Entering 15th season, Lewis' passion sets him apart

Ravens linebacker's enthusiasm and love for football make him special

August 08, 2010|Mike Preston

After 194 regular-season games, 1,770 tackles and a couple of thousand practices, 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis is having as much fun now as he did 14 years ago, when he first put on a Ravens uniform.

He is still like a little kid at an amusement park. Lewis is the first in line for every drill. He sprints from station to station, either playfully taunting a teammate or chatting away. If he isn't high-fiving one player, he might be wrestling another.

Training camp is supposed to get harder as you get older, but someone forgot to tell Lewis, 35.

"The man runs sideline to sideline just like he did years ago," said Ravens defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, in his 11th season. "Me and [defensive end Trevor Pryce] were just talking about how veterans dread camp, but we'll keep coming out as long as we have fun. Ray Lewis is still having fun. It must be something they have in that Florida water."

It's hard to imagine a Ravens training camp without Lewis. The Ravens have changed owners, head coaches and assistants, but the two major constants have been general manager Ozzie Newsome and Lewis.

Like everything else, Lewis has changed. He has less hair and has added a few pounds since he was the 26th overall pick in the 1996 draft. The strength in his arms, shoulders and hands isn't what it used to be, but that's OK. He will never be the player he once was, but neither will anyone else. He set the standard too high.

But that's not what has made Lewis special. What still sets him apart is his passion for the game and his leadership ability. His instincts and experience fuel the bottom line, which is production.

"His No. 1 secret to lasting 15 years is his tremendous passion for the game," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He respects the game more than anybody, and if you respect the game, you don't want to let it down."

It's all about respect. On the field, Lewis has been the NFL's best middle linebacker during his 15-year run. There have been other challengers such as the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher and the Miami Dolphins' Zach Thomas, but both faded sooner than Lewis.

Even the heir apparent to Lewis' title, the San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis, said in a recent interview that he can't accept the torch until Lewis passes it along.

A lot of us in the media used to laugh when Lewis said he advised so many players throughout the NFL, but listen to new Ravens quarterback Marc Bulger talk about former Ravens center Jason Brown, now in his second year with Bulger's old team, the St. Louis Rams:

"Jason Brown brought just a lot of different programs within the team because they've developed such a reputation here" in Baltimore, Bulger said. "It starts with Ray and then the rest of the guys. There's accountability for everything you do, and he's trying to bring that to the Rams, which is a good thing, which we didn't have before where players police each other. I could see it from the first day here that it's something that has been in place. It's not something [they're] trying to instill here, and it's been quite impressive."

That's why Lewis can never be replaced.

"When I see guys that came way before me or guys that are still doing it, it's just a respect level from the way you respected the game, the integrity of the way that you played the game, and that's why I think people respect me and the way I play," he said. "They know that I'm going to give them every time I step onto the field, not just for me, but the team."

Lewis certainly gets Mattison's attention. During the season, Mattison talks to Lewis more than he does family members.

"Ray and I have a great deal of dialogue prior to the game and in between series," Mattison said. "I feel if there is a possible problem, or sense something out there, I'm going to get his thoughts just to make sure because he is the leader of the defense."

A bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a lock for Lewis. He transformed the position from one being played tackle to tackle to one being played sideline to sideline. Lewis has become the prototype.

But Lewis would like to get at least one more Super Bowl ring before he retires. It's a miracle he can still play the game at such a high level because he has performed with such recklessness.

He acknowledges liking the Ravens' chances of winning a championship this season, especially with new wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth.

"I think you put that many pieces around that much talent and a Joe Flacco, then I think you have something on offense," Lewis said. "And that's still to be seen because everything still has to fall in place. All of the pieces still have to work together, and he has to start jelling with those guys. The chemistry that I've built with a Ray Rice or Michael Oher or Joe, to win one with them would be a very special thing. It would be a very special thing."

Almost as special as Lewis.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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