The Last Ride
It’s crazy for me to think Ray Lewis’ career has spanned my entire adult life.
The Ravens drafted Lewis in April 1996 when I was a 17-year-old punk finishing high school. Now he’s retiring when I’m a 34-year-old man with a wife and kid.
It’s been a good ride watching Ray Lew during that time, and now we get one last sendoff at M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday against Indianapolis.
I wasn’t surprised Ray retired; the timing was surprising. But I’m glad we’ll get to hear “Hot In Herre” kick in one last time and see Ray Lewis come out and do his dance. There’s always something special about that introduction, as pro wrestling as it is. I’ve seen it in person at least 20 times and it never ceases to give me goosebumps. It’s something you can’t really describe. It needs to be experienced.
Lewis’ intro, and the stadium’s reaction to it, was often so intense and intimidating, opposing coaches, most notably Jeff Fisher and Marvin Lewis, instructed their players not to look at it. Now that’s respect.
But that’s the way it is with Lewis and Baltimore. As much as John Unitas embodied the blue-collar, National Beer swilling, stevedore/Hon culture of Baltimore in the 1950s and 60s, Lewis embodies today’s Baltimore: brash, defiant, scarred but with a chip on its shoulder.
Baltimore is a place well-known for its inferiority complex. Ray Lewis was the antithesis of that with his loud personality, celebrations of tackles and of course, the dance, often imitated but never duplicated. He was that middle finger you give to people from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York who thumb their noses at Baltimore.
Ray has been around so long it’s hard to remember his rise. He started out as the fifth linebacker picked in 1996. In his, and the franchise’s, first game, Ray Lew was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week and it only went up from there. In 1998, he took the title of Best Linebacker in the NFL from Junior Seau, which was a big deal because Seau held that title since at least 1993. Ray would hold the belt until about 2006, when he briefly gave it to Chicago’s Brian Urlacher, who soon lost it to San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, who coincidentally wears #52.
So basically, Urlacher was like the Iron Sheik of inside linebackers, a transitional champion. I hope one day he starts a Twitter account where he goes on nonsensical but hysterical rants about Mark Sanchez, Hulk Hogan and Virgil. I can just see it now, “I break the Tom Brady back, put him in the camel clutch, make him humble!”
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After he took the belt from Seau in ’98, Lewis went on to have arguably the greatest six-year run of any ILB in the history of the game.
- 1998: 120 total tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs. 2nd team All-Pro, Pro Bowl.
- 1999: 168 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 1st Team All-Pro, Pro Bowl.
- 2000: 137 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 3 Fumble Recoveries, 1 defensive TD in playoffs, 1st Team All-Pro, Pro Bowl, Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP, and leader of possibly the best defense ever.
- 2001: 162 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 1 FR, Pro Bowl, 1st Team All-Pro.
- 2002: A lost season in which Lewis was injured and only played five games. However, he submitted two of the greatest games of his career: a Monday Night win vs. Denver in which he had 18 tackles, an interception and a hellacious block on Keith Burns that sprung Chris McAlister for a then-record 107-yard field goal return. Followed that with a game against Cleveland with an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season.
- 2003: 163 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 6 INTs, 1 TD, 2 FR, Pro Bowl, 1st Team All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year.
Mind you, every other person to ever win Defensive Player of the Year more than once is in the Hall of Fame (Joe Greene, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Mike Singletary and Bruce Smith). Lewis is the only defensive player with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.
In addition to all this, the Ravens team defense compiled an incredible run of consistency. Since 1999, the Ravens defense has ranked in the top 10 in total defense 11 of 14 years. The years they didn’t finish in the top-7 were 2002, 2005 and 2012, all seasons in which Ray Lewis missed the majority of the season due to injury.
Now, it’s hard to chalk up a team’s success to one guy, especially when future Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed was on there for much of that time, but the bottom line is: coaches change, schemes change (Lewis has played in a straight 4-3, a 3-4, Rex Ryan’s 46-style and the hybrid 3-4 by Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees), players change and yet the defense remained among the best. The one constant was Ray Lewis. Thanks to Ray’s and the defense’s greatness, defensive coordinator for the Ravens became a glamour job, a step-up to a future head-coaching position.
All of this will ensure a certain trip to the Hall of Fame.
After word of Ray’s retirement got out, the reaction from the Ravens Nation Army on Twitter was predictably reflective, remembering the good times on the field and how Ray became a pillar in the Baltimore community. Of course, there were plenty of others who choose to instead remember the 2000 Atlanta murder case and rehash the usual glib one-liners:
“Ray Lewis is retiring so he can go back to killing people full-time.”
“Ray Lewis is a great linebacker. Who also killed someone.”
My first reaction when I see stuff like that is to quote Brian Billick’s line: “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Clearly, the Atlanta double murder case is part of the story. Yeah, he was a young knucklehead that got himself into a bad situation that turned tragic. Yeah, his bombastic personality makes it easy for people to not like him and believe him capable of something like that. Yeah, he showed exceptionally bad judgment in not being forthcoming with law enforcement.
