FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Ray Lewis’s cubicle, near a back doorway in the visitors’ locker room at Gillette Stadium, was a hub of activity Sunday night. A couple stalls down, Terrell Suggs sang and whooped and hollered, and Lewis answered his every call, sing-songing right back. Men with celebratory cigars walked through in suits, and Lewis shouted after them as he packed his bag and pulled on his suit, the unmistakable scent of victory in the air.
To the side, looking for an entry, a way to make his presence known to the Baltimore Ravens retiring middle linebacker, stood a mustachioed 20-something, Ravens hat on backward, purple checked shirt hanging out of his jeans. At one point in the mayhem, Lewis looked up, and caught the hipster’s eye.
“My baby!” Lewis yelled. And Michael Phelps just started laughing.
“This is the best,” Phelps said.
At that moment, he could have been any kid from Baltimore, any lifelong Ravens fan, albeit among the luckiest to be standing in the locker room after a 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots sent the team to its second Super Bowl. But Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history — only five months removed from winning the last of his 22 medals and his own retirement at age 27 — made clear he is more than just a Ravens fan. Rather, he gives Lewis credit for helping hold his own career together, for making those 22 medals possible.
“What he did for me is the best thing in the world,” Phelps said. “He helped me come back.”
Phelps’s journey after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, at which he set a record by winning eight gold medals, is well-told. He was exhausted, at times uninterested, and it was a struggle for his coach, Bob Bowman, to even get him to the pool for training. Phelps’s Olympic career began when he was just a teenager, at the 2000 Sydney Games, and going for a fourth appearance, even with the specter of becoming the all-time greatest, was at times tedious.
Phelps said Sunday night that during that time, he struggled personally as well. And he often turned to Lewis, who became a Raven in 1996, when Phelps was 11.
“We’ve talked about so much the last couple years of my career,” Phelps said. “He just helped me get through a lot of hard times, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. He’s been telling me, ‘One more shot. We’re gonna have one more shot.’ And he did it.”
With the Ravens celebrating around him, Phelps didn’t detail his struggles or outline his conversations with Lewis. But he did say Lewis, who is 10 years his senior, is one of the few people who could relate to what he went through.
“He’s probably the only person who could really help me do that,” Phelps said. “He’s been through everything — the ups and downs — and he’s helped me literally overcome a lot of things that I’ve had in my life that have been tough, and he’s been there for me.”
When Lewis looked up and saw Phelps and started joking about “My baby,” Phelps jumped into a story about him and his mother Debbie.
“Mama Phelps,” Michael said. “Mama Phelps?!” Lewis smiled.
The Phelps family sat in the suite next to Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s box and as the Ravens took control, they didn’t care about cheering and hugging.
“Mom started to cry,” Phelps said. “Before the game even ended, the [Kraft] suite had cleared.”
Lewis smiled. They join Cal Ripken as, arguably, Baltimore’s most celebrated and revered athletes of the last generation. Sunday night, one — his medals out of sight, his jeans sagging, his smile broad — stood in the shadow of the other and spoke about how much he meant to him.