THE RITUAL was familiar. Six minutes before kickoff on Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis emerged from a tunnel in the southeast corner of M&T Bank Stadium and danced for more than 71,000 people. What happened next was different: Lewis ran to midfield and was greeted not only by his teammates but also by members of the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team, who had gathered for a 10-year anniversary celebration.
The moment was a measure of Lewis's longevity in a brutal world in which he is more at home than most. Here he was hugged by men with whom he had fought football battles. Yet as soon as they broke their embrace, his old friends scattered throughout the stadium to watch from luxury suites while Lewis, the lone player remaining on the Ravens from that title team, played the 201st game of his 15-year NFL career. He did more than play: Lewis made 14 tackles, and with just under 13 minutes left in overtime he stole the ball from Bills tight end Shawn Nelson to set up Billy Cundiff's 38-yard field goal, giving Baltimore a 37--34 win. Nelson, a second-year player, was 10 years old when Lewis was drafted out of Miami in 1996.
Lewis's game-turning strip of the ball came at the end of what might someday be known as an epic week in the history of the NFL, as the league announced the strict enforcement of rules to limit devastating hits. The game can never be the same, but can it truly change? Lewis stands in the middle, a paradox who still flourishes as the sport evolves but who despises that evolution. He is the link back through Lambert to Butkus to Bednarik, but he might also be the end of the line.
Four days before the Ravens' survival victory over the winless Bills, Lewis sat in his corner dressing cubicle at the team's headquarters outside Baltimore. His voice rose as he tried to define the game he has played so well for so long. "When I came into the league," said Lewis, "the game was played with one motto: By any means necessary. That's what I learned. That's what I knew. It was physical, between men. But now, 15 years later, hey, don't shoot me for saying it, but there are just too many rules, man.
"My goodness. You can't do anything anymore. It's a tragedy. Look what they've done to the greatest gladiator sport we've ever played. When you step on this gridiron, there's something coming with it. That's why you strap up the chinstrap. You sacrifice your body. You sacrifice everything you've got. That's what the game has been. That's why we praise the Dick Butkuses and the Jack Lamberts. Night Train Lane, the only thing he did was clothesline people. The stuff that Butkus did? If you did that now, people would be screaming on TV, 'He's out of control!' I'm telling you, it's a bitter subject."
Bitter and also complicated. Lewis walks the same fine line—on one side the health of players, on the other the integrity and entertainment value of an immensely popular game—as the league itself. He is not only one of the best defensive players in the history of the NFL and a lock for the Hall of Fame. He is also an embodiment of the kind of athleticism and ferocity that get a man to the pros. Now that combination might make him a dinosaur.
LEWIS FIRST played varsity as a sophomore at Kathleen High in Lakeland, Fla. "He was ferocious, and my gosh, 90 miles an hour," says Gary Lineberger, one of Lewis's assistant coaches and now the school's athletic director. "We had kids on the scout team that didn't want to go out there and play, because Ray did ... not ... care ... who you were. He wasn't trying to hurt anybody. But he didn't care who you were."
At Miami (whose colors Lewis still wears under his pads), he was an early starter for some spectacularly talented teams. "He was a violent player," says Greg McMackin, defensive coordinator in Lewis's sophomore year and now the coach at Hawaii. "He was never trying to hurt people, but he had a lot of energy built up in his body and in his soul."
Tommy Tuberville, who recruited Lewis for Miami and now is the coach at Texas Tech, says, "I've been coaching 30 years, and I've seen a lot of good players. I've never been around a more intense football player than Ray Lewis."
That intensity, coupled with voracious film study, has helped Lewis win one Super Bowl and make 11 Pro Bowls. "He sits in front of his computer for five hours," says fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs. "I can give you an hour and a half." Lewis has nicknames in the locker room: Leonidas, Maximus, Achilles—warriors all. Yet he has tinkered with his own image, appearing this year in oddly humorous commercials for Old Spice. His teammates have hung a poster of one of the spots next to Lewis's cubicle, and he relishes the chops-busting. In February he plans to market his off-season training program to the masses.
But for now he wrestles with the direction of his game. "When I was first in the league, we'd go into defensive meetings, and what the meeting was all about was who was going to get that big hit," says Lewis. "That can't change. That hit instantly changes the emotion of the game. It's at your risk if you run over [into my territory]. My job is that if a little receiver is coming across the middle—I didn't tell you to be 160 pounds—I've got one job: Decleat him. That's it. And our coaches will sit on film and praise me for it."
Lewis watched James Harrison's $75,000 hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. "What that boy did, James Harrison, was the most beautiful, legal hit," says Lewis. "If I'm a defensive coordinator, I'm saying, 'That's the way to do it!' Then they fine him $75,000 for doing his job. That's embarrassing for our game." (Lewis had an entirely different take on Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather's helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore teammate Todd Heap, which drew a $50,000 fine. "Totally illegal," said Lewis.)
Since he was 13 years old, Lewis has lived his life targeting other people with his body under a set of rules. In ninth grade he turned his helmet away from a tackle and injured his neck. "Never been the same since," he says. "You're taught to see what you're hitting. Don't turn. We're creatures who work with our heads and necks. But now you've got wide receivers cringing when they catch the ball, and you're already loaded and shooting your guns. So it looks like you're going for the head. My thing is to go low. Low man always wins. Pads under the other man's pads. Keep going lower or miss tackles. Maybe that's the formula they want."
And here the future Hall of Famer shrugs, because this is his game, and now his anger has turned to sadness.
"WHEN I CAME IN, THE GAME WAS PLAYED WITH ONE MOTTO: BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. NOW, 15 YEARS LATER, THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY RULES, MAN."
STANDARD-BEARER Lewis long has exemplified the blend of athleticism and toughness upon which the league has thrived.