Mike Smith. Mike Nolan. Jack Del Rio. Marvin Lewis. Chuck Pagano. Mike Singletary. Rex Ryan.
Those seven men all became head coaches in the National Football League over the years. In fact, Smith, Lewis, Pagano and Ryan are all still head coaches today. What do all these men have in common, besides having the requisite tools of organization and ego that all pro football coaches must have in abundance?
They all coached Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as assistants before getting their chance at the top coaching job of an organization. That, my friends, is being the proverbial king-maker.
Yes, Ray Lewis, the man who has manned the middle of the Ravens defense since the team’s inception in 1996, is calling it a career once the team’s playoff ride comes to a conclusion this year. The Ravens were able to top the Indianapolis Colts last weekend to give Lewis at least one more week in the sun of wearing the purple-and-black, and this Saturday will see the grizzled veteran match wits once again with the legendary Peyton Manning, now the quarterback of the very dangerous Denver Broncos.
Win this one, and the Ravens advance and Lewis gets another chance to get his uniform dirty. Lose, and the Ravens go home and Lewis exchanges his shoulder pads for a suit and tie as he moves on to his next career in broadcasting. It’s pretty simple, even if the rest of Lewis’ career has been anything but.
I was living in California when it was announced that the Cleveland Browns would be relocating to Baltimore. My first reaction was not without conflict, as I felt bad for the people of Cleveland. I knew what it meant to lose your favorite football team, as my beloved Baltimore Colts had moved to Indianapolis when I was in my early teens, and I truly ached for the kids who would no longer have the opportunity to root for their gridiron heroes. Though I did nothing to swipe the team from Cleveland, I felt guilty and was reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of this new Baltimore team, until the draft that spring.
I remember sitting there watching, as I do every year, and hoping that troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips would not go to Baltimore. I became a fan of the team instantly when they instead selected offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden from UCLA — an obviously talented player who seemed to have his head on straight. Later in that first round, the Ravens selected a skinny linebacker out of the University of Miami named Ray Lewis. I had watched him play a few times in college, and was impressed, but thought he was too small to man the middle in the rugged NFL