Whenever the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL playoff run ends this season, it also will mark the end of a remarkable career. Linebacker Ray Lewis, 37, will retire.
A native of Bartow, Fla., Lewis attended Lakeland Kathleen High School and was a late addition to the Miami Hurricanes’ recruiting class of 1993, not signing until well after national signing day had come and gone.
It was a wise move to hold that scholarship open, because Lewis became one of the best defensive players ever to wear a Miami uniform. He spent three seasons (1993-95) with the Hurricanes and provided an immediate impact.
Tough, physical, emotional and intimidating are all words that come to mind when I think back to watching Lewis patrol the Orange Bowl field in what would become his legendary No. 52 jersey. He was not only a fierce competitor, but also a natural leader, a vocal player whose actions backed up his words. He could inspire, cajole and uplift his teammates with his impassioned pregame speeches and fiery sideline talks.
Was he the best defensive player ever to suit up for the ‘Canes? It’s an interesting argument when you consider the credentials of players such as Ted Hendricks, Rubin Carter, Warren Sapp, Dan Morgan, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Bennie Blades, Fred Marion and Ed Reed. All were great in their own way and in their respective eras. To pick any one of these Hurricanes greats (based on their performance as college players) over the others is at best, debatable, and at worst, foolish.
If we need a tiebreaker, perhaps look at Lewis’ post-Hurricanes career.
A first-round draft pick of the Ravens in 1995, he has played 17 NFL seasons. Selected to 13 Pro Bowls, a seven-time All-Pro pick and a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis is the definition of playmaker. He has recorded 41 1/2 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles and 19 fumble recoveries.
Without a doubt, the ex-Hurricanes star is a Hall of Famer the first year he becomes eligible, as is his current Baltimore and ex-Miami teammate, Reed.
The only blemish on Lewis’ resume is the post-Super Bowl altercation in 2000 in Atlanta, in which Lewis and two others were charged with murder and aggravated assault after an incident that resulted in the death of two men. A plea agreement was negotiated, and Lewis has successfully worked to rehabilitate his image.
I am not writing, however, to debate the merits of that particular legal drama. Rather, the purpose of this exercise is to frame the discussion of Lewis’ accomplishments on the field, and in that arena, there is no gray area.
So where would you place Lewis on a list of all-time University of Miami greats who went on to have distinguished NFL careers? For me, it’s hard to distinguish between Hendricks, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lewis and Reed, both of whom unquestionably will be.
Sorry for the fence-sitting, but having covered Lewis and Reed, I cannot split hairs and pick one. To me, they are inseparable.
Lewis remains connected to the Miami program, often returning to Coral Gables in the offseason to work out with and offer encouragement to current ‘Canes players. That relationship will go to a whole new level when Ray’s son, Ray Lewis III, who has verbally committed to play at Miami, signs his letter of intent in February.
Lewis’ on-field performance, combined with his larger-than-life personality and passion for the Miami Hurricanes program, have made Lewis the gold standard for UM linebackers. For ‘Canes fans, and indeed for football fans everywhere, regardless of your rooting interest, Ray Lewis is, in a word, unforgettable.