When the Baltimore Ravens used their second first-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, which was the second first-round pick in the history of the franchise, on Miami Hurricanes linebacker Ray Lewis, they had no way of knowing that they were selecting the player that would be the measuring stick on which all future inside linebackers would be measured. When Lewis retires, whether it be after Sunday's AFC Championship Game (if the Ravens lose) or after Super Bowl XLVII, he will go down in history as one of the, if not the, greatest inside linebacker in the history of the NFL.
Lewis already has a section in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio roped off for him next to players like Jack Lambert, Ray Nitschke and Lawrence Taylor. His bust is probably already being shaped in his likeness. In reality, they could have started shaping his bust years ago; it wasn't like he locked his spot in Canton yesterday.
Lewis was the fourth linebacker taken in the 1996 draft. The Jaguars used the No. 2 overall pick on Kevin Hardy, the Broncos selected John Mobley at No. 15 and the Lions selected Reggie Brown at No. 17 before Lewis fell to the Ravens at No. 26. Heading into the draft, Lewis was seen as a speedy inside linebacker that played with intensity, but many scouts thought his size could be a liability. After Lewis' career, there isn't one team in the league that wouldn't have taken him at No. 1 if they had the opportunity.
Lewis' rookie season was an impressive one. He led the Ravens in tackles with 110 and had 15 tackles for loss as an immediate starter. Since that time, Lewis has played at the same level or higher unless he was injured. After the 2012 regular season came to a close, Lewis had racked up a total of 1,573 tackles, a safety, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 31 interceptions, three touchdowns and 41.5 sacks. More importantly, though, Lewis has been the emotional and spiritual leader of the Ravens' defense, which has, year in and year out, set the standard for defensive play in the NFL over the last 17 years.
It hasn't always been perfect for Lewis, though. As Lewis was leaving a Super Bowl party in 2000, the group of people he was with got into a fight with another group. When the dust settled, two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, were stabbed and later died. Three days later, Lewis, along with Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were indicted on aggravated assault and murder charges.
In the end, Lewis and his attorneys negotiated a plea agreement with the Atlanta district attorney. As part of the plea deal, the murder charges against Lewis were dropped and he was charged with obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor. He also testified against Oakley and Sweeting as part of the deal. Lewis was sentenced to 12 months probation and Oakley and Sweeting were both eventually acquitted of the charges on the basis of self defense.
Lewis' reputation at that moment couldn't have been any lower, and for the next few years, even after he was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, which the Ravens won by a score of 34-7 (Lewis had three solo tackles and four blocked passes, but he was the leader of the defense that allowed only 152 total yards to the Giants). The murder trial followed Lewis around for years, and it still does to some extent, but like all scandals in the sports world, it blew over.
Since that time, Lewis has changed, both on and off the field. What he has lost physically due to wear and tear and his age, he has gained in anticipation and his ability to read even the most complex offenses. He has also become one of the most inspirational leaders of any team in the league. He is now one of the most well respected and adored figures in the NFL, both by players and fans.
On Sunday, Lewis will take the field in Foxborough to face another one of the league's most polarizing figures, Tom Brady, when the Ravens take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, a rematch of last year's championship game. Lewis, who was hampered throughout much of the season by injuries, has already announced that he is going to retire after the season comes to an end, and considering the Ravens have lost three of their last five against the Patriots, Sunday's game could be his last.
Lewis has a special talent of getting the entire defense to play at his level when he's on the field, and even though the Patriots have the top-ranked offense in the league, the Ravens are sure to give them fits. Anybody with Lewis's attitude, drive and ability wants to leave on their own terms and on top. Knowing that at this point, every game could be his last, Lewis, and the entire Ravens defense, will be as good as they ever have been.
Sunday's game should be an exciting one, as fans from both teams and from all over the country will be able to watch two of the greatest players in the history of football go after each other in Foxborough. Whether or not this game is Lewis's last, he will go down as one of the greatest football players in league history. He has had his trouble off the field in the past, as many players have, but he has been one of the fortunate few to rise above those troubles and leave the game we love better than it was before he came along. That is the true mark of greatness, and regardless of what happens on Sunday, we owe Lewis a debt of gratitude, not only for entertaining us on the field for the last 17 years, but for showing us how to learn from our mistakes, how to lead by example and how to walk away when the time is right.