Few players in NFL history have defined their franchises more than Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. He was the second player selected by the Ravens after they moved from Cleveland following the 1995 season, and through a decade and a half of defensive excellence, Lewis is the only common factor. So, it's no wonder that after he announced on Wednesday that the 2012 season would be his last, Lewis' current teammates would react as if they'd each lost a pillar in their lives, and a major influence on and off the field.
Linebacker Alfred McLellan, who's from Lewis' hometown of Lakeland, Fla., said that playing with Lewis "was a great experience. It was an honor to be side by side with him. It was a blessing for us to grow up in the same area and for me to follow his footsteps. I can't express how much of a blessing it was to be on the same field and huddle as him and learn from him and him giving me advice.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has made a name as one of the Ravens' most dominant defensive players in the last seven seasons, didn't seem able to believe that the news was real. it's understandable -- some would believe that Lewis could somehow find a way to play forever.
"That's crazy," Ngata said. "You take it for granted having someone like him on the team. When he told us, I started thinking about things I could probably ask him or try to pick his brain about, how to be great not only on the field but off the field. It's another chapter in his life he's about to close. We'll do the best we can to help him close it the best he can ... I know we'll definitely miss him. Hopefully, we can make his career a little longer. He wants us all to play for ourselves and make sure we're doing everything we can to not regret anything."
That season extension starts with the Ravens' wild-card playoff matchup this weekend against the Indianapolis Colts, whose head coach , Chuck Pagano, was Baltimore's defensive coordinator in 2011 and the team's secondary coach for three years before that, said on Wednesday that coaching Lewis was an unforgettable experience. Pagano had no doubt that when the Ravens take the field at M&T Bank Stadium early Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore crowd will be more fanatical than ever.
“Anybody who had an opportunity to play with Ray and spend time with him would say the same things," Pagano said. "He’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. I’m pretty sure they’ll introduce the defense, and he’ll be the last one out. He’ll incite a riot, so to speak. There will be a ton of energy on that team and sideline and in that stadium. He’s their leader. Any time you get your leader back, it’s an added spark.”
Ravens safety Bernard Pollard also talked about the seemingly impossible -- how the Ravens' defense will go on without its fearless leader for so long.
"We definitely have to continue to play this style of defense," Pollard said. "Ray is a guy who helped start it. He's a guy who played this game with reckless abandonment. He has built this. He is the face of this. Everybody in this surrounding area and Baltimore knows Ray Lewis and what this guy has done. He's been there, he's done that. It's an honor to say I suited up with that cat and went to battle with him."
Former teammates, like ex-Ravens quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, were just as emotional, and found Lewis' full effect difficult to summarize in just a few words.
“He was the best defensive player on the field every game he played in," Dilfer said in an ESPN statement. "Off the field he was the best. He had this unique ability to resonate with every single person in the locker room. And that’s hard to do. In the NFL, unfortunately, sometimes the guy who is most productive has the loudest voice and that messaging is wrong. Well, that’s not the case with Ray. He is the most productive player but his messaging within the locker room is always right.
“The biggest thing that goes unsaid about Ray is how much he invests in the relationships with his teammates. You see the antics. You see the enthusiasm, the passion on the field, but off the field he’s the first guy to go sit at a locker with someone that’s struggling with something, whether it’s football related or not football related. He has that personal touch. You trust everything about him and he makes everybody better.
“There’s an intensity to him. That intensity is authentic. It’s genuine and it’s always directed at making the football organization better. … When I say he’s the best, really in my experience in the National Football League, I’ve never seen a person better than him at those three layers: preparation, leadership and play.”
Preparation, leadership, and play. The levels to which Ray Lewis has taken these three aspects of athletic excellence also indicate that it will be a very long time before we see his like again.