Baltimore Ravens players happily spread the gospel of Ray Lewis

NEW ORLEANS -- It started as a routine morning, albeit slightly more important than the usual Wednesday, since the Baltimore Ravens were about to begin postseason preparations for their upcoming wild-card matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.

Coach John Harbaugh just finished delivering his own message to the team when the day-starting meeting was about to adjourn. But linebacker Ray Lewis, the 17-year veteran who spent much of the season injured, also had something he wanted to say.

Lewis stood up and spoke about life's ambitions. About being men. About the importance of camaraderie. About all of the sermon-like advice he'd been giving his teammates for years and years. And then, in a moment that teammates have since called a turning point in their season, he preached his final point:

This, Lewis told them, would be his last ride. The Ravens' legend planned to retire at this season's end.

"Suddenly, we all just focused ourselves and, you know, the reality set in that we're not all going to play forever," longtime Ravens teammate Terrell Suggs said. "We always talk about the window of opportunity closing. Ray's announcement kind of got everybody's mind right to go on a run."

It might sound sappy to you. It might sound overstated. You might be bored, maybe even annoyed, by a month that has put Lewis in a light that makes him seem more divine than human. You might want more scrutiny on his alleged presence at a double murder in 2000; more focus on his alleged attainment of deer antler spray, which contains substances banned by the NFL, to help his recovery from a torn triceps that sidelined him for 10 games this season.

And that's all OK. That's your prerogative. But there's one point in this Lewis praise that cannot be understated, that is not subjective, that is unarguable to those who matter most on Super Bowl Sunday: To his teammates, this inspiration is legitimate. It is not sappy. It is not overstated. It is not boring or annoying.

The Reverence of Ray Lewis is instead very real.

"His leadership definitely changes the game and changes the way you play," Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata said. "When he retires, it won't just be weird for our defense -- but for our whole team."

Lewis' antics surely can come across as self-indulgent, proven as much this week when he suggested his decision to announce his retirement before the playoffs was because he didn't want to "rob a lot of people (fans and teammates) of those last goodbyes." But his teammates, whether you agree or not, are glad he did it as he did.

"I think a lot of people don't understand what Ray Lewis is all about and, for some reason, people want to go out and try to get him," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "They put him in a bad light. The bottom line is Ray is a great person and a great person for this league."

But why do teammates love him as they do? Why don't any of them, after all the time they spend around him, complain about his antics? Lewis, they say, is always loyal to them. From the beginnings of many careers, long before his teammates have even made an impression on the league, Lewis has been there to help them mature.

Take Suggs, for instance.

Before any of Suggs' five Pro Bowls, before he was named 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, before he was even drafted by the Ravens in 2003, Suggs felt Lewis' impact. And he hasn't forgotten it since.

"Before I met him, I thought Ray Lewis was 6-foot-6, 275 pounds all muscle," Suggs said. "But I taped a commercial with him before I even got drafted to the Ravens, and I was like, 'Oh, you're not that tall.'

"But there's just something about the guy. If you're a football player, you're going to like Ray Lewis."

While they were taping the commercial, which was scheduled to air on the day of the 2003 draft, Suggs said he and Lewis (then a seven-year veteran) had a great time together. Lewis suggested to Suggs that the Ravens might take him. When the draft rolled around, the Arizona Cardinals, a team expected to take Suggs, traded out of the ninth pick. With the 10th pick, the Ravens selected Suggs.

"Then, I got a call, probably about 20 minutes after they mentioned my name, from the great Ray Lewis," Suggs said. "He said, 'I told you, Rook. I can't wait to see you in camp.' The rest is history."

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Suggs calls Lewis a mentor. He says he wouldn't be at this point without him. He says his advice on life, on fatherhood, on football, has impacted him in countless ways.

"When you talk about leaving a legacy, I think it is all about what your peers speak about you, the people you actually impact on and off the field," Lewis said.

In that regard, it is very clear, Lewis' career has been the ultimate success. Of course, this doesn't even account for his ability on the field. The likely first-ballot Hall of Famer has racked up 13 Pro Bowls. He is a two-time defensive player of the year. And yes, he has even won a Super Bowl, claiming XXXV in 2001.

This season, Lewis' place on the field wasn't nearly as illustrious. Before he tore his triceps, he looked as vulnerable as ever in his first six games, slow to stop the run and not nearly as flexible when trying to create big plays. But it has not been his ability on the field that has assisted with this Ravens' Super Bowl run.

Instead, it is the way he has inspired his teammates with the announcement of his retirement. It is the way he has helped each of the younger players to prepare for each playoff game.

"He's always asked us, 'What's your legacy? What are people going to say about you when you're done?' " Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "Now that he's leaving, you really take that into account.

"For the young guys, it is something that really resonates with them and they think, 'OK, I have to emulate and do some of the things that Ray Lewis has done, so that when I leave this game, I have the same esteem that he has.' "

Leading up to the Super Bowl, Lewis has used his experiences, namely his previous trip to the Super Bowl, to bestow more knowledge on his younger teammates. He recalls conversations 12 years ago with Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe that helped him better prepare for what was a whimsical and wild Super Bowl Sunday.

"I was young," Lewis said. "I was 25 when I won my first Super Bowl. To be 37 and back with a chance at another one in my last year, there is no greater hunger that I have. I told my teammates this: I am going to give my teammates everything I have, not just on Sunday but all week.

"I am sitting in my room, and I am studying, studying, studying, because I owe them something as a leader, and that is to have myself totally prepared. My hunger is probably off the charts right now."

Now, Lewis will tell his teammates what it feels like to have confetti fall on you in the wake of a Super Bowl win. He will tell them how much work it requires, how much focus it takes.

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One last time, Lewis is leading his team. He is guiding each young player in a way that will undoubtedly aid the Ravens in their game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Is it sappy? Is it overstated? Maybe even a little annoying? That's OK if you think so.

But to his teammates, it is everything they love about Lewis. And everything they will miss.

"Big brother is telling me it's time for him to move on and be the father that he always wanted to be to his children," Suggs said. "It's special for them, but it's sad for me. Right now, I'm going to enjoy it while I have him. I have my general still, and we still have one more football game to play.

"It just so happens to be on the biggest stage in the world."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington