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Ray Lewis inspires Baltimore Ravens once more with retirement

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- He tried to discount it. He did his best to spit out the standard response that you're supposed to deliver at this time of year. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, when asked how much motivation Ray Lewis' looming retirement could provide during Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts, delivered his finest cliché.

"No added motivation for the playoffs," he said Thursday.

Oh, OK. Right. About that.

Within seven sentences, Rice could barely get out any more words. His voice was cracking; his eyes were welling. The emotion -- the real emotion -- was bubbling to the surface, exactly as it will just before kickoff Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

It's funny how Lewis does this. How, even in moments when he's not in the room, he can raise the hairs on an arm at the mere thought of his motivational power. It's funny, of course, if you're anyone except a member of the team that's about to play against him.

"This could possibly be his last time coming through that tunnel," Rice said. "I just really can't prepare for that. The emotions are going to be too rough to even think about. I never prepared for this day. I never prepared for the kind of emotions I would feel, and I'm feeling them right now."

Lewis, of course, will explode from that tunnel, and he'll make thousands of strangers rise from their feet and scream from a place deep in their stomachs, because he is, perhaps, the greatest cheerleader this game has ever seen.

But that isn't the real reason for the emotion that will come from the Ravens' bench. That isn't the real reason that grown men, like Rice, are overcome by emotion when contemplating Lewis' absence. This goes much deeper than that.

"He played a part in everybody's life," Rice said. "I've shared my whole life story with him. There are a lot of things we've been through that we kind of related to. I know I'll always have that connection where I can reach him outside of football.

"Just when you're having that bad day, and you've got Ray Lewis standing at the locker next to you, you don't even have to pick up the phone, because he's right there. That's where the emotion is with me."

Lewis is the ultimate man's man. He is a friend to hundreds of players around the league, both young and old. He embraces mentorship. He treasures loyalty.

Take Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, for example.

As the captain of the Browns' defense, Jackson, who mans the same position as Lewis, in the same division, wears No. 52 on his jersey because he was inspired by Lewis' play before he'd ever even met him. Now, each time they see each other, Lewis is constantly bestowing knowledge on a player who entered the NFL a full decade after him.

That is the case with many who will be sad to see Lewis end his Hall of Fame career. Lewis' ability on the field is not what makes him one of the most popular people in NFL circles; it's his willingness to listen away from it.

"It's crazy to think about this being the end," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "It makes you think you take it for granted to have him on your team. When he told us this would be his last ride, I started thinking about things I could probably ask him, or things I could pick his brain about."

Lewis' career and life are not without great tarnish, of course. He was infamously charged with murder in connection with two stabbings that occurred in 2000 -- though those charges were eventually dropped as part of a plea deal that required him to testify against two companions. That part of his life will always cause some outsiders to view him differently, but within his own locker room, within his own circles, Lewis' abilities to listen, to provide counsel and to relate seem to resonate more.

On Sunday, the Colts will head to Baltimore for a wild-card game, inspired by the possibility of delivering a playoff win for their head coach, Chuck Pagano, who battled leukemia for three months before making his return to the sideline. It's the NFL's greatest story of the season, the type of inspiring situation that could seemingly fuel a squad of players to achieve big things.

And yet, with Lewis' announcement to his team Wednesday that this will be his final postseason as an NFL player, he managed to take things to an even higher level. The emotions will be running high on both sides of the ball Sunday -- though they probably would have regardless, given how much is at stake.

You'd better believe that when Lewis comes dancing from that tunnel, when he stomps and screams and sends shivers down the spines of everyone watching, the environment in that stadium is going to be one of the most electric ever felt in football.

No added motivation needed for the playoffs? We'll find out Sunday.

"Thinking about that being the last time Lewis comes out of that tunnel ... I don't want it to be the last time I play with him," Rice said. "I want to win to just keep it going as long as possible."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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