Every man has stats, and Ray Lewis' are impressive, but I’m not here to focus on numbers. This is about my experience with the man, the mentor, the legend.
The one and only Ray Lewis.
One of the first things that ran through my mind while in the car on the way to Ravens training camp was...WOW! I have the opportunity to watch and learn from one of my favorite players of all time—a genuine legend of the game. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to study him up close and see what the man behind the scenes is really like.
Before you read any further, stop right where you are and please watch this video.
I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Honestly, I’ve held back from this piece because I’m not sure I’m able to truly do justice to the man and my experiences of him. After listening to Ray speak and watching him play the game, my words may seem like docile whispers of irrelevance. But some things in life are meant to be shared with others.
This is, perhaps, the last time I ever focus a piece exclusively on a player whom I’ve been blessed enough to witness in the flesh and as a teammate.
Sure, I’ve played in the NFL. But in my heart, I’ve only ever been a fan. Having the opportunity to play this game at the highest level of competition has been one of the greatest experiences of my entire life, even though I may write about how hard and stressful it was. I’ve always loved and appreciated how rare and special those moments were. Nothing in life can test your limits and abilities like a few years in the NFL.
No one has come up on top more often or for as long of a time as Ray Lewis.
As a linebacker myself, I was unbelievably honored being on the same team as the greatest interior linebacker of all time. Seeing him walk the halls of the facility, I was in awe of his presence; I couldn’t even find the courage to talk to him. Star-struck beyond belief, I was literally to the point of paralysis.
I wasn’t teammates with Ray Lewis for long, but it doesn’t take long for a guy like Ray to leave a lifelong impression on you. He is the closest thing to a football superhero I’ve ever experienced in person.
His presence is bigger than life itself. Having been around a lot of star players and celebrities in my life, I can say with significant experience, I don’t get star-struck. I always manage pretty well in the understanding we are all just humans.
And then there’s Ray Lewis. More than a man, he is an icon.
The Greatest Leader of All Time
Without question, Lewis brings an uncanny intensity and passion to the sport of football. Watching him demoralize opponents, it left little doubt as to just how solid this man’s mass is. He bends the will of everyone he contacts, no matter how big or strong they may appear to be. When Lewis makes up his mind to dominate you, there is little to stop it.
But this talent is used simultaneously as both a destructive force and a constructive one. When you think about the type of personalities and egos that can fill an NFL locker room, it’s nothing short of amazing that this guy was able to achieve leadership on the unquestioned and unparalleled level to which he did. I knew this was the component of his legacy most worthy of my observations.
How does a man lead and inspire others as effectively as Ray Lewis?
One of the most surprising things I discovered during a training camp with Ray was how quiet he really is. Lewis rarely opens his mouth and is usually found in the background quietly watching and observing everything that goes on in a meeting room.
I suppose he may have the self-awareness to be mindful of satiating his teammates with his words. Wisely, Lewis is very selective about when he chooses to deliver a vocal message. But when he speaks, everyone listens.
During my brief time in Baltimore, Brian Billick was the head coach of the team by title only. He was a good coach and effective leader. But for all intents and purposes, Ray Lewis was the true head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. He is the heartbeat of the team. His suggestions influence the entire organization and are never ignored.
It wasn’t rare to see coaches like Rex Ryan asking for clarification on a defensive rule or scheme. During meetings, it became common to hear our boisterous coordinator checking in with Ray for approval of a particular play or even game-plan details.
Is Ray Lewis the greatest middle linebacker of all-time?
During training camp, Billick would consult with Ray Lewis about the practice schedule and morale of the team. If Ray suggested a day of practice be shortened, Billick would comply.
Few players or coaches ever challenged Lewis for the rights to his crown as king of the Ravens organization. However, right around the time I arrived in training camp, something appeared to be brewing under the surface between Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis. As the grueling days of camp went on in the terribly humid Maryland summer, tempers also began to get hotter.
It seemed as though Suggs was beginning to take issue with Lewis being the premier name and the leader on the defense. Suggs was en route to becoming one of the most dominant players in the league, and I suppose, at least for the moment, he had grown tired of playing second fiddle to Mr. Lewis.
Without understanding the details of the dispute, Lewis and Suggs spent almost an entire day of practice inconspicuously engaging in sidebar discussions that were meant to be hidden from the crowds of fans and onlookers that would frequent every practice.
Although the fans seemed oblivious to the building tensions, the rest of us witnessing this had a hard time focusing on the drills at hand as we realized the intrigue that lay before us.
Veterans like Jarret Johnson gave me a brief summary of the dispute. I have no idea what was said between the two of them, but what most fans are unaware of is that Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs came frighteningly close to a massive brawl.
Apparently, Suggs was attempting, in some capacity, to dethrone Lewis of his leadership. At the very least, Suggs wanted to be free from having to listen to the orders of his superior and commanding officer.
I’m not sure what Ray said to him during those subtle disagreements, but it didn’t take long before Suggs was put back in his place, and the minor feud was soon squashed, at least for the time being.
