Latest wave of praise for Ray Lewis is well-deserved

July 06, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Here's how big Ray Lewis is: Even as he waits out the NFL lockout, doing his usual aggressive offseason workouts and chilling in front of his 400-inch flat-screen TV, football people keep heaping praise on the Ravens' All-Galaxy middle linebacker.

First the NFL Network, after a survey of players, ranked him the fourth-best player in the league and the best defensive player going into this season.

And Wednesday, The Baltimore Sun's crack Ravens Insider staff voted Lewis as the all-time best inside linebacker in Ravens' history.

That second accolade, of course, was not exactly a shocker. Lewis is a 12-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who's been the heart and soul of the Ravens' defense since he arrived in Baltimore.

But it's still a nice honor for a player who continues to perform at such a high level as he heads into his 16th season.

(And yes, there will be a season. Calm down. You think the owners and players are just going to throw up their hands and say, "Well, that's it, we can't figure out how to divvy up this $9 billion in annual revenue, so we're canceling the season and walking away from all that loot?"

(Are you kidding? These guys would rather hack off one of their arms with a chainsaw than lose a dime of that money.)

But seeing Lewis in the spotlight this week got me wondering whether, even in this town, we truly appreciate the greatness of No. 52.

Look, I'm not going to tell you Lewis is the fourth-best player in the league right now, because I don't believe that.

The Ray Lewis of five or seven years ago, sure, he gets that nod from me. In fact, I probably put him higher than fourth.

But even if Ray has lost a step or two, I still find it astonishing that a 36-year-old who's played 15 years at the most punishing position in pro football can still perform at such a high level.

Go to the NFL Network's video clip on Lewis if you want to see what he's done for the Ravens lately. Look at the big hits, the big picks, the game-winning plays he's made just in the past year or two.

No wonder the clip's narrator calls Lewis "the hard-hitting yardstick by which all defensive players are measured."

No wonder Ravens coach John Harbaugh says of his superstar: "At this stage of his career, he's playing as well as any linebacker in the game."

I don't know if I've ever seen a professional athlete play with the passion of Ray Lewis. Heck, I'm not sure I've seen anyone do anything with the passion that Lewis brings to his job.

The NFL Network clip of him circling his teammates on the sidelines, the veins in his neck standing out like whipcords and his eyes narrowed like dark pinpoints as he exhorts them with shrill cries of "We got work to do!" will give you chills.

And he brings that same sort of passion to everything else he does, from the over-the-top pre-game dance to all the mentoring and charity work he does.

Ask him about, I don't know, the cornhole tournament in the Ravens' locker room and his voice rises like a Southern preacher's as he gives you 20 minutes on the beauty of the camaraderie it fosters.

But it's not just Ray Lewis' passion for the game that's helped him survive 15 seasons in the NFL. There's also his wondrous durability.

You hope that 10 years from now we're not watching him hobble around like an old man with knee and hip replacements.

You hope all those blows he's taken to the head don't catch up to him, either. We've seen too many former NFL players go down that road, guys who need a yellow sticky note to remind them where they parked the car an hour ago.

You hope Ray Lewis is one of the lucky ones who gets out with his limbs and his faculties intact.

And if you're a Ravens fan, you hope this stupid lockout is over soon, so NFL football returns and you get another season of watching the best middle linebacker to ever play the game.

In the meantime, if you want to see No. 52 in a whole different light, check out his acting chops in the new "Field of Dreams 2" spoof on the website FunnyorDie.com.

It's about a guy who builds a football field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield to wait out the NFL lockout.

A bunch of big-name stars show up to play. Lewis is one of them.

I won't spoil it for you by telling you what he does. But he absolutely steals the show.

And here's a big surprise: He does it with passion, too.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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