R.Lewis tackles his degree, to graduate.

OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis' glittery résumé is expanding.<br> <br> The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXXV Most Valuable Player will celebrate his 29th birthday Saturday morning by receiving his college diploma from the University of Maryland.<br>

Eight years after leaving the University of Miami as a junior to play in the NFL, Lewis returned to school and earned a bachelor of arts degree in business administration. This fulfills an academic promise the six-time Pro Bowl selection made years ago to his mother, Sunseria.

She discovered that he was graduating when a bill for his cap and gown arrived at her house. Lewis had intended for it to be a surprise.

"It's heartwarming now for my mom to get everything that she installed in her children: to finish school and always be at the place where you control your own destiny and all windows are opened for you," Lewis said Wednesday afternoon at the Ravens' training complex. "That was one of the major reasons that I went back to get my degree. Now that I have it in the field, which I want to go into, business, everything is falling into place.

"Life is a big puzzle. You try to piece it together and this is a big piece of my puzzle."

Two years ago, Lewis began completing the 24 credit hours he needed to complete after leaving Miami's campus early and being drafted in the first round by the Ravens.

Lewis met privately with professors at night for classes and exams to avoid commotion over an NFL player's presence on campus. He also completed course work online. Lewis' final credits were obtained by finishing a communications class.

"The Super Bowl, of course, everybody sees that sweat and the pain you go through to try to win that," said Lewis, who majored in business law while attending Miami. "But the thing about this degree is, nobody saw it. It was all behind closed doors. You have to work. So, when I go across that stage on Saturday, there is no other feeling like it."

Lewis was the Ravens' second draft pick as a franchise in 1996 after All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.

In eight seasons, Lewis has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice. He is the team's career leader with over 1,400 tackles and is tied with defensive backs Rod Woodson and Duane Starks for the most interceptions with 20.

He said it was gratifying for him to make his mother smile, "not for a tackle on the football field, but for a tackle in life."

Lewis said he hopes his decision to go back to school to complete his academic requirements can serve as a non-verbal example of perseverance to children and fellow athletes.

"As athletes, you speak about a lot of things very openly, ‘I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that,'" Lewis said. "But when you lay your foot down, cut out everything else, tell your friends, ‘Hey, I've got papers to do,' that's what the kids grow up watching. 

"He grows up saying, ‘You know, he didn't just play football. He went back and got his degree.' Now, I'm the man I need to be, to go do what I need to do. Grow up to be the man you want to be to provide for your family, to provide for yourself. That's what I think the measure should be."

Lewis plans to open a chain of Ray's Full Moon Barbecue restaurants and 24-hour fitness centers over the next 16 months, beginning with launching a restaurant in Hagerstown in September. He has also begun a mortgage company.

The hard-hitting inside linebacker said he has no plans to retire early, though.

"No, my passion is football," Lewis said. "This is what I do. Every day, I train to be the best at what I do. I train to come back here better than I was yesterday, not just last year. When I hit 30, it's on me and what I want to do. How long I play is up to me. My windows and options will be open for me when I get there."

NOTE: Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas is hosting a charity golf tournament Friday morning at Woodlands Golf Course in Baltimore to benefit underprivileged youth. … The team begins a voluntary passing camp on Monday.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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