Never mind that he was never convicted of anything (the most serious charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge). Never mind that Lewis’ codefendants were found not guilty even with Ray’s testimony. Never mind that at least one of the victims’ families has publically stated that they do not believe Ray Lewis had anything to do with the crime. Never mind that no one has ever produced a shred of evidence in the ensuing 12 years linking him to the crime.
Alas, Ray was convicted in some members of the public’s mind many years ago thanks to things like Rick Reilly’s hit piece on Lewis in Sports Illustrated before Super Bowl XXXV and the SNL cartoon showing Lewis fleeing in a limo after Bambi’s mother gets shot.
Not only that, but since the retirement announcement we’ve gotten quite a bit of “Ray Lewis is overrated” garbage. Anyone engaging in that kind of talk, or suggesting that someone like London Fletcher may have been better than Ray Lewis, is either a fool or engaging in some serious Skip Bayless-style trolling.
Go ask Eddie George if Ray Lewis is overrated. Ask Rashard Mendenhall, who had his shoulder broken after running into #52. Ask Dustin Keller. Ask anyone who ever played with and against the guy. Look at the guys that played alongside him, like Ed Hartwell, Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott, who were stars alongside Ray and then got big free agent contracts elsewhere and either didn’t sustain the same level of play or quickly flamed out.
He was the best. Period.
In his best years, he terrified opposing players with his speed and explosive tackling. As his career moved on, the speed faded, but he became smarter, like the Garry Kasparov of middle linebackers, able to see moves two steps ahead of everyone else.
Want more proof? OK. Take this, one of Ray Lew’s signature plays, the fourth down stop in 2009 to win a game against the Chargers.
Here’s the situation: Ravens are up 31-26 with under a minute left, but San Diego is driving. The Chargers have fourth-and-short. As the Chargers break the huddle, you can already see that Lewis has diagnosed the play by the way the Chargers line up. He’s studied it on film. You can see him holler to his teammates and gear up. He not only knows where the Chargers are going based on the formation, he’s also timed their snap count. He knows exactly what gap he needs to run through to tackle Darren Sproles in the backfield for no gain. As the ball is snapped, Ray times it perfectly, runs through the gap vacated by the zone-blocking linemen like he was shot out of a cannon and tackles Sproles as he takes the handoff.
Now, how many linebackers, past or present make that kind of play, in that situation with a game on the line? Not many.
Or take the Chris McAlister field goal return against Denver. Right as Jason Elam’s field goal falls short, and McAlister catches the ball, McAlister hesitates, not sure he can run it out. Ray Lewis is not only telling him to run it out, but also setting up the block so C-Mac can get to the sideline. How many inside linebackers have you seen that are that heads up? Not only knowing the situation, but setting up the block and then crushing poor Keith Burns into powder?
If that’s overrated, then overrated needs to be redefined.
As a fan, part of that stuff makes me sad and angry. You want to talk about all the special plays Ray Lewis made that no one else could make until the cows come home. You want to talk about how he used the tragic situation in Atlanta to turn himself from young knucklehead into a man, a father figure to not only his own teammates like Ray Rice, but other players around the league, where he was known as “The Godfather.” You want to talk about all the charitable work this guy did in the community, so much so they named a street after him.
And yet, the other part of me just wants to flip up the two middle digits and ignore all that noise. Sometimes, you simply can’t change the hearts and minds of people no matter how hard you try. As Ray himself once said, “It’s better to be respected than liked.” Why should I let others take a whizz all over the legacy a player who’s given me a lot of great sports-watching moments over the last 17 years? Remember that defiance that defines what Baltimore is? Here’s mine: screw ‘em.
As Ravens fans, we were there. We will know and will always know. Those memories are ours, not theirs. We know what Ray Lewis means to Baltimore and Baltimore sports fans and really, if we know that, it’s all that matters. For better or for worse, Ray Lewis is Baltimore. Yeah, it’s got problems, yeah, the crime rate is terrible, yeah, the school system is a disaster, yeah, the place has some spots that are dirty and dilapidated and yeah, some of our fans wear purple camouflage pants. So what? That’s us and we’re not changing for anyone.
I hope that playing for Ray Lew will inspire this Ravens team to one last run at the big trophy. Based on what I’ve seen this year, even if they get by Indianapolis Sunday, I’m not convinced that a banged-up defense and inconsistent offense is getting by New England or Denver on the road. But you never know. Stranger things have happened.
At the end of the day, all I know is this: we’ll see Ray Lewis do the dance one more time Sunday and M&T Bank Stadium will explode one more time. After whenever this season ends, we know where we, the Ravens fan base at large, and Ray Lewis will meet again: Aug. 2018 in Canton, Ohio.