In case you haven’t heard, the incomparable Ray Lewis turned 34 today.
It’s hard to believe the 21-year-old kid that taught Baltimore how to “raise the roof” at Memorial Stadium in 1996 and continues to create absolute mayhem during player introductions at M&T Bank Stadium is now entering his 14th season with the Ravens.
Lewis came to Baltimore an undersized middle linebacker from the University of Miami, and despite a tumultuous offseason in which his departure via free agency was a distinct possibility, he will now finish his career as the greatest player in franchise history and a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Baltimore.
His legacy—and statue across from the Johnny Unitas one outside M&T Bank Stadium—is a foregone conclusion.
As someone who grew up without football until age 13, I had learned to cherish the legend of Unitas, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, and Bert Jones, but it wasn’t the same because I had not experienced it. I wanted—and needed—my own football legend (and team) to follow, and Lewis immediately became the Unitas of my generation, even if his persona was the polar opposite.
The middle linebacker’s flashy—and at times cryptic—personality may not place him on the same pedestal as the revered Unitas, Brooks Robinson, or Cal Ripken, but he is every bit as good as anyone to play any sport in this city’s proud history. If Lewis can put together another season or two at a high level, his status will only be trumped by Unitas in terms of achievement on the field.
Though he may not be the same terrifying force that led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, he continues to stand as one of the best inside linebackers in the league at an age when most linebackers have already taken off the shoulder pads for the final time.
At 34, Lewis has already played longer than Jack Lambert or Dick Butkus and will play at the same age when Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor left the game. If Lewis wants to set a goal in terms of playing as long as other legendary linebackers, he can aim for Ray Nitschke (age 36 when he retired) or Junior Seau (age 40 and still not finished?). The sheer ferocity with which Lewis has played makes it almost unfathomable that he continues to play—and play well—into his mid-30s.
Though a step or two slower than he was several years ago, Lewis has done an amazing job fighting off Father Time. What he’s lost physically is compensated with mental preparation. Though often overlooked in favor of his car-wreck hits and flashy dancing, Lewis’ cerebral approach to the game is rivaled only by Peyton Manning.
At this point in his career, Lewis’ mental approach is even more valuable to the Ravens than his continued high level of play. Understudies Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain have spent time this offseason watching film with the veteran linebacker, soaking up 13 years of experience and knowledge. And with the departure of Rex Ryan, Lewis’ intellect will ease the transition for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Regardless of how much Lewis has left in the tank, he has little left to prove other than to continue to be the force reigning over the Baltimore defense. Ravens and defense are two words that go together. Others have contributed to the lore, but there has only been one constant.