Ray Lewis announced Wednesday afternoon that this was it. After the Ravens' current playoff run, he's going to call it a career after 17 seasons in the NFL. If he does indeed follow through, he leaves a pretty incredible, complicated legacy. A few scattered thoughts:
1. Try to recall the last time you immersed yourself in your job, or anything else. The outside world stops moving. Your head, hands, fingers, toes, whatever body parts you need, work in perfect unison. Time evaporates. Malcolm Gladwell's theses make sense. Soldiers are trained this way for a reason. I'm not sure any player in the NFL plays with the intensity of focus that Lewis does. Players don't accumulate more than 2,000 career tackles, 101 for a loss, by over-thinking the game in front of them.
2. Lewis does all the other things well too. No tackle was ever out of range for Lewis, not in his prime anyway. According to the numbers at Pro Football Focus, Lewis has missed fewer than 30 tackles since 2009, including playoff games. Remember, that number represents the downhill side of his career. He has 31 interceptions and 81 passes defensed in 17 career seasons. He and Rodney Harrison are the only two players in history with at least 30 sacks and 30 interceptions. Two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, a Super Bowl MVP and more Pro Bowl nods than you thought possible are all physical reminders of just how good Lewis was.
3. Lewis wasn't even regarded as the best linebacker in the 1996 NFL draft. There were three other linebacker picked ahead of him, including Kevin Hardy and Reggie D. Brown. At 6'1, some felt like he was too short. "Size concerns," is how armies of self-proclaimed draft experts say it. Inside linebackers are notoriously undervalued in the draft too. Draft experts were, and mostly still are, people who think going to Indianapolis in February is a vacation. They miss things, and Ray Lewis is good reminder of that.
4. Longevity is the most under-appreciated part of greatness. This is season No. 17 for Lewis. The average NFL career lasts less than four seasons. The list of linebackers, just linebackers, that have come and gone since Lewis started playing in 1996 is incredible. A torn triceps kept Lewis out of 10 regular season games this year. This season is one of three in that Lewis has played less than 14 games.
5. Few things inspire a football fan like a Ray Lewis motivational talk. Just thinking about those speeches makes me feel lazy and inadequate. To him, the difference between a Week 1 tilt against the Browns and the AFC Championship game never mattered. I don't know that it was always clear what he was saying -- not from the vantage point of my couch anyway -- but damned if it didn't mean something to Lewis and his teammates. The Ravens have been to the playoffs nine times during Lewis' career, including one Super Bowl win.
6. His record, his police record, includes an obstruction of justice charge, incurred for lying to investigators in the stabbing deaths of two people after a Jan. 31, 2000, Super Bowl party in Atlanta. Lewis paid a hefty fine to the NFL and a made an undisclosed settlement with the daughter of one of the victims. (The two people accused with Lewis were acquitted). In the eyes of the law, Lewis served his penance, and got his second chance. Still, the incident complicates Lewis' legacy, and it can't be overlooked when discussing the arc of his career. (Greg Jordan handled Lewis' legacy better than any of us could have in a recent feature for SB Nation).
7. During the lockout in 2011, retirement crossed Lewis' mind. He wondered in an interview whether or not he could go back on the field and still have the time to dedicate to his work in the community, and the guy does a long list of things for children in Baltimore and elsewhere, hands-on work and not just sending enough money to clear hurdles with the IRS. If that's where he chooses to point his focus once the season ends, he'll benefit more people, more directly than he did on the gridiron. Absolution isn't for sports writers to hand out.
8. Baltimore hosts the Colts on Sunday afternoon. Between ChuckStrong and Lewis' looming finish, there should be no shortage of moving montages backed by string instruments. There will also be football, and with Lewis leading his team on the field against a young, inexperienced group from Indianapolis, Lewis probably has one, maybe even two or three more games left to play.