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With Free-agent Flirtations Long Forgotten, Lewis Still A Fan Favorite

August 01, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

While many questions remain after the Ravens' first full-team practice of training camp, one was answered resoundingly Friday: Fans still have a love affair with No. 52.

Ray Lewis rankled some of his most ardent supporters five months ago when he didn't make it clear during free agency that he wanted to return to the Ravens. But a fervent announced crowd of 11,078 welcomed the middle linebacker with open arms at McDaniel College.

When Lewis stepped onto the field to start his 14th training camp, fans shrieked and started chanting his name. One woman asked for a kiss and he obliged with a peck on the cheek. In the crowd, Lewis' jersey was the most popular. Down the street at Harry's Main Street Grille, someone carried a sign that read: "Ray-vens."

"I don't want to ever go anywhere," said Lewis, who re-signed for $44.5 million over seven years (essentially $22 million over three seasons). "I'm bred here, and I'm going to end my career here. [Signing elsewhere] is just not worth what's invested in my city, what I give back to my city and what my city gives back to me. There's no greater reward than that. I love Baltimore."

This is Lewis' town. And this remains Lewis' defense and team.

At 34, he is the oldest player on the Ravens. But his teammates contend that only makes him wiser.

The 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker is still the unequivocal leader.

"He's like King Leonidas; he's been out there and fought the war," said Tavares Gooden, who will start beside Lewis for the first time this season. "He just doesn't do it one time. He doesn't play hard for one week. He does it all the time. So, you can't question him. That's when you say, 'Let me follow him because I want to be great.' "

This year, the Ravens will have to hustle to follow Lewis. After bulking up to 260 pounds last season (to help him provide more of a punch on tackles), he has slimmed down 15 pounds after talking to new linebackers coach Vic Fangio.

With a four-man rotation (Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, Justin Bannan and Brandon McKinney) clogging up the middle, Lewis wanted to be fast enough to meet running backs at the hole.

"Ray is like the Michael Jordan on this team," free safety Ed Reed said. "His work ethic is totally off the charts. His intensity and his character and what he knows about the game is what makes you want to get better. Ray is just that father on the field that's getting guys lined up and they can learn to play the game by just watching them."

There has been some concern about how the departure of coordinator Rex Ryan will affect the defense. But the Lewis Factor has been in effect for the past decade.

Under three coordinators (Marvin Lewis to Mike Nolan to Ryan), the Ravens' defense has finished sixth or better for nine of the past 10 seasons. The common thread on the field has been Lewis.

"If it's anybody's defense, it's Ray's defense," coach John Harbaugh said. "Obviously, a great tradition has been built here, and you've got to say that he's been what it's been built around."

Lewis' excellence is matched only by his longevity.

He has already played more seasons than the other great linebackers in NFL history - Dick Butkus (nine seasons), Jack Lambert (11) and Mike Singletary (12). With the Ravens, Lewis is the only player remaining from the team that won the 2001 Super Bowl and represents the last link to the inaugural 1996 season.

"Many times when guys get older, they really lose their passion for the game before they lose their physical abilities," Fangio said. "But football is in [Lewis'] blood. I think he'll be one of those guys that we'll have to kick out of here rather than retire on his own."

There seemed to be a chance that Lewis might exit Baltimore over the offseason.

A few days before the Pro Bowl, Lewis acknowledged in an interview with the NFL Network that he would be interested in both the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets. Then, leading up to the start of free agency, Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said Lewis told him it was his "dream" to play in Dallas.

Asked about his "flirtations" with other teams, Lewis said with a laugh: "I flirt when I pass by a beautiful woman walking down the street. That doesn't mean I talk to her."

Now, Lewis is back with the Ravens, where he wants to reward the cheers with another championship.

"Making plays for me is the easiest thing I can do. Influencing men is what my challenge is every day," Lewis said. "When you ask me if I'm good, I'm only better because what's around me is better. Every year, they said, 'Your defense is getting old.' But it's hard to be old when you're always No. 1 or No. 2. Those things will energize me day in and day out to come back and always be a better leader."

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