Ray Lewis appeared to be in tears before Sunday's AFC Championship Game, but it wasn't pain from his torn triceps. No, this was just Lewis amping himself and his teammates up, with many crediting the emotional leader for lifting the Baltimore Ravens to an upset victory and a Super Bowl appearance.
Credit goes to the team, its medical staff and the player for his successful comeback.
Lewis returned to the Ravens defense for the playoffs after missing 11 weeks. He was sidelined by a Grade II strained triceps. While reports had Lewis with a "completely torn" triceps, the muscle itself is a collection of three muscles and only one of them ruptured, allowing Lewis to retain some function. (It remains unclear whether Lewis will need surgery after the season.)
New rules regarding the NFL's injured reserve allowed the Ravens to designate Lewis to return, but when they did, many (including me) thought it more a courtesy. Lewis was thought to be contemplating retirement at the time and at best, the thought was that Lewis would be activated for the last game, allowing him to come out for the crowd one last time.
Lewis was activated for the last game, but he did not play. Those new rules required Lewis (or any player) to be re-activated before the season ended in order to be playoff eligible. The Ravens kept that possibility alive, but there remained questions of how Lewis might play with the torn triceps.
Would the defensive captain actually play, or would he be more of a mascot or emotional leader?
The Colts found out quickly in the Wild Card Game. Lewis' famous entrance in his home stadium provided a lift to the fans, but it was his play on the field that helped his team.
Lewis finished with 13 tackles, nine of them solo, despite wearing a large brace that limited the motion of his damaged arm. The big worry was that with a damaged triceps muscle, Lewis would not be able to push defenders or slow his arm as it extended. The brace was designed to limit the latter, but there seemed to be no problem with the former.
Lewis continued playing up to his normal high level despite the injury and a brace that he described as "heavy and uncomfortable" after the Broncos game. Should we have seen this coming? It's hard to predict any player's response to injury, but the function was in question.
There have been similar injuries around the NFL. J.J. Watt had one of the great defensive seasons of all time in 2013 despite playing with a similar bulky brace to protect the elbow that he had dislocated in the preseason.
Lewis also benefits from having Mark Smith and the Ravens medical staff on hand to handle his injuries and rehab. Smith has been with the team for 28 years, longer than even Lewis has been around.
The Ravens medical staff often gets players back ahead of schedule from rehabs. Terrell Suggs was a big example of this, returning very early from an Achilles strain and immediately having an impact on the defense. Suggs didn't just return, he returned at a high level and has had no issues since returning.
The Super Bowl will be Ray Lewis' real last ride before he heads off to ESPN. He'll do it with a damaged arm and a bulky brace, but I'll bet Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick won't be thinking about that when he gets his hands on them.