When I was born, the Ravens were exactly one month away from the NFL Draft, when they would ultimately select their franchise player with the 26th pick. I never knew the game of football, or the Baltimore Ravens for that matter, without the name Ray Lewis attached to it. I was born and bred into Ray Lewis’ version of football. Unlike many other people in this city, I’ve been spoiled with a football team in Baltimore my entire life.I’ve also had the honor of watching Ray Lewis play, whether it is from the upper deck at M&T Bank Stadium or the comforts of my couch. I have rejoiced at the pain of those who stand in the way of the greatest linebacker I have ever seen play. I can remember being enthralled when I would see Ray on one side of the field before the play, and then end up on the other side making a tackle in the backfield just a few seconds later. I have also had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with Ray in person.
For everyone in this city, there is a lot to remember about watching Ray play. There are many ways to look back on his legacy. His leadership skills, his signature dance, his leading the team to victory in Super Bowl XXXV over the Giants. We’ll remember his hard hits, his presence in the pre-game huddle, his head-bob as the stadium begins to play “In the Air Tonight.” We’ve been able to share in his personal success as he has been voted to thirteen Pro Bowls and won two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But I won’t remember Ray for that. When I hear the name Ray Lewis, I don’t focus on achievements or accolades, I think of how he transcended the game, how he made the game his own.
Ray Lewis no longer plays in the game he was drafted into. When he was drafted, there was no such thing as player safety or concussions or lawsuits the NFL faces from hundreds of former players suffering brain damage from their days in the league.
When Ray Lewis was drafted, he was taught to hit high and hard. He was taught to hit high and hard long before he was drafted into the NFL. In his college days at Miami, Ray racked up the 5th most tackles in the program’s history, despite skipping out on his final year of eligibility.
Ray Lewis now plays in a league that fines and penalizes defenders for any hit they deem to be especially violent or detrimental to the game. While debate rages over the integrity of the game versus the safety of the players, many defenders themselves have expressed outrage at their punishment for playing the game hard. Most players have done nothing to change their game, and continue to illegally hit unsuspecting victims. Steelers LB James Harrison is a perfect example of someone who is static in his ways, unable to change and fit the mold of a perfect defender in today’s NFL.
Ray, however, has in some sense come to grasps with what the NFL has become. He has made alterations to his game so that he no longer needs to make the big hit in order to make a big play. That is what I will remember number 52 for. His passion for this game is so great that he was able to forget about everything he’s ever learned to become a model for what a modern-day defensive player can be. You can still hit hard, but within the limits. Ray has defined those limits.