WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Thirteen seasons later, Ray Lewis isn't much different from the 21-year-old rookie who played middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens with his own brand of passion and fervor.
At the first full-team practice Friday under Ravens first-year coach John Harbaugh, Lewis directed the defense and sprinted toward running backs as if it was the middle of October. He even took the time to offer some fatherly advice to rookie Ray Rice, who dared try to juke a tackle before Lewis planted him in the ground.
"I told him, 'If you see me in the hole, bouncing around sometimes works. But in this business it doesn't. North and south wins, never go east and west,'" Lewis said.
Who can blame Rice for trying to avoid Lewis, a nine-time Pro Bowler and one of the best linebackers in the NFL?
"Not one of the best. The best," insisted defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, now in his 10th season with Baltimore. "I just know he was the best when I got here and he's the best now. Still."
The Ravens went 5-11 last season, but it sure wasn't Lewis' fault. He led the team in tackles for the 10th time and was the focal point on the only defense in the league that did not allow a 100-yard rusher. He missed the last two games with a finger injury, but says his 33-year-old body has never felt better and that the experience he's gained over the past 12 years have only served to make him better.
"Old is a lot of wisdom and a lot of knowledge, and if you take care of your body the way I take care of my body, you can play as long as you want," he said.
Opposing quarterbacks and running backs who believe Lewis might have lost a step after playing in 162 games have been extended an open invitation to venture into the middle of the Baltimore defense.
"Most of the time they're trying to get away from me," Lewis said with a chuckle.
Lewis was drafted in the first round by the Ravens in 1996, the team's first year of existence, along with offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. While Ogden watched from the sideline Friday after announcing his retirement last month, Lewis zipped through the two-hour practice with the zeal of a kid trying to make the team.
Not that it came as any surprise to his coaches and teammates. Lewis loves playing football, and will never take it easy on the field -- even during a 7-on-7 drill under the hot summer sun. Because if he doesn't try his hardest, then Lewis won't maintain the high standard he sets for himself.
"The amazing thing is, he keeps coming out here every single year trying to get better," Ryan said. "I think that's why he maintains such a high level of play."
Lewis long ago earned the respect of his teammates. He is the unquestioned leader of the defense, and not merely through leading by example. His feet are always in motion, and so is his mouth.
"He's still the same guy who tells us whether to look for a run or a pass, still the same guy who talks it up before the snap," tackle Kelly Gregg said. "You'd think in your 13th training camp you'd sort of slow down, but not Ray. He runs the show."
Harbaugh, a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, got a taste of Lewis' enthusiasm during minicamp. Seeing the linebacker in shoulder pads at training camp made Harbaugh appreciate how sweet it is to have Lewis on his side.
"It's great to have an opportunity to coach a football team that Ray Lewis is on," he said. "Just watching practice today, you can see why he's one of the all-time greats and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and why he believes he's got of football left in him. Because he does."
It seems hard to imagine that someone who has played in all those games for all those years can still be effective at a position that requires speed, agility and a rock-hard body. Then again, who says there's an age limit for an athlete to play like a champion?
"They said Michael Strahan was old, but he beat every tackle in front of him and won a Super Bowl. That's what I appreciate about me and all the other guys I see, whether it's Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen (of the NBA champion Boston Celtics)," Lewis said. "I think age is for everybody else who's done it before and still wants to do it -- or someone who doesn't want to pay you a whole lot of money."
Lewis is signed through the 2008 season. If the Ravens expect to bring up his advancing years when negotiating a new contract, Lewis will simply tell them that he's a better player now than when he accepted his last deal in 2003.
"Anytime you can be healthy at this point in your career, you're like, 'I don't ever want to be 25 or 26 because I know too much right now and I'm way past where I was,'" he said. "So now, coming into camp is more fun for you because you're in the best shape of your life and know how to take care of your body way better than when you were younger. Now you can really appreciate the game."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press