R. Lewis' call to greatness

WESTMINSTER -- The telephone call could arrive at any hour, awakening a slumbering football player.<br><br> For the Baltimore Ravens, the sound of All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis' raspy voice on the line often signals more than a general inquiry about their livelihood and health.<br><br>

It's an exclusive reminder about Lewis' uncommon passion, an unrivaled work ethic and the credibility he's created through a marriage of talent, intelligence and a patented mean streak.

Lewis' plotting also lets the defending AFC North champions know that the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is constantly watching them. Even during the off-season, Lewis is curious about their dedication to exercise, diet and the pursuit of another Super Bowl title.

Lewis' chief message: how much he cares for them, and for football.

"You would be amazed by his passion," said Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, Lewis' protégé and fellow University of Miami football alum. "Ray is my brother. He calls us to see how our lives are going, to see how your family is, your spiritual side. He knows that life is much more than football, but we talk a lot about getting ready to play the game."

Beyond invitations to study game film at his Owings Mills mansion, the former Super Bowl MVP stays in touch with teammates to ensure that their preparation is up to his high standards.

The six-time Pro Bowl selection's exercise regimen exceeds what the Ravens' strength and conditioning staff requires.

Lewis typically has less than 5 percent body fat and is capable of covering 40 yards between 4.5 and 4.6 seconds.

"Any time you see Ray or hear Ray speak you want to work hard because you know the caliber of player he is and you want to get to that same level," defensive end Anthony Weaver said.

"You don't want to let him down, because there's nothing he would ask you to do that he hasn't already done himself. He's tenacious."

Single-minded focus.
Lewis, 29, doesn't complicate his goals, although they are definitely lofty plateaus to pursue. He wants to win another Super Bowl title. And he wants to be acknowledged not only as the best linebacker to ever put on a helmet, but as the game's best player, period.

Toward that end, he realizes that he'll need teammates' assistance.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Lewis describes himself as a modern-day gladiator. Yet, his weapons apparently extend beyond a sculpted build, anticipation of offensive coordinator's schemes and the speed of a running back.

Lewis is also shrewd enough to recognize that he can't do it all by himself. "I truly don't think it's about motivating them," Lewis said. "In any business, you always call your co-workers and that's what I do. "I call them to see how their workouts are going, what they're eating. I ask them how they're feeling, how their life is with God. I just want to create that bond once again that we had in 1999, and what we have now."

When Lewis was drafted in the first round in 1996, one of his first questions to former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis was about the team's weightlifting records.

He told the future Cincinnati Bengals coach that he would soon break every mark.

Now, he has set his sights on another Vince Lombardi trophy.

"I truly don't think our expectations are anything less," Lewis said. "We have that team again now, so why shouldn't we go do it?"

Lewis has thrived in both the 4-3 scheme and the 3-4 instituted by Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2002.

His personal goal?

"Every time I step on the field just to be the best ever," Lewis said. "That's simple."

The Ravens ranked third in the NFL in total defense last season, leading the league by allowing 4.4 yards per play, collecting 47 sacks, surrendering 281 points to rank sixth in points allowed.

Lewis had 18 tackles, 19 tackles and 19 tackles against the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively.

"What made the 49ers and Cowboys' dynasties was that their very best players were their best workers," Nolan said. "Ray reminds me of Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. On some teams, their best player may not be their best worker. "He may just be gifted. That's not good. You're not going to have a good team that way."

Lewis set a franchise record with 225 tackles last season. He rebounded from a 2002 season abbreviated to five starts and 85 tackles because of a shoulder injury that required surgery.
He also led all NFL linebackers by setting a personal mark with six interceptions.

"It's easy for me to make tackles, it's easy for me to run around and hit people," Lewis said. "When balls come my way, I have to catch them. I've been catching them my entire life."

Lewis is coming off off-season thumb ligament surgery, but has proclaimed himself to be 100 percent.

Entering his ninth season, Lewis has registered 1,397 tackles, 20 interceptions, seven forced fumbles and 21 sacks.

"Ray doesn't ever have a bad game," Nolan said. "He has some games that are more productive than others, but he always plays a good game. He's excellent."

Place in history.
The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has also spawned debate over his place in the pantheon of linebackers.

Former Ravens majority owner Art Modell said two years ago that Lewis is superior to NFL Hall of Fame middle linebackers Dick Butkus, Bill George and Joe Schmidt.

Whether it's Butkus, Lawrence Taylor or position coach Mike Singletary, Lewis should be the final word in any who's-the-greatest argument, according to former Baltimore Colts running back Lenny Moore.

"Ray is like the Johnny Unitas of his era," Moore said. "What else can you say about him other than to marvel at this man's talent and ability and leadership qualities. He's in a class by himself.

"It was a different brand of football in our day. I played against devastating linebackers, but he possesses so much more."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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