I often wonder about the current state of their relationship. For better or worse, they’ve done a commendable job keeping those issues in-house and out of the hands of the bloodthirsty media. Few people realize how close these two heavyweights came to an all-out war—a training camp fight that would almost certainly have gone down as one of the greatest of all time.
Personally, if there was anyone I could have on my side in a street fight, it would undoubtedly be Ray Lewis over anyone. That says a lot. Apparently, this may have been something Terrell Suggs was beginning to realize, which brings me to an interesting concept about the dynamics of leadership in the NFL.
You have to realize that leadership on the defensive side of the ball is a similar mindset to a warrior general. This is the element that quarterbacks never have to worry about. It’s ingrained in football acumen to never physically challenge the QB. Wearing that red jersey in practice transcends the field and carries over into interactions with the team in general.
Essentially, QBs are treated more like player/coaches. They're handed the reins to be vocal leaders and are always off-limits in a physical altercation. A defensive player is not given this protection or encouragement. He must possess much more well-rounded abilities for leadership.
Abilities such as elite cognition, complete mastery of the defense and the position, powerful inspirational skills, likability and respect amongst peers and, finally, the ability to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who opposes them, to be able to defend their cause with brute force, if necessary; all of these things are essential.
One must possess the physical power to confront the selfish, cancerous egos of those who will challenge you physically. This is why leaders like Ray Lewis, and true defensive leaders in general, are so rare in the NFL.
Long before coming face to face with Lewis, I happened to catch a personal segment about his life. I remember Ray mentioning he had a weekly ritual where he would watch the movie Gladiator the night before every game for inspiration.
This made perfect sense, considering there were so many parallels between him and the character Maximus, played marvelously by Russell Crowe. In fact, Ray was the closest example to a real-life version of that character I’ve ever seen or heard of.
On a warm night at FedExField, with storm clouds looming overhead, Ravens players sit in their locker room, nervously waiting to run onto the field for the start of the game. These are anxious times in the NFL. Looking around the locker room, I can see the shared energy among us.
In the minutes just before hitting the field for kickoff, the pressures tend to peak. It is that in-between time with nothing to do but wait, eyes moving back and forth at the clock, coaches nervously pacing the floors, trying to act pumped or focused, the whispers of prayers on the lips of every other guy, people looking at playbooks one last time. All of this is what makes "distraction" a difficult goal of the moment.
A room full of men, draped in armor from head to toe, ready to hit the field amidst the wrath of thousands of screaming fans, heading to do battle against a force whose might is yet to be determined. A test of strength and skill with the outcome of one’s destiny minutes away from writing yet another chapter.
Those who sit there waiting carry more than pads on their shoulders. They carry the hopes and dreams of family and friends, towns and communities, teammates and coaches. It’s clear to say the pressure can be profound.
Observations such as these have become all too familiar at this point in my career. We are like soldiers eagerly awaiting to emerge from the safety of the trenches, fully aware that this may be the last time any one of us plays this game again.
From my perspective as a new member of the organization, something unexpected happens next.
Ray Lewis stands up with a small bottle of something in his hand that looks like Tiger Balm. He then walks up to the guys around him, one by one, stands in front of them, dips his finger in the solution and touches that same finger to the forehead of each player, looks him in the eye and quietly utters a few brief words.
When he is finished with one guy, he moves over to the next. Before long, Lewis has made his way down the entire team. When he gets to me, I look up…and feel such a genuine presence before me.
He dips his finger into the mysterious bottle and then places it to my forehead and blesses me. This ritual, now understood, is intended to protect each one of his soldiers as they prepare for war, empowering them with the passion and strength he himself displays.
Watching Lewis go by each and every one of his teammates during a relatively meaningless preseason game, I could see the results of each encounter immediately uplift his “disciples.” It was as if he injected every man in that locker room, including myself, with synthesized courage.
I distinctly remember, at that moment, the magnitude of this experience. I knew then that I would forever be a changed man.
What I had witnessed in front of me was not felt by me alone, nor was it as small as the moment had suddenly become, relative to our newfound courage. Rather, this was my chance to encounter and interact with a piece of history—a piece whose size was now beginning to be understood.
At that moment, I got it. I very well may be witnessing the greatest football legend to ever play the game. His legendary status was forged through characteristics far beyond his greatness on the field, but for his presence as a leader—a force far more powerful than tackles or statistics. Ray Lewis’ contribution is invaluable, his impact immeasurable.
When you stare into the eyes of greatness—greatness beyond football—you are changed forever.
No man has ever inspired a group of highly paid, narcissistic men into playing the game with their hearts and with passion, on a weekly basis, the way Ray Lewis has.
It takes a great general to send his soldiers into the face of death fully equipped with courage and passion, void of fear.
We get one opportunity in life, one chance at life to do whatever you're going to do, and lay your foundation and make whatever mark you're going to make. Whatever legacy you're going to leave, leave your legacy! — Ray Lewis