CINCINNATI — Moments before the Ravens line up to try to knock off the defending AFC North champion Bengals today, the players will look to linebacker Ray Lewis for their inspiration.
Just like they did for their grudge match at the New York Jets a week ago. Just like Lewis' brothers and sisters did throughout their childhood.
The origin of "football's ultimate leader" — as players and coaches alike refer to Lewis — dates back to when he was 9 years old. His mother, a single parent of five children, told Lewis that it was time for him to become the man of the house. He had to learn how to cook, clean and iron. He had to walk his siblings to school and bring them safely home.
From that point, everyone has always followed Lewis.
The 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker takes pride in guiding his teammates, yet he refuses to take it for granted. One of the most feared defenders in the NFL, Lewis is generous towards teammates, whether it's sitting to watch tape with Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed or talking on the phone to an undrafted rookie. His passion is to bring the players around him up to his standard.
He makes sure players are focused at practice. He makes sure players are hitting the weights. If you're late for a meeting, Lewis will chase you down like you're Bengals running back Cedric Benson.
"These guys respect you by seeing you work hard and by seeing you study hard," Lewis said. "That's how leaders are born."
Over 15 years and 2,350 tackles, Lewis has been the face of the franchise. He's also been the voice.
A few days before the season opener at the Jets, Lewis chided New York players for hyping themselves up as Super Bowl contenders and called out Jets coach Rex Ryan for saying Lewis "tapped out" when it came to calling plays a few years ago.
That led to a powerful pre-game message from Lewis on Monday night.
"The power of respect is never to disrespect," he told his teammates. "Respect isn't given, it's earned. We're not here to be liked. But when we get off the field, we will be respected."
The Ravens rallied around his passionate words, holding the Jets to 176 total yards, six first downs and no touchdowns. Lewis' intense speeches, the ones where his eyes pop out and the veins protrude from his neck, have led players to call him Leonidas, after a king of Sparta whose battle cries were immortalized in the movie "300."
"To us, he's a real-life version of that guy in the movies that do all that screaming and go out and whoop ass," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He's that image. He's that guy."
After the season-opening 10-9 victory, coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens wanted to win that game for Lewis.
"On one hand, you've got a guy with a huge heart who cares," Harbaugh said Friday. "He respects every part of the game — his teammates, opponents, the coaches, the preparation, the game itself. On the other hand, he gives everything on the field. That creates a pretty lethal leadership combination. I've never see anything like it."
Few would have believed that an undersized linebacker taken at the bottom of the first round would have become such a larger-than-life persona. But the Ravens learned quickly.
Lewis' leadership didn't develop over time. He commanded the team as a 21-year-old rookie in 1996.
"From the very first time that he walked through that door, people walked in behind him," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who was the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001. "When he walked into the huddle, the second practice that we had, he was the leader of the football team. And, the way he did things and how he did it, as fast as he played, he just became the leader of the football team. He just had an innate sense to be out front. He wasn't afraid to be out front."
Secret of his success
Fans see Lewis' emotional pre-game talks on television. They see his traditional dance coming out of the tunnel. They see his chest-thumping after every tackle.
What makes him such a great leader is he's a shadow of that player during the week. He motivates the Ravens without saying a word.
"You always hear him once in a while, but I don't think that's the thing," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "I think everybody looks at him as being a guy that's played as long as he has at the level he's played at, and then they see him come out to practice and do the things that some guys might not want to do, and he does it. And they say, 'Well, if he does it, I better do it.' And I think a lot of Ray is by example."
It's not a coincidence that players who reached a high level when they were on the field with Lewis failed to live up to expectations when they went elsewhere. It was that way for cornerbacks Duane Starks and Gary Baxter, linebackers Adalius Thomas and Ed Hartwell, defensive linemen Tony Weaver and Maake Kemoeatu and safeties Kim Herring and Will Demps.
"Honestly, Ray is one of a kind," wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who is in his first season playing with Lewis, said. "Out of all the people that I've seen in this league come and go, he's the one guy, the one constant that no matter who you talk to around the league, they would love to play alongside of him. He's a guy that you want to line up with, a guy that you watch from afar and you're just amazed at what he brings to the table, his intensity. For me, just being here this short period, just seeing how he prepares, how he goes about the game of football in general, it's just unbelievable."
A step ahead
Lewis' critics say he's lost a step at the age of 35. Of course, none will say that to his face.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound wrecking ball has unleashed some of the biggest hits over the past five years. He fractured the shoulder of Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall. He hit Chad Ochocinco so hard that it looked as if the Cincinnati wide receiver's head would come off along with helmet.
Asked four days ago whether Lewis had lost a step, Ochocinco snapped back, "Hell no. You watching the same film I'm watching?"
Lewis' latest bone-rattling collision — his drilling of Jets tight end Dustin Keller in the season opener — showed how he stays one step ahead of offenses.
Lewis watched so much tape of the Jets that he knew Keller would be getting the pass once he passed by linebacker Tavares Gooden over the middle. He predicted it days before the game. He was so sure that he even texted his father about the hit he was going to deliver.
"When you got that perfect setup and you see this man coming, you go 'pop' and you hit him right on the button," Lewis said. "When you get up, you know it was that play. It's what you work for. Playing my position, that's my touchdown."
The Lewis influence
The power of Lewis' leadership came through during the 2008 training camp.
Some players were wary of the Ravens starting another rookie quarterback after the Kyle Boller fiasco in 2003. But Lewis essentially put his arm around Joe Flacco, making it known that the first-round pick was his quarterback.
"Anytime that guy comes up to you and shows confidence in you, it allows the rest of the team to take his side," Flacco said. "I don't think anybody is going to go against Ray."
Lewis is the sheriff of the locker room, the quarterback of the defense.
Over the past 11 years, the Ravens' defense has ranked No. 6 or better 10 times. The only year it didn't was 2002, when Lewis played a career-low five games because of a torn hamstring.
"You look at this team and all this great talent — Anquan, T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] and Ray Rice — but there is a humility when that huddle is formed," Lewis said. "For that one minute, they're all Indians. And they're saying, that's our one chief. That's the sense I get from teams who want to win championships."