Former Chicago Bears star Mike Singletary doesn't remember the first time he saw Lewis play, but he remembers his initial impression. He saw a player with so much energy, who had the will to not only make every play, but then celebrate or congratulate a teammate after every play as well.
"I think in all honesty, a lot of people wish they had [that kind of energy]. I know I did," said Singletary, who is now the Ravens' inside linebackers coach. People may have their opinion about whether it's authentic. To me, it's unique."
"My passion on the field is totally different than my passion off the field," says Ray Lewis, who is one of the NFL's most aggressive players and the Ravens' unchallenged leader.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Some of Lewis's actions come across as self-centered, such as his tendency to refer to his teammates as "my players" or "my defense," or his elaborate pregame dance. At home games, Lewis is the last player to be introduced, and the rock music that plays as every other starter on the Ravens' defense is announced abruptly stops and switches to a rap song when he approaches the field.
But in other instances, Lewis demonstrates his concern for the team. He called linebacker Terrell Suggs every week during the offseason to make sure that Suggs -- who was coming off of a season in which he was named the league's defensive rookie of the year -- was working out. The first call came toward the end of February which, Suggs admits, was a little earlier than he had planned to start working out. The calls increased in frequency as minicamp drew closer. Suggs listened to Lewis.
"I'm still kind of the little kid that's still in awe that I'm on his team," said Suggs, who leads the Ravens with 9.5 sacks. "Every time he called, I'd let my boys know, 'Hey, this is Ray right here.' I'd put him on speaker so the homeboys could hear."
Lewis gave his phone number to John Garrett at the end of minicamp and told the rookie free agent linebacker that he should call if he needed anything. Garrett got stuck while watching film on his own one day, so he called Lewis, who explained exactly what Garrett should have been looking for.
"People tell you before you leave that veterans aren't going to help you," said Garrett, who was among the first round of cuts at the end of training camp. "That's a big thing that I like about [Lewis], he's always open to help."
Different defensive players meet at Lewis's house during the week to watch film or hang out. Lewis and cornerback Deion Sanders are particularly fond of the game Taboo, in which players have to get their partners to guess words without using certain clues. "When we get together with him, he sees a different eye view than we see," safety Will Demps said. "He thinks, 'Why can't you always cover that route?' But then we get in there and we explain it to him, and he explains to us what he sees. I think that's what you don't really learn when you're with the coach because the coach is not out there on the field playing with you."
Singletary knows that Lewis and fellow inside linebackers Ed Hartwell, Bart Scott and T.J. Slaughter watch so much film on their own that they don't need to spend much time studying film together in position meetings. So the Hall of Fame linebacker sends his players straight to the marker board and instructs them: "Tell me what you know. Teach me as if I know nothing."
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Lewis talk throughout the week. Nolan, who has spent 18 years in the NFL and has been the defensive coordinator for four teams including the Washington Redskins, said the give-and-take with Lewis is unique.
The only time Lewis goes to Nolan's office is when the coach invites him. Occasionally, one calls the other on Tuesday night to talk about the game plan. They meet in the hallway following meetings on Wednesdays, and they seek each other out on the practice field on Thursdays and Fridays. Every so often, Lewis asks if he can see Nolan's call sheet, and he offers his opinion as he runs down the list.
"I've never had as much confidence in a player in the past, nor have I felt that I needed to put that burden or load on them," said Nolan, who coached Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor while with the New York Giants. "In Ray's case, it's just the opposite. I don't think it's a burden or a load because he has such a great insight on the game. The general in the action, the leader on the field as Ray is, there's a thing going on on the field that's different than what's going on in the [coaches'] box."
Said Singletary: "It's almost like a dad, when your kids asks for the [car] keys. You're not going to give the keys unless you know that they have taken the time to ride with you, to drive with you, and you know that they're responsible. That's kind of how it is with Ray."
Making Mom Proud
When Lewis left the University of Miami following his junior season, he promised his mother, Sunseria Smith, that he would one day get his degree. This past May, Lewis graduated from the University of Maryland-University College after completing the final 24 credits he needed to earn his degree in business administration.
Lewis managed to keep his return to school a secret from his mother. He wanted to surprise her, so he didn't fill her in until it was time for the graduation ceremony. Smith was shocked and thrilled, and she cried her way through the ceremony. "What I'm most proud of with Ray is the man he has become, the man he is now, and the wisdom and knowledge that he has, putting God first in his life," Smith said. "He has matured where he gave up the limelight, the going out, the partying. He has changed so much in his image, the right image he's supposed to have. I know that four or five years ago, I couldn't have done this interview the way I'm doing it now because he wasn't living the life he was supposed to."
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Lewis and his mother spent over two hours in the small gym of a Baltimore elementary school, handing out turkeys, along with everything else needed for a full Thanksgiving dinner, to needy families, an annual event for his foundation. Lewis wore a buttoned shirt and dark slacks, nothing that would identify him as a football player -- because, he said, he was not a football player on that day. He wouldn't sign autographs, but he gave a hug to anyone who wanted one.
A young boy, maybe 10 years old, did a spot-on imitation of Lewis's pregame dance, everything from the shaking hands to the final scream. A teenage boy in a Deion Sanders jersey handed Lewis his cell phone so he can prove to a friend that he really did meet Ray Lewis. A teenage girl, after hugging Lewis, shrieked and walked away, fanning herself.
Lewis acknowledged afterward that it is difficult for him to escape his image as a football warrior, an image that he has helped cultivate. But he said he won't stop trying.
"Passion on the football field is because it's a contact sport, your mind has to go somewhere and say, okay, I can be physically harmed," Lewis said. "Off the football field, your passion is just to say, how can I make sure that people view me -- not that I look for their approval -- how can I make sure they don't view me just as a pure gladiator? I'm not going to walk in with a big jersey on, number 52, because that does not tell you who I am."