January 2, 2013 marked the beginning of the end of an era in Baltimore, Ray Lewis announced his retirement after 17 seasons in the Purple and Black. If you polled sportswriters and Baltimoreans on their level of surprise at this announcement, I’d venture to guess it would be pretty split. Think about it, doing anything for 17 years is a lot, especially playing the game of football at the smash-mouth intensity for which “Suga” Ray has been known for his whole career. But, admittedly, there are some of us who thought that if anybody could play forever, it was Ray. Ray may not be the “Original Raven,” that honor technically belongs to Matt Stover, who was with the Browns in ’96 when they moved, and technically Jonathan Odgen (J.O.) was drafted ahead of Ray in the Ravens inaugural draft class, but Ray is certainly deserves to be the ULTIMATE RAVEN.
I write to you today with tears in my eyes, as I’ve just watched you announce that the upcoming playoffs are your “last ride” and you’re retiring. Part of me can’t believe it; you’re our Superman. If Ray can’t do it, no one can. You’ve inspired children to dream bigger than big and work harder than hard. The year you won the Super Bowl, snow and construction forced you all out of your own facilities and you had to hold practice elsewhere, so you came to my school, McDonogh, since Matt Stover’s daughter was a student there. I was 11 years old, and the sight of you and your teammates walking down the hallway to our gym pretty much made my year. You built a whole workout routine to give to homeless shelters to encourage their residents to get in shape and begin to put their lives back together. You can ask “WHAT TIME IS IT?” and people will always think it’s awesome. You don’t imitate other people’s entrances, they imitate yours, and it’s legendary.
I wanted to take a few minutes to simply say thank you. But, how can I truly thank the player who put our team on his back & carried us for almost two decades? When you came to Baltimore in 1996, football was hurting in our town. We’d been without a team for 12 years, and the wound was still raw given the manner in which the Colts disappeared into that snowy night in 1984. My grandfather, Vince Bagli, was the voice of those Colts, so as we heard him talk about those first few years, I know it could not have been easy. Success didn’t come right away, with 4-12, 6-9-1, 6-10, and 8-8 records to start your career, but you never wavered.
2000, oh my goodness 2000, how can I even put that season into words? 187 points allowed in a season, besting the previous mark by the Bears, setting a record that has yet to be broken. Beating our division winner, Tennessee, by intercepting your future teammate, Steve McNair, in the 4th quarter, to get the AFC championship game. The sight of Tony Siragusa busting through the Raiders O-Line so hard that he literally fell on Rich Gannon and knocked him out of the game, right in front of the Black Hole in Oakland. Back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns in the Super Bowl, ours scored by another Lewis, Jermaine.
As the minutes ticked to seconds ticked to zero & the score became official, we could hardly believe our eyes. The pride with which you embraced Brian Billick, the late Art Modell, and your teammates before you held aloft the Lombardi Trophy were just another representation of your leadership & incredible determination.
And you held your head high and led the team while still battling personal and professional demons and stigmas from decisions that were, let’s fact it, not your smartest. The 2000 Ravens are cemented in history as one of the greatest teams, specifically defensive teams, of all time.
The years since 2000 have been a lot of “almosts” and “better luck next times,” few more crushing than the dropped pass in last season’s AFC championship game against New England. Everything seemed to have finally come together, the QB, the offense, the special teams, the defense, but we all watched in horror as the ball slipped out of Lee’s grasp before it shot off Billy’s foot and hooked wide. I think I speak for all Ravens fans when I say all we’ve wanted is to see you and Sizzle & Ed hoist that trophy together. You are the generals of that locker room, in power and in spirit. Your commitment to our city, our people and the team is inspiring. Beyond that, your commitment to your family as you spoke today left me no doubt that the Ravens will be okay. You’ve taught them well & you’ve led them better.
One of my favorite poems is the Desiderata, by German writer Max Erhmann, and there’s a section that, at this moment, feels particularly fitting: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors or aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.”
So Ray, I leave you with this. Thank you. Thank you for not giving up on yourself after Atlanta, for not giving up on your teammates after hard losses. Thank you for recognizing that football is a game & that life is life. Thank you for teaching the next generation of players how to stay humble, hungry & fearless. Thank you for embracing the city of Baltimore and making it your own.
Your number will soon hang with JO & Matt & Jamal Lewis in the Ring of Honor and, hopefully, your powerful presence will be immortalized outside the stadium next to Johnny U. You can stand proudly with Cal Ripken & Michael Phelps & Johnny U as having helped changed the face of Baltimore sports. We love you, we’ll miss you, and most of all, THANK YOU.