Ray Lewis, the face of the Ravens since he played in the franchise's first game in Memorial Stadium and arguably the greatest linebacker in NFL history, will make this year's playoff run his last.
Lewis, who expects to return from a torn triceps for Sunday's AFC Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts, announced the impending end of his 17-year career to a roomful of stunned teammates on Wednesday morning at the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills.
“I told my team that this would be my last ride,” Lewis said, startling listeners at a news conference after he had spent a few minutes answering routine questions about his injury. “And I told them I was just at so much peace in where I am with my decision, because of everything I've done in this league. I've done it. I've done it, man. There's no accolade that I don't have individually.”
Lewis' biography is one of extremes. A child of a broken home, he became a football prodigy, seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame from early in his career. Then, just as he neared his pinnacle, he faced murder charges that threatened his future. Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and he became one of the NFL's most divisive players — derided in opposing cities, deeply respected by his peers, adopted wholeheartedly by Baltimore, the city where he played his whole career and devoted his charitable efforts.
A fiery leader, he riled up teammates and home fans like no one else with his signature entry dance at M&T Bank Stadium. He ended up, finally, as an elder statesman, a sort of wise uncle to the generations who followed him into the nation's most popular sport.
A subdued Lewis said he came to his decision while spending time with his sons as he rehabilitated his injury in Florida. A man of outspoken faith, he talked of growing up without a father and not wanting his children to be without him any longer. He had to choose between them and holding onto the game.
“My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father — the ultimate sacrifice for 17 years,” he said. “I've done what I wanted to do in this business, and now it is my turn. It's my turn to give them back something.”
Though talk of Lewis' potential retirement had become common at the end of each season, the reality hit his teammates hard.
Some were still stunned when they recounted the meeting where Lewis informed them of his decision. For them, as for many fans, it's hard to imagine the Ravens without No. 52 dancing out of the tunnel, without the man underneath the jersey as a wise shoulder to lean on in the locker room.
“Today, I definitely didn't prepare for it,” said running back Ray Rice, holding back tears. “Mentally, he has raised me over the last couple of years. My locker is right next to his, and I just can't picture Baltimore without him. He has kids, but I was one of his kids.”
Lewis' retirement, along with the possible departure of safety Ed Reed, could signal a radical changing of the guard for a franchise built on stifling defense. That change had already begun this season, as the triceps injury held Lewis out of 10 games and the Ravens fell to 17th in the league in yards allowed.
He wanted to make his intentions clear before Sunday's game, Lewis said, so all Baltimore would feel the moment when he bursts from the tunnel in his traditional dance, hips swiveling and chest thrust out at the world.
“I think my fans, my city, they deserve it,” he said. “I think we will all get to enjoy what Sunday will feel like, knowing that this will be the last time 52 plays in a uniform in Ravens stadium.”
Accolades poured in from around the league and the wider sporting world as news spread that one of the faces of an NFL generation would walk away.
“A guy you could count on, a guy you could lean on, a guy that gave everything, every free moment that he had to help others, to help the city,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who will oppose Lewis on Sunday after working as Ravens defensive coordinator last season. “He's there to serve, and he's done it in numerous ways, and his legacy will live on forever — not only in that city but in the NFL annals. He will go to the Hall of Fame, and he'll go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, to play the position.”