OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The truth is I don’t know if Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker to ever play the game.
Watching the best player in the history of the Baltimore Ravens over these last 17 years is an alarming contrast to the unofficial numbers, grainy images, and slow-motion video clips of yesteryear, my only exposure to seeing some of the NFL’s greatest at the position who played in a different era of professional football.
Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, and Sam Huff were all retired a decade or more before I was born.
I was still in diapers when Jack Lambert’s career was cut short by a debilitating toe injury.
I don’t vividly recall the prime years of Mike Singletary roaming the middle of the vaunted Chicago Bears defense in the 1980s.
But I will never forget Lewis punishing running backs, showing impeccable sideline-to-sideline pursuit, and displaying the cover skills of a safety in his prime years. The bone-crushing hits over the middle will be shown on NFL Films in the many years to come.
The assessments of where Lewis stacks up with those other individuals will be made by others, but 13 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro selections, and two AP Defensive Player of the Year awards are more than enough to seal Lewis’ first-ballot arrival in Canton in the summer of 2018. His leadership and work ethic are unquestioned for anyone having the privilege to play with the 37-year-old over the course of his career.
Selected with the 26th overall pick of the 1996 draft, Lewis has been a member of the Ravens organization for every game of its existence in Baltimore. He taught us to “raise the roof” at Memorial Stadium, to “let the dogs out” in 2000, and to get “hot in here” when walking out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium for the last decade. The fan base stood by him as he was tried for double murder following Super Bowl XXXIV and watched him rehabilitate his image after charges were eventually dropped and he pled guilty to obstruction of justice. To his credit, there hasn’t even been a whisper of off-field trouble for the linebacker ever since.
And the ultimate glory was realized as Lewis was named Most Valuable Player in the Ravens’ 34-7 win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. The performance capped off an incredible postseason run that included an interception wrestled away from Tennessee running back Eddie George in a divisional round win over the Titans that might be the signature moment of the linebacker’s career.
The end of his run has been pondered for years, but it was a reality no one was quite ready for as Lewis made his announcement just over 11 weeks removed from a torn triceps that threatened to end his season. And the news made his improbable comeback and a wild-card meeting with the Indianapolis Colts fall to the background immediately.
“Everything that starts has an end. It’s just life,” Lewis said on Wednesday. “Today I told my team that this would be my last ride. And I told them I was just at so much peace in where I am with my decision because of everything that I’ve done in this league.”
What a ride it’s been for the last 17 years in Baltimore.
Simply put, Ray Lewis is the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore Ravens are Ray Lewis. That will begin to change with the Hall of Fame linebacker walking away from the game after this season, but it’s the simplest way to express his significance to this franchise and to this city.
Nowadays, we’re so quick to label players as “great” and even “legendary” without realizing how special such terms truly are, but Lewis is deserving of those distinctions. Where he ranks in the hierarchy of the NFL’s top defensive players of all time is debatable, but you won’t find a player who impacted a city and a fan base in quite the same way as Lewis.
And that’s where the line blurs for me as a reporter and native Baltimorean at the age of 29.
Being part of a generation that grew up without football in our formative years, we settled for second-hand stories of Johnny Unitas and Lenny Moore and Art Donovan from our parents and grandparents. It was a heritage we cherished, mind you, but we could never fully understand it as our own while enduring quiet autumn Sundays and seeing Memorial Stadium dormant at the end of each baseball season.
But the Ravens’ arrival — and Lewis specifically — provided our own stories to one day pass along to our children and grandchildren. It wasn’t the same as the Baltimore Colts, but it didn’t need to be. It was new and it was ours, with No. 52 leading the way as the best player on Baltimore’s NFL team. He provided a football identity to a town stripped of one for 13 years.
We were no longer chasing what felt like ghosts of the Memorial Stadium gridiron but instead could watch Lewis chase down ball carriers with our own eyes. More than anything, he gave us an overwhelming sense of pride.