Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 | 4:15 p.m.
BALTIMORE — Ray Lewis, who has played 17 seasons for the Ravens and defined the team’s defensive excellence, announced his decision to retire today, telling teammates that “this will be my last ride.”
“I told them I just felt so much peace in where I am with my decision because of everything I’ve done in this league,” Lewis said during the Ravens’ media availability Wednesday with several of his teammates watching. “I’ve done it, man. There’s no accolade that I don’t have individually but I’ve never played the game for individual stats. I’ve only played the game to make my team be a better team.”
Lewis added that “there is no reason for me to not play Sunday” in the Ravens’ wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Now, God is calling,” Lewis said. “God is calling in so many other areas of life and my children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father, the ultimate for 17 years. Whether it’s jump on the plane, jump right back, go to school, and I don’t want to see them do no more. I’ve done what I wanted to do in this business and now, it’s my turn to give them back something. It’s either hold onto the game or keep playing or let my kids miss out on times we could be sharing together. I promised my son if he got a full-ride scholarship, Daddy was going to be there. I can’t miss that. I don’t know if I could sit in a meeting room and fight with that war.”
Lewis, who had been the league’s longest tenured defensive player with his original team, leaves the Ravens and the sport with a resume that at the very least, puts him in the conversation as one of the best middle linebackers in NFL history, and a lock for the Hall of Fame.
He was selected for 13 Pro Bowl teams, tabbed as an Associated Press All Pro 10 times, garnered NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors twice and was named the Super Bowl XXXV MVP after the Ravens’ triumph over the New York Giants.
He played more games (228) and more seasons (17) than any other Raven, and also established team highs in tackles (1,573) and fumble recoveries (20). He’s second on the franchise list in interceptions (31) and forced fumbles (19) and fourth in sacks (41.5).
But more than any specific number, Lewis quickly became the face of the franchise. His trademark stare as he locked in a quarterback will be long remembered as will his outrageous pre-game dance and his motivational speeches. But he let his play do the talking as well.
In their first draft after relocating from Cleveland in time for the 1996 season, the Ravens selected UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall pick, and then Lewis, a linebacker out of Miami, with the 26th selection in the first round. Four linebackers were taken in the first round ahead of Lewis, who faced some questions about his size despite a standout collegiate career with the Hurricanes.
Ogden played 12 seasons with the Ravens, is in the team’s Ring of Honor and is also a likely future Hall of Famer. Lewis, meanwhile, quickly became a team leader and helped cultivate the Ravens’ identity as an intimidating and punishing defensive team.
“Ray Lewis, everything he brings to the game, his play-making ability, his leadership, his experience, his ability to get people around him to play better both by his communication and anticipation and leadership and football savvy on the field,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick when asked last year about Lewis and long-time teammate, Ed Reed. “Those two guys, it would be really hard, I think, to put anybody even in their class, let alone above them. They’re tremendous players with tremendous careers.”
Lewis led the Ravens with 142 tackles in his rookie season and then led the entire league with 210 tackles in his second campaign, receiving the John Mackey award from his peers as the AFC’s best linebacker.
But it was during the 2000 season when most believe that Lewis established himself as the game’s best defensive player. At age 25, Lewis was the unquestioned leader of a defense that set a 16-game single-season record for fewest points allowed (165), fewest rushing yards allowed (970), and recorded four shutouts, one shy of the post-1970 merger record.
He was at his best that season during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, making 44 tackles and intercepting two passes in four games. His signature play of the postseason came when he wrested a ball away from Tennessee Titans’ running back Eddie George and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown in the Ravens’ 24-10 AFC Divisional Playoff game victory in Nashville.
In the Ravens’ 34-7 victory over the Giants in the Super Bowl, Lewis had 11 tackles and four pass defenses, becoming just the second player in NFL history to win Super Bowl MVP and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
While that clearly was the high point in Lewis’ stellar career, his low point came after the previous Super Bowl when he was involved in an altercation in Atlanta that resulted in the stabbing deaths of two men. Lewis and his two companions — Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting — were indicted and charged with murder and aggravated assault. However, the chargers on Lewis were eventually dropped in exchange for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting, and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge.
Lewis, who reportedly reached settlements on the civil suits with the victims’ families, was given 12 months’ probation and fined $250,000 by the NFL.
He was supported by then owner Art Modell and the rest of the organization throughout the legal process and after it was over, Lewis quickly went to work on rehabbing his image both locally and around the NFL. The Ravens’ Super Bowl triumph a year later certainly helped, as did Lewis’ community work through his Ray Lewis Family Foundation.
“One of the hardest things in the world is to walk away from my teammates because that’s my brotherhood, the only thing that I ever played for is to be right there and to raise Ed and to be with Sizzle for so long and to sit next to him,” Lewis said. “We’re so much on the same path. Does that part hurt? Absolutely. You can never rebuild those bonds. Those bonds are forever. But the chapter is huge for me to now step into other areas of life.”
Lewis also became a mentor for many of his peers, developing close friendships with the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster, Patriots’ receiver Chad Ochocinco and Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Michael Vick.
On the field, he’s maintained a high standard, making it to the Pro Bowl eight of the past 10 seasons. The exception was this year and in 2005, when Lewis missed the final 10 games of the year after having surgery to repair a torn hamstring.
Lewis has missed the past 10 games this season with a torn triceps, but will return to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday for what could be his final NFL game in Baltimore.
“I may be gone now. But I ain’t gone forever,” Lewis said today. “I’m just going in another phase of life. I think my fans, I think my city, they deserve it. They deserve that whenever this road stops, for me not just to walk away and be like, ‘I’m done.’ I think we all get to enjoy what Sunday will feel like knowing that this will be the last time 52 plays in a uniform in Ravens’ stadium.”