will be unveiled on the eve of Super Bowl 52 (LII), the number Lewis made famous in Baltimore.
"I've thought about the symbolism all the way around," Lewis said in a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun. "It's so unique. That's why I sit back and it's like, 'Wait a minute. I could be going in before Super Bowl 52 and on February 3, exactly five years later?' It's one of those moments where you say, 'You know what, son, you may have really did it.'"
Lewis, fellow middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, wide receiver Randy Moss and guard Steve Hutchinson are among the players who are eligible for the Hall for the first time during this cycle. Lewis is considered a virtual lock to join the Ravens' first ever Hall of Famer, Jonathan Ogden, in Canton, Ohio.
Lewis was selected to the Pro Bowl in 13 of his 17 seasons. He won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and garnered Most Valuable Player honors of Super Bowl XXXV. Lewis is called by many the best defensive player of his generation.
"Based on his performance from the very first game he played in against the Raiders. I think he had 12 tackles and an interception to the final time he walked off the field as a Super Bowl champion, there's been very few linebackers to do it better than him," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of scouting in 1996 when they made Lewis the 26th overall selection, taking him 22 slots after they picked Ogden with their first-ever pick.
The Hall of Fame Selection Committee will cut a preliminary list of nominees to 25 semifinalists in September. That list will be later whittled to 15 finalists. The day before Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the 46-person selection committee will vote on the inductees. Voting rules mandate that at least four people and a maximum of eight are inducted each year. Inductees need to receive 80 percent approval from the committee.
Lewis is expected to headline the star-studded 2018 class next summer in Canton. Moss, one of the most dynamic and dangerous receivers in league history, is also likely to get in on the first ballot. Polarizing receiver Terrell Owens could join them after he failed to gain induction this past year, a result that led to much criticism of the selection committee.
Other candidates include offensive linemen Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Joe Jacoby and Kevin Mawae, wide receiver Isaac Bruce and defensive backs Brian Dawkins, John Lynch and Ty Law.
Lewis' playing record is without blemish. His candidacy might get some significant opposition from the outside because he pleaded guilty in 2000 to obstruction of justice in connection with the stabbing death of two men in Atlanta during Super Bowl XXXIV festivities.
However, Hall of Fame bylaws prohibit voters from considering players' off-the-field actions.
"Count me in the camp viewing Ray as one who goes to the front of the line as a lock," said USA Today NFL columnist Jarrett Bell, a Hall of Fame voter. "There's no dispute that he's one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history. I'd anticipate the discussion on Ray will be short because the bylaws for the Hall of Fame stipulate that we consider the on-field impact and not the off-the-field drama.
"While the post-Super Bowl tragedy remains attached to Lewis' story, it should not spill over to the football accomplishments considered for the Hall. Obviously, the voters are human beings with their own interpretations and I can't speak for the entire group. But as was the case in the past with questions about Lawrence Taylor, if voters want to consider the off-the-field situation and defy the bylaws, they would clearly be in the wrong."
At 42 years old, Lewis is keeping himself plenty busy. He's one of the founders of Power52, a solar initiative that also provides training for at-risk young adults and military veterans. He's involved in the fashion and funding world, and also the alcohol and cigar industries. He works as an analyst on Fox Sports 1 and does motivational speaking.
Lewis insists he doesn't miss football. "If I miss it, I've cheated it," he's long said. He doesn't feel like he's been out of the game for five years, though being around six kids frequently reminds him of that.
"Every day wasn't a good day physically. There were years where I'd have to crawl to the bathroom just to make it. To now be done with the game, to really appreciate the game now, I see these young kids when they're running and I'm like, 'Nope, you all can have it,' " Lewis said. "I train my son, Rayshad. … We were running up the hill at Oregon Ridge. And we'll be out there and I'd say, 'You've got to go hard. All I got to go is consistent.' I don't have to kill myself no more. I did it."
Lewis concedes that he's spent time thinking about what it will be like when he's told he's gained entrance into the Hall of Fame. He feels that doing it on the first ballot would only add to the honor.
"When somebody calls you a first-ballot Hall of Famer, that means, in this business, you were the greatest to ever do it," Lewis said. "That's the greatest honor you can ever have. I get it. Getting in is all that matters, but it's the same thing in childhood, when we used to sit out there on the field and somebody would say, 'Who is the captain?' When he picks somebody first, they know that you're that guy. It's that same concept. It's something I never thought could happen when I was younger. It's the greatest honor in this business. It's football heaven."
Lewis said he plans to have his mother, Sunseria Smith, by his side when the 2018 Hall class is unveiled. That's where she's been his whole career, and Lewis says the induction would be the greatest reward he can give her.
Yes, he's also thought briefly about his potential induction speech. There will be plenty of time to formulate that, but Lewis said he's hoping to pay homage to several of his late ex-teammates and opponents, such as Steve McNair, Marlin Barnes, his former roommate at the University of Miami, Derrick Thomas and Sean Taylor. Then, he plans on celebrating the honor with the people he played in front of his entire career.
"The people that I'm going to come back and really celebrate this with are in Baltimore," Lewis said. "That city, the things that we've been through and the things that we keep going through, I want them to really see that you can be the example. Like, it is possible. I'm probably going to have another parade and all of this stuff, but it's going to be amazing."