No player has an electronic rolodex like Ray Lewis.
The face of the Baltimore Ravens has accumulated so many telephone numbers during 14 NFL seasons that the linebacker’s PDA can’t fit them all. Current and former teammates dating back to college, players from other clubs, even coaches. They constantly call and text seeking advice, inspiration or camaraderie from a 34-year-old wise beyond his age.
Lewis scrolled through his messages while preparing for a recent practice at team headquarters. One was from future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders (nicknamed “Prime” in Lewis’ address book). San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis left another. So did ex-NFL and University of Miami running back Donnell Bennett.
But on this particular late August day, Lewis is focused on an individual who will never achieve NFL fame or fortune like himself. Someone he has committed to helping make lifestyle changes — much like Lewis did after his association with two fatal stabbings following Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
During the offseason, Lewis was approached by a young woman asking if he could intervene with her brother Nick. He was involved with drugs and gangs in Florida, the state where Lewis was raised by a single mother who engrained his Christian values.
Lewis not only called. He kept phoning — at least twice daily — once Nick said he “didn’t want to live like this anymore.” Lewis sent Nick a Bible and other inspirational books. Lewis even mailed Nick a check to purchase a new cell phone so he could start anew without gang influences.
“He’s another person to add to the list,” Lewis said.
That list also includes Baltimore police officers who will begin an in-season conditioning program spearheaded by Lewis and his personal trainer. The children in the city’s impoverished neighborhoods who personally received back-to-school supplies from Lewis. The churches where Lewis is a guest speaker.
And a Ravens defense that needs Lewis’ leadership now more than ever.
New Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison doesn’t have the cache or charisma of predecessor Rex Ryan, who left in January to become the New York Jets’ head coach. But Mattison has a resource like no other in the NFL.
Lewis is the unit’s sheriff. He makes sure players are focused at practice and leans on those who cut corners, like arriving late for meetings. He takes young players under his wing — like second-year linebacker Tavares Gooden, who says Lewis is adroit at “taking (the offense’s) best player out of the game and identifying the key guys we have to watch.”
With the blessing of head coach John Harbaugh, Lewis sometimes delivers motivational talks to the entire squad. Lewis then backs his words with the hard-hitting style of play that helped yield his 10th career Pro Bowl berth and Baltimore’s No. 2 defensive ranking last season.
“He may be the greatest linebacker to play the game,” Harbaugh said. “On one hand, you’ve got a guy with a good heart who cares. On the other, he kills himself on the field. That creates a pretty lethal leadership combination. He’s the real deal.”
Yet the Ravens almost didn’t strike a deal with Lewis when he became an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Baltimore management had to weigh Lewis’ lofty contract demands against his age and what will ultimately be declining productivity in his mid-to-late-30s. Such negatives also tempered interest in Lewis from other teams.
Several weeks into the signing period, Lewis agreed to a three-year, $22 million contract that includes $15.5 million guaranteed. It may be remembered as the best bargain Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti ever struck.
“If Rex and Ray were gone, we’d really be hurting identity-wise,” Ravens linebacker and special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo said. “To have him back here, we’re ready to win a Super Bowl.”
A second championship ring remains Lewis’ primary goal. With the defense returning largely intact and offensive improvement expected under second-year quarterback Joe Flacco, Baltimore could be primed to topple defending Super Bowl champion and AFC North rival Pittsburgh.
Lewis, though, admits he’s starting to take a longer look at life after football.
“I have come to the realization that there is a great calling in my life to influence people,” Lewis said. “A lot of answering what my future looks like relies on Him and where He leads me. But I’ve got a sense of where he’s taking me.”