Ray Lewis arrived in Baltimore shortly after the transplanted Cleveland Browns, who were attempting to start anew in a city that had gone 12 years without an NFL team.
Selected 26th overall in the 1996 draft after establishing himself as a star at the University of Miami, Lewis had no idea what he was getting into.
“We had no team. We had no logo. We had nothing,” Lewis recalled. “There was nothing to really respect.”
Over the next 17 years, the Baltimore Ravens reached the postseason nine times, won two Super Bowls and built a hard-hitting and relentless defense in the image of Lewis, their unquestioned leader.
A 13-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis helped make the Ravens far better than respectable while establishing himself as one of the best linebackers to play the game.
His unparalleled play and unmatched leadership made him an obvious first-ballot entrant into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lewis received the news last February, and still gets chills thinking about it.
“That knock on the door was like the first time I got my first jersey,” Lewis said. “It was like when you ran home and you wanted to put on your pads. You weren’t playing no game, you just wanted to put on your pads because you were part of an elite team. You made it. So, it’s almost like the same feeling.”
He will be enshrined Saturday, joining offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden as the second Ravens star to have a bust in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s pretty clear Ray was the heart and soul of the Ravens for 17 years. If anyone is deserving of this honor, it’s Ray Lewis,” Ogden said. “He is a guy we all looked to — both on offense and defense — to lead our team.”
There are many great linebackers in the Hall of Fame. Few of them combined skill and authority the way Lewis did.
After delivering an emotional speech before the game , Lewis would continue to push his teammates in the huddle before taking ownership of the middle of the field, looking to punish anyone in a different jersey.
“One of a kind. I think he’s the best that ever played,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s not just the on-field play; it’s the whole package.”
Harbaugh acknowledged he carries the bias that comes with coaching Lewis for the final five years of his NFL career. Others, however, back the assertion.
“He’s the best I’ve seen,” said Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker and former assistant coach in Baltimore. “If people thought I was good, I know that Ray was better.”
It’s hard to determine Lewis’ most notable quality. His ferocity on the field? His teaching and leadership skills? Or was it his relentless drive to win?
Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson, a teammate of Lewis’ on the 2000 Super Bowl team, chooses all of the above.
“What needs to be said about a guy who was, by far, the best leader I witnessed in my 17 years of play? His singular focus to be the best player and teammate he could be what separates him from other Hall of Famers,” Woodson said.
“His play was off the charts. He was a virtual tackling machine — and a playmaker. He caused fumbles, recovered fumbles, interceptions, tipped passes. He did it all for longer than anyone who played his spot in the middle.”
The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Lewis spent countless hours in the weight room and took an equal amount of pride in mastering the mental aspect of the game. He derived great pleasure from matching wits with great quarterbacks, most notably Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
“Those two guys were chess players,” Lewis said. “The game was one thing, but it was the preparation before the game that was a totally different thought process. And then, every time we walked off the field, we gave each other mad respect.”
Lewis wasn’t perfect. He was arrested and charged with two counts of murder in Atlanta in 2000. Those charges were dropped, and he pleaded to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor.
But questions about his role in the crime were an underlying theme before Baltimore faced the New York Giants one year later in the Super Bowl, a game which the Ravens won 34-7 and Lewis was voted MVP.
“Ray Lewis is going to be Ray Lewis. He’s not going to apologize for who he is,” Harbaugh said. “But whenever he made a mistake, he was the first one to acknowledge it.”
In his first season in Baltimore, the Ravens finished 4-12. In his final season, which he dubbed “my last ride” entering the playoffs, Baltimore beat San Francisco 34-31 in the Super Bowl.
It was a whirlwind career filled with ups and downs, and Lewis promises that kind of speech at his enshrinement.
“This moment for me is one you dream about your entire life,” he said. “Savor that moment. You don’t have to run a 40, you don’t have to do bench presses, you ain’t got to do none of that. All you have to do is deliver something I think a lot of people want to hear.
“And so, whether it becomes my greatest (speech) or not, I’ll tell you this: it will have people and myself on a roller coaster that we will never forget.”
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