After nearly two decades of football dominance, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced Wednesday he’ll retire after this season’s postseason run. Lewis is arguably one of the best players of all time, and unarguably one of the best linebackers.
On the field, he has perfected the position, becoming one of the most superior defensive forces the game has ever seen.
But ultimately, it’s everything Lewis has done off the field that may end up defining his legacy.
His playing resume easily makes him one of this generation’s all-time greats. He earned 13 Pro Bowls selections, seven all-pro selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and a Super Bowl MVP award. He’s also one of the few players who spent his entire career with one team, and one of those rare players where the city’s characteristics actually mirrors its star and vice versa. Baltimore represents grittiness, blue-collar work ethic and passion. Lewis showcases those same traits on the football field.
When many think of Lewis though, it’s hard not to remember that his amazing career could’ve easily never happened. In 2000, Lewis was embroiled in a murder trial. After originally being charged for murder, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and escaped jail time. The following season, Lewis led one of the most dominant Ravens’ defenses in football history to the Super Bowl, where he won the only NFL Championship of his career.
What’s really astounding about Lewis’ career was that he used the same energy and drive he brought to the football field to all of his other passions; namely, charitable work, getting involved in the Baltimore community, and mentoring anyone that needed help.
“Mentor” seems to be the adjective everyone that has been around him has used to describe him. He has been a mentor to young players on the Ravens, like Ray Rice, who has been his best friend on the team, and who was nearly brought to tears yesterday now that his “big brother” is retiring:
“I definitely didn’t prepare for it,” said Rice, who fought back tears. “I just can’t picture Baltimore without him. He has kids, but I was one of his kids.”
NFL players weren’t the only ones that benefited from Lewis’ kindness. His foundation, The Ray Lewis 52 Foundation, has several initiatives benefiting local youths in the community, including youth fitness clinics, back to school programs, holiday toy drives and more. Lewis even looks to help people he doesn’t know going through hard times, like when he reached out to a 10-year-old survivor of a Hudson River car accident.
When Lewis escaped serious punishment following the murder trial, he easily could have laid low, just been thankful for his freedom, and went on to have a successful on-the-field career. But his decision to learn from the outcome and make his life’s work to helping others is ultimately what defines him. Thousands of kids will try to mirror Lewis’ playing style on the football field. Thousands of others will try to mirror his compassionate for others off of it.
With Lewis’ career coming to a close, he surely won’t be bored. He’ll get to watch his son Ray Lewis III play football on scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Miami. He’ll have plenty of motivational speaking engagements, charity events and his pick of an NFL studio analyst job. He has the charisma to be even more famous in his post-NFL career, ala Michael Strahan.
But real football fans everywhere will miss No. 52 prowling around the football field, creating havoc on every play. Lewis didn’t just play football for himself. He played the game because it gave him an outlet to help others:
“I realized that I can do a lot of things to be great individually but I wanted to be known differently,” Lewis said. “I wanted to make men better.”
And more important than the Super Bowl ring, the Pro Bowls, or the Hall of Fame career… making men better will ultimately be Lewis’ legacy.