Finding a way to replace Ray Lewis' leadership skills when he retires

Ravens teammates say principles the linebacker modeled will endure after he's gone

January 05, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

It's one of the signature scenes in Baltimore sports and one that could play out for the final time Sunday when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts in an opening-round playoff game.

Ray Lewis, No. 52, circles his teammates and stomps from one to the next, pressing his face within inches of each man, looking deep into their eyes.

"What time is it?" he shouts.

"Game time," they chant in unison.

"Any dogs in the house?" he bellows.

"Woof, woof, woof," they bark before taking the field at M&T Bank Stadium.

Lewis, who announced Wednesday that he would retire at the end of the season, is by consensus one of the greatest players in NFL history and one of the greatest athletes to play in Baltimore. But as the Ravens reckon with life after No. 52, they talk more about his wisdom and the ways he has touched them personally than about his on-field skills, which have slipped in recent seasons.

The familiar pregame ritual is the most visible sign of Lewis' leadership, but teammates and coaches say it only scratches the surface of his efforts to guide those around him. In fact, some regard the act as misleading, a bit of vaudeville that distracts from the qualities that really make Lewis important — the example he sets with tireless offseason workouts, hours of at-home film study and his willingness to talk teammates through tough times.

"To me, what you see sometimes is Ray is a very motivational guy, very motivational when he talks, when he gives a speech, when he comes onto the field — all those kinds of things," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "But the things that we see or I see as a coach — and I've been blessed to be around a lot of really excellent linebackers — the thing Ray is, he is the best example anybody could ever be as a teammate. For every young player that comes in, to watch a guy that has been in this league 17 years sit there and take notes and look like a rookie back there in the meeting room, to me, it's phenomenal."

It might not be terribly difficult for the Ravens to replace Lewis as a guy who runs around the field and makes tackles. Statistics show their defense this season has been better without him in many ways. But as the leader of a perpetually successful franchise? Teammates say no one man will fill his shoes.

"The leadership quality goes beyond just football," cornerback Cary Williams said. "He's a great motivator. He can motivate you to get off the streets. He can motivate you to get up and do something in your life. He's touched a lot of lives. He's touched mine and those of some of my family members who don't even know him."

Williams said there are other leaders in the locker room, from outspoken linebacker Terrell Suggs to quarterback Joe Flacco.

"But a vocal leader of Ray's caliber is virtually unreplaceable," Williams said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal. You don't find those around the league. I don't think there's another one like him."

Leadership is a quality often tossed around in sports but rarely well-defined. Lewis makes an interesting case study because he so nakedly sought the mantle, both inside the locker room and in public view.

Many players refuse to engage when asked about their leadership qualities. But Lewis frequently refers to the Ravens as "my team" and to his unit as "my defense." He began to describe himself as a leader as early as his second season. By the middle of his career, he had decided he was a shaper of men as much as a football player.

"I realized that I can do a lot of things to be great individually, but I wanted to be known differently," he said Wednesday in describing his legacy. "I wanted to make men better. I wanted to figure out ways to challenge men to not let the game dictate your emotions and not let the game dictate if you are mad, you're glad, you're sad — no. Be who you are as a man. Walk with who you are as a man and be OK with being a man. So, my whole focus changed, kind of almost in the middle of my career."

Lewis loves to talk about the locker-room leaders he studied as a young player — Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. They taught him everything from how to center himself spiritually to how hard he had to work in the offseason.

"I was blessed to have some great guys who took me up under their wing and said, 'This is the way you should pray about life. This is the way you should live life,' " he recalled.

Lewis badly wanted to be that figure for younger players on the Ravens and eventually, for players around the league.

He even announced his retirement in a way calculated to make his trademark dance from the tunnel during player introductions on Sunday an inspirational moment for teammates and fans.

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