Ray Lewis' passion, preparation drove his success

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Ray Lewis' passion, preparation drove his success
January 27, 2013, 9:00 am
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Ray Lewis will play his final NFL game in Sunday’s Super Bowl. He will take his final bow on the game’s biggest stage, which is only fitting for one of the greatest defensive players of all-time.

Win or lose on Sunday, Lewis will be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Win or lose, he will go down as the best middle linebacker of his era, a man who reminded us that even in an age of souped-up offenses, defense still matters.

Lewis is 37, he has played 17 seasons in the NFL and they have taken their toll. He isn’t the player he was a decade ago when he won his first Super Bowl, anchoring a Baltimore defense that was among the best ever. He is older and slower. But he is still Ray Lewis.

In the Ravens three playoff wins, wearing a bulky brace to support his surgically repaired right triceps, Lewis had 44 tackles, most on the team. His return to the lineup reenergized a team that faded down the stretch, losing four of its last five regular season games. They have rallied around their captain and leader.

In 2001, I went to Baltimore to interview Lewis for a magazine profile. I spent several hours with him, sitting with him as he studied film, talking with him after practice. It was fascinating because we spent a lot of time discussing football history, specifically the history of his position.

Many NFL players – I dare say most of them – know little of the game’s history. They don’t care. They don’t think it applies to them. Lewis is different. He studied the great middle linebackers. He watched old films and read books so he could get a feel for the legends that went before him.

I asked Lewis if he found a common denominator.

“A passion for the game,” he said. “They’re different in certain ways. (Dick) Butkus was big and physical. (Ray) Nitschke and (Jack) Lambert were just plain nasty. Willie Lanier could run sideline to sideline. (Mike) Singletary, you see those eyes, so intense, locked in on the offense like a chess player.

“But what’s the one thing they have in common? A passion for the game, a passion for playing that position. That is where it starts. You can study and lift weights and all that other stuff but without that passion you’ll never be a great middle linebacker. You have to be the most relentless, the most competitive guy out there.

“I had it when I was seven years old playing in the street. I’d compete at pencil-breaking, rock-tossing, it didn’t matter. When I started playing football that was my thing. That got me through one day to the next. I’d be all gashed up and bloody. My mother would say, ‘Never again,’ but I played anyway because I love it.”

I talked to Art Modell, the Ravens owner who had almost a father-son relationship with Lewis. There was a genuine affection between the two men dating back to the spring of 1996 when the Ravens selected Lewis in the draft. When Lewis arrived, Modell put his arm around him and said: “You’re going to be something special.” And so he was.

“Ray is the best I’ve seen play that position and I’ve been around a long time,” said Modell who was then in his 41st year as an NFL owner. He pointed to the Lombardi Trophy which the Ravens won the previous season, routing the New York Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV.

“Ray is responsible for that [trophy],” Modell said referring to Lewis’ MVP performance. “When he caught (Tiki) Barber from behind, that was game. From that point on, we were in charge.”

Modell was referring to a play nine minutes into the game. The Giants ran Barber on a sweep. Lewis read the play perfectly and chased down Barber from behind. It was, in Lewis’ words, “a tone setter.” The Giants realized they had no chance running the ball against the Ravens' team speed. Forced to pass, quarterback Kerry Collins threw four interceptions.

“At the time, I didn’t realize what a big play it was,” Lewis said. “Then on the film, I saw that Tiki had an alley. If he turned the corner, he’d still be running. I don’t think he expected me to be grabbing him from behind. So instead of a big play, they’re three-and-out and wondering, ‘What can we do? How can we block these guys?’”

That play was an example of his intense preparation. He isn’t just a great player; he is a keen student of the game. People talk about his football instinct, which he certainly has, but he spends hours in the film room, looking for clues, charting tendencies, anything to give him an edge. On that play in the Super Bowl, Lewis recognized the formation and saw the sweep coming. He was in motion even before Barber touched the ball.

Lewis had some great personal duels with individual backs, among them Eddie George of Tennessee. Watching Lewis and George batter each other was reminiscent of the Sam Huff-Jim Brown battles of the past. As fiercely as they fought, there was always a healthy respect.

“Ray is not only a great athlete, he’s one of the most intelligent middle linebackers in the game,” George told Pro Football Weekly in 2001. “What he brings to the game, you just can’t draw up on X’s and O’s. He just brings a whole different mentality to the defense.”

His career numbers are staggering: 13 Pro Bowl selections, more than 1,500 tackles, 31 interceptions. He was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Soon he will be in Canton, Ohio, but he has one more game left to play. I can’t wait to see it.

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