Even as the 26th-overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft out of Miami, a school that has been a factory for linebackers over the years, Ray Lewis wasn't quite sure how long his professional career would last.
"When you come in, you're just really just excited to be in," Lewis said Wednesday via conference call at Halas Hall. "I don't think I ever even thought about it. I was never asked that question. I realized when I came in that I did want to play a long time."
14 seasons, 10 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro selections later, Lewis is one of the greatest players in the history of the game at his position and a surefire Hall of Famer five years after he finally decides to hang up his spikes for good. And that might not be any time soon, despite all the wear and tear he has subjected his body to manning the middle of the Baltimore defense, as the former Hurricane is playing as well as ever at the ripe age of 34. He currently leads the Ravens with 108 tackles and has also chipped in two sacks and seven passes defensed.
After missing 11 games in 2002 and 10 more in 2005, there were whispers around the league that Lewis didn't have much left in the tank and wasn't the difference maker he used to be in the glory days of Baltimore's dominant defense. He answered the naysayers with three straight Pro Bowl berths from 2006-08, and he was a first-team All-Pro this past season with the Ravens rebounding from 5-11 the year before to go 11-5. At 7-6 on the campaign, Lewis and Co. are right in the thick of it again in the AFC wild card race.
Bears fans were hoping fellow middle linebacker Brian Urlacher could orchestrate a Lewis-like rejuvenation after failing to make the Pro Bowl in '07 and '08, and although he has been on injured reserve with a dislocated wrist since Week 1, Lewis believes No. 54 has what it takes to succeed well into his 30s.
"I think he [does]," said Lewis. "I don't care what [anybody] says. Things just happen. Things just happen, man. Injuries just happen, and you can never predict when they're going to happen."
According to Lewis, the key for Urlacher is focusing on the enjoyment he gets out of playing the game, not telling the critics to take a hike or making the fans happy.
"I just think he has to come back with the same mentality that I just want to enjoy the game," he said. "Because if you come back and enjoy the game, working out will be easy. Getting up won't be stressful, things like that. You won't worry about proving nothing to nobody. You're just talking about going out there to play, and he'll definitely come back with more fire ready to play."
While both of them are going to have a bust in Canton one day, to choose between Lewis and Urlacher for best middle linebacker of the 2000s may be an impossible task. Each competed in just one title game, but the tiebreaker may be Lewis winning Super Bowl XXXV and Urlacher losing Super Bowl XLI. Lewis, as a matter of fact, took home MVP honors, even if it was quarterback Trent Dilfer who got to tell the postgame cameras, "I'm going to Disney World!"
Lewis has a lot of respect for Urlacher and how he goes about the business of being a middle linebacker, and he's confident the Bears captain will be back in 2010 and every bit the player he once was.
"I just think he's a great talent at the position," Lewis said. "I think he plays the position the way the position should be played. Barring injury, you don't know what he could have done without injury. But you go through those things, and hopefully he's fighting through because, like I said, I just think he will definitely come back and be the force that he's always been."
Urlacher will now have to rehab from his wrist injury, this after struggling with back and neck issues in recent seasons, but Lewis has spent his share of time on the operating table, too.
"I've had hamstring surgery," he said. "I've had shoulder surgery, thumb surgery. So I've been through those things. So what they're talking about is, how do you bounce back from those days? How does he bounce back from blowing your shoulder out in the fourth game when you're having your best game? Blowing your hamstring out when you're having one of your best seasons? You come back stronger. You have to change some things in your routine."
Lewis spends as much time in the weight room as anybody in the league, but he has also incorporated alternative methods like yoga to get his body prepared for the weekly car crash that is life in the NFL.
"Anybody I give any advice to, don't listen to what everybody's saying," said Lewis. "Just get your behind [ready] in the offseason. Do something different. If you do something different, you're going to see different results."
Unlike the Bears, who have fallen from one of the league's elite defenses to perhaps one of the worst, the Ravens have continually been ranked at or near the top in the important statistical categories. Even with Urlacher in the lineup all of '07 and '08, Chicago was only 28th and 21st, respectively, in total defense, maybe because the most important player on the field was battling through those aforementioned back and neck concerns. Without Urlacher for all but one half of football in 2009, those problems have persisted – the Midway Monsters are 21st in points allowed per game at 22.4.
Nevertheless, if Lewis could tell Urlacher anything, it would be to always look forward and never waste any time glancing in the rearview mirror.
"When the season time came up, I was ready for the new season and not worried about the last season."
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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