R. Lewis: 'Football is just getting started'

OWINGS MILLS -- The crowd surrounding Ray Lewis' corner locker had dispersed following a minicamp practice, and the topic of conversation rapidly changed to his future.

This wasn't about the star middle linebacker's impending decision on whether to accept the Ravens' latest offer in contract extension talks that launched during the offseason following team owner Steve Bisciotti's endorsement.

This dealt with how much longer the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year plans to play football, a choice that offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden wrestled with prior to officially retiring in June.

For Lewis, it's an entirely different feeling than Ogden whose decision was influenced heavily by a painful turf toe ailment.

As the Ravens' rookies and quarterbacks report to training camp today in Westminster with veterans arriving Wednesday, an energized Lewis is preparing for a much longer tenure than just this season.

"Heck yeah, football is just getting started for me," said Lewis, who's entering his 13th NFL season. "Some people try to lie to you and tell you as you get older that you decline. If you take care of yourself right, you never decline. Your decline only starts when you stop having the energy. My energy for it is more now than when I was a young kid.

"When you come back and your mind is completely free, then you want to play football every year. I don't build my body up for one season. What I did this offseason is build my body up for another three or four. Realistically after that, it's all situational."

Lewis celebrated his 33rd birthday in May, and was named to his ninth Pro Bowl after leading the Ravens in tackles for the 10th time with 184 last season.

He enters this season with 2,022 career tackles, 30 sacks, 25 interceptions, 90 pass deflections, 11 forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.

Although new coach John Harbaugh said that Lewis may be substituted for on third downs more often than in the past, he doesn't seem to have to lost much speed and posted his second-highest total with 10 pass deflections last year.

"I know eventually he's going to have to slow down, I just don't see it happening in the near future," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "That age is just a number right now. He's an unusual guy."

Unlike Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, whose abrupt decision to end his retirement has spawned controversy, Lewis said there will be no regrets when he walks away from the game.

"When it's time for me to hang up those cleats, there is no coming back,'' Lewis said. "There is no, 'Yeah, I feel good again and I'm in better shape.' Because I know what I give every day of my life, and that is complete focus on my task at hand.''

Regarded as a future lock for the Hall of Fame, Lewis said he is in top shape due to grueling workouts and a strict diet and weighs 255 pounds with nearly six-percent body fat.

The devotion to fitness isn't a new concept for Lewis, but the renewed emphasis comes on the advice of former Ravens Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe, two players who maintained a high standard late into their careers.

"They took their workouts to another level, and you appreciate it more," Lewis said. "You appreciate why you play the game, why you mentor these young kids, and why you go through the ups and downs of this business. So my energy is more incredible now than I think it's probably ever been, probably because of the excitement of everything that's going on."

What's going on in Baltimore following a dismal 5-11 season that included a franchise-record nine-game losing streak and being the lone team to lose to the 1-15 Miami Dolphins is a transition to Harbaugh.

Harbaugh is demanding and enthusiastic, and Lewis has bought into the new regime.

"Any time you go through change you look for the bad things to come in, but when you have someone who really relates to the players the way John does, I just think practice is going great," Lewis said. "With John, you have a new personality. It's a new season, new era."

And, potentially, a new contract. Although no new deal is imminent for Lewis as he enters the final year of a $50 million contract he signed six years ago, he doesn't seem concerned about the pace of talks.

With the exception of Jarret Johnson, all of the Ravens' starting linebackers -- Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott -- are entering contract years.

"I've never got caught up in that," said Lewis, who's due a $6.5 million base salary this year. "If anybody has ever bothered to check, everybody knows there has never been a camp where I've held out, there's never been a contract problem with me. There has never been that, and it will never be that with me, bottom line."

Lewis is constantly reminded about the length of his career when rookies approach him. Instead of making him feel old, Lewis says it invigorates him.

"Ray Rice said, ‘Man, I've watched you for so long,'" and I said, ‘You don't have to tell me the first time we meet,'" Lewis said. "It's a different energy because it's just exciting to see all these young kids who, actually, I'm a fan of. You do understand that being an older guy there's so much they have to learn and so much you can teach them."

Although Lewis isn't pondering retirement, he is planning for life after the NFL with a variety of business and real estate ventures along with some interest in broadcasting.

Lewis acknowledged that a desire to spend more time with his children is another major consideration, expressing regret that he missed a track meet this spring.

"When one phase of life stops, another starts," Lewis said. "Instead of putting on a helmet, I'll put on a suit and a tie. You make that transition. I get so tired of my kids fussing at me: 'Daddy, why can't you be there?'

"It's a push-pull. My kids are young enough now, but when they start getting to that age where they are in high school, I want to be there to say, 'I got this, I'll go shopping for everything.' That part of life, man, that's exciting once you actually put everything into it that I want to put into it."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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