R. Lewis: "I was bred here"

WESTMINSTER -- The love affair between Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis and his loyal fans has been fortified after a rough spot that tested their mutual devotion. After 14 years, the marriage is still going strong.

As Lewis walked down the steps to the practice field at McDaniel College on Friday morning with his cleats making a familiar clicking sound, fans chanted his first name. They created enough of a commotion that he acknowledged them with a wide smile before jogging onto the practice field.

A leaner, presumably just as mean Lewis reprised his destructive path toward the football during the first full-team practice of training camp by dashing around younger blockers to throttle running backs.

Lewis made bold statements prior to an uncomfortably quiet week as a free agent where he attempted in vain to entice the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys to invest millions of dollars in a 34-year-old. The overtures to other NFL teams affected Lewis' popularity during that uncertain period, but that time appears to be forgotten now.

Ultimately, Lewis signed a seven-year, $44.5 million contract with the Ravens that essentially acts as a three-year, $22 million arrangement that should allow him to eventually retire in Baltimore.

"I didn't flirt with anybody," Lewis said with a laugh. "I mean, I flirt when I pass a beautiful woman walking down the street. That doesn't mean I talk to her. I don't want to ever go anywhere. I'm bred here. I started my career here and I'm going to end my career here.

"I would never go put on another uniform and play for one year, two years. It's not worth what's invested in my city, what I give back to my city off the field and what my city gives back to me. There's no greater reward than that."

Lewis has been a constant, vibrant presence ever since the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996.

Over a decade later, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year remains the heart and soul of the franchise.

Arguably, there hasn't been a more recognizable athlete in Baltimore during Lewis' tenure.

And the former Super Bowl MVP's impact can be measured by more than ten Pro Bowl selections, 2,182 career tackles, 33 1/2 sacks and 28 interceptions.

"Ray is like the Michael Jordan on this team," free safety Ed Reed said. "His work ethic is totally off the charts. His intensity and his character and what he knows about the game are what makes you want to get better.

"I just pick his brain. Now, Ray is just that father on the field that's getting guys lined up and they can learn to play the game by just watching him."

Lewis' intimidating presence is even more vital this year with the departures of starting inside linebacker Bart Scott and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the New York Jets.

With kicker Matt Stover not currently on the roster, Lewis is the final remaining vestige of the original Ravens from a playing and coaching standpoint.

"Ray is the guy that's been here since the beginning," coach John Harbaugh said. "If it's anybody's defense, it's Ray's defense. Obviously a great tradition has been built here, and you've got to say he's the one it's been built around."

With an eye toward maintaining that standard, Lewis has taken his conditioning to a new level.

He appeared visibly heavier than usual last season, bulking up to nearly 265 pounds in an effort to continue to deliver violent tackles like the powerful shot that broke Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder.

At times last season, Lewis wasn't as impactful as usual in the open field against elusive running backs like Tennessee Titans speedy runner Chris Johnson.

So, Lewis lost 15 pounds, or 24 pounds in the estimation of Monte Sanders, his personal trainer. Lewis' physique looks much leaner, and he seemed very quick Friday as he slipped past blockers to track down the football.

"Just shredded it a lot," Lewis said. "I wanted to come in and play a lot lighter. Anytime you can find yourself feeling as good as I've been feeling, you really have a lot of fun training. There was no lagging and things like that. Fourteen, it's a great number.

"Anytime I feel as good as I feel and I can keep leading these men, life keeps going. That's why I train the way I train. Only God can tell you when it's over. I'm having too much fun playing this game."

In consultation with linebackers coach Vic Fangio, Lewis decided that losing weight was the answer to keep him energized and strong.

It's a philosophy followed by other veteran linebackers like Pittsburgh Steelers standout James Farrior.

"I think losing the weight has been good for him," Harbaugh said. "He decided he wanted to be a little bit lighter and faster and maybe a little more active. He looks good."

Sanders said that Lewis followed a regimen of six miles per day of interval training as well as ladder drills and weightlifting.

"Last year, he wanted to put on some weight," Sanders said. "But he wanted to come down, get a little bit quicker and faster, so we dropped over 20 pounds this offseason. He's in incredible shape right now."

Last year, Lewis led the Ravens in tackles again while recovering two fumbles and intercepting three passes.

Yet, Lewis' team lost three games to the AFC North rival Steelers, who defeated Baltimore in the AFC championship game and won the Super Bowl.

Now, Lewis is intent on winning another Super Bowl ring. And he's convinced that his career is akin to a vintage wine.

"I think I'm probably better now because I'm just wiser," Lewis said. "Wisdom overrides talent any day. Talent fades, wisdom never fades. Wisdom grows. That's why I'm a better player because I can make my team better."


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