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A Retrospective of Ray Lewis' Epic Hall of Fame Career

Ray Lewis, the best middle linebacker of our generation, is retiring following the 2012 NFL season. 

The report (via the Ravens' Twitter account) quoted Lewis as saying, "This will be my last ride," meaning that Lewis will be done whenever the Ravens' playoff run is over—whether this weekend, after the Super Bowl or anywhere in between.

Lewis' NFL-playing legacy is already well-established. In grading Lewis against the elite linebackers in NFL history, Chris Strauss of USA Today called Lewis "even" with Mike Singletary and better than Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Junior Seau.

If Strauss is right, that puts Lewis in rather hallowed company.

Of course, that isn't news to many.

Lewis, 37, has been to 13 Pro Bowls and named a first-team All-Pro seven times. When you add his three second-team awards, it ties him with Lawrence Taylor for the most of any linebacker. Lewis was a member of the 2000s NFL All-Decade team and is a Super Bowl champion.

After a stellar Miami Hurricane career that saw him drafted 26th overall, Lewis missed the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, but rattled off five straight appearances from 1997-2001. He was the Super Bowl MVP in the final year of that run on a fantastic Marvin Lewis-led defense.

Things weren't all great during that span, however, as Lewis' early career was marred by legal issues that haunt him to this day. In 2000, Lewis reached a plea agreement to avoid murder charges and jail time by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and testifying against two co-defendants in the death of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub.

From a 2006 profile on Lewis by Sports Illustrated

A few other things Ray will tell you are that off the field he's not a vicious man and never hurt anyone, much less the two men who were stabbed to death outside Atlanta's Cobalt Lounge on Jan. 31, 2000; that he regrets the mistakes he made that night; that the resulting trial was a blessing because it made him change.

To this day, it's difficult to even mention Lewis without someone (especially someone from Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati) bringing up those charges.

Lewis has done a lot of growing up since then and a lot of mentoring. Younger players—both Ravens teammates and opponents—credit Lewis with near-constant advice-giving. Whether it's conduct, diet, workout or actual play on the field, Lewis has changed the lives of countless NFL players for the better.

His Ray Lewis Foundation is one of the most active charitable organizations connected with the NFL. He personally took LaShaun Armstrong under his wing after Armstrong's mother drove into the Hudson River, killing herself and her other children. He provides food and school supplies to children from Baltimore to Florida.

If you need proof that Lewis knows a thing or two about what it takes to play in the NFL, the length and success of his NFL career speaks well of his expertise.

Jarrett Bell of USA Today wrote about Lewis' preparation for this season:

"I'm watching these guys, with their cheeseburgers and stuff," [Lewis] says. "And you're going to compete against me? Even if you're younger and faster, your fuel won't let you beat me..."

Lewis is a fish-and-vegetable man who hasn't touched pork in 12 years and has eaten beef twice during that span. He also doesn't drink soda or eat bread or sugar—except for scant exceptions. Like his cheat snacks, Twizzlers and Gummy Bears. "To keep living life," he says.

Lewis' legacy may grow even further because of his son, Ray Lewis III, who is a 3-star running-back recruit headed to Miami next year to start following in his father's footsteps.

Regardless of what Lewis does next, he has a great chance of being just as successful off the field as he was on it.

A fiery speaker, Lewis could do TV. Almost  every network should make that phone call. Lewis, like Singletary, could easily continue to mentor the next generation of defenders as a college or NFL coach. A religious man, few people would be surprised if Lewis ended up in the pulpit to do a wholly different kind of mentoring for a completely different group of troubled souls.

The Ravens, and the NFL culture as a whole, are losing a great man at the end of the Ravens' playoff run. Lewis has had a fantastic career and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer the second he is available for induction.

Treasure these last moments, Mr. Lewis. The rest of us certainly will.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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