Nobody can fill the shoes of Ray Lewis
What would baseball be without Jeter or Mariano? What would basketball be without Kobe or Duncan? What would hockey be without Martin Brodeur between the pipes in New Jersey?
They are fixtures in professional sports and their respective cities for a long, long time. Nobody quite knows how much more we are going to have of them. These types of players come around only ever so often, and the world of sports will lose one of its playing icons in the upcoming days – or weeks, depending how long the Baltimore Ravens playoff run continues.
"I talked to my team today," Ray Lewis said Wednesday. "I talked to them about life in general. And everything that starts has an end. For me, today, I told my team that this will be my last ride."
It is almost impossible to imagine the NFL without Lewis patrolling the Ravens sidelines. Without the eye-black streaked across his face, and without his wild dances as he emerged from the stadium tunnel for the past seventeen years.
However, next season will be the first without the defensive stalwart since then owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, decided to relocate the team to Baltimore for the start of the 1996 season. Since then, the one constant has been Lewis, who was taken with the 26th pick of that year’s draft out of Miami.
He was the organization’s second draft pick, coming after the team selected tackle Jonathan Ogden, with the 4th pick of that same draft. Ogden, another lifelong Raven, will most likely enter Canton this year, and in five years he will undoubtedly be joined by his draft buddy.
Lewis hasn’t only been the franchise's motivational catalyst, but he personifies the Baltimore Ravens. A title of such nature doesn’t come easy, and it takes a combination of many things across many years.
Not only do you need to be blessed with superior skills, and longevity, but you need to survive philosophical changes in coaches and management. You need to not be lured by the temptations of free agency. You need loyalty, which is almost non-existent in these days. You need a strong work ethic, a burning desire to be great, and a little bit of luck along the way.
Perhaps Lewis sums up greatness best. “Greatness is a lot of small things done well, stacked up on each other.”
Lewis isn’t a stranger to many achievements. He has been voted to 13 Pro Bowls, (only Bruce Matthews, 14, has more). He ranks second all-time in tackles with 1,573, sitting behind just Falcon linebacker Jessie Tuggle. He’s been named first-team All-Pro seven times and been voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice.
He is the only member of the 40 sack 30 interception club. He’s led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons, with the exceptions being those years in which he missed significant time with injuries (2002, 2005, 2012).
"I never played the game for individual stats. I only played the game to make my team a better team," he said Wednesday.
Since their inception, the Ravens have played a total of 272 regular season games, and have a playoff record of 11-7, including their triumphant Super Bowl run in 2000. Due to injury Lewis has missed out on 44 of those contests throughout the years, but he’s been ready to go for every playoff battle.
He’s seen hundreds of others walk through the doors over the years. He’s been there when Vinny Testeverde, Jim Harbaugh, Trent Difler, Jeff Blake, Anthony Wright and others were under center. He’s shared defenses with Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson, Chris McAllister, Peter Boulware, Deion Sanders, and countless others.
His biggest accomplishment though came when he led the Ravens to the 2000 Super Bowl title, winning game MVP. That season he was the key figure on a defensive unit that set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, allowing it to overcome a five-game stretch in which the offense did not score a touchdown.
He is the last remaining player from that Super Bowl winning club, and the only other active player left from that squad is wideout Brandon Stokley, who ironically is with the Broncos. Over the year he has crafted a defensive legacy that still defines and shapes the perception of the Ravens.
In 12 of his 17 seasons, the defense finished the season ranked in the top 10. Now, next season we will find out what the defense is without their heart and soul. He hinted at retirement in the summer saying that he couldn't see himself playing past age 37. He turned 37 in May, and wants to spend more time with his two sons, one of which will be performing as a freshman next year for his alma mater.
"God is calling," Lewis said. "My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father for 17 years. I don't want to see them do that no more. I've done what I wanted to do in this business, and now it's my turn to give them something back."
Due to age and injury his play has been retreating for a few years. His ability to run sideline to sideline has been slowed, and his intimidating tackles have been weakened by the loss of weight he shed to try to regain some versatility.
Seventeen seasons into an immortal career, and battling through the aftermath of a torn triceps, Lewis figured to not be much of a factor when he suited up Sunday for the first time since tearing his triceps in mid-October.
However, if you thought his role was simply ceremonial, you were awfully wrong. Despite dropping an easy interception, and looking a bit slow on pass coverage, he led the team with 13 tackles and his presence in the 24-9 victory over Indianapolis was immeasurable.
When Lewis made his debut with the Ravens on Sept. 1, 1996, Colts star freshman Andrew Luck was a little less than two weeks away from celebrating his 7th birthday. All these years later they shared the gridiron in Ray’s final home game, but the tale of Ray Lewis continues on into the Mile High City – at least for another week.
The Ravens know they won't have one future Hall of Fame player next season, but this could also possibly be the last hurrah for another one as well. Longtime safety Ed Reed, like Lewis, is no longer the same player he was five years ago, and retirement is on the horizon.
It remains to be seen what the 34-year old’s plans are, but if he does walk away it would signal the end of an era in Baltimore. Lewis and Reed have defined this defense and franchise for many years, and they may both go down as the best players to play their positions.
Lewis dominated as the greatest linebacker of his generation and perhaps the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history. ESPNs John Clayton ranked Lewis among the top five defensive players he has ever seen with Dick Butkus, Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, and “Mean” Joe Greene.
It's important to understand that Lewis, for all his incredible accomplishments, didn't rely on sheer natural talent to earn such an honor. He's undersized for an inside linebacker, and even in his prime his speed was nowhere close to special.
He has ascended to the top of his profession on the strength of intangibles — work ethic, attention to detail, relentless passion, and an unrelenting drive. Saturday has become no ordinary divisional round game for the Ravens. It’s a day Baltimore could wave goodbye to two Hall of Fame players -- a day Raven fans rue. Even if Reed stays, the void Lewis leaves will be impossible to fill. You don’t just replace a Jeter, Kobe, Brodeur, or a Ray Lewis.
However, the hope is that his last dance wouldn’t come Saturday, but rather in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana – home of Super Bowl 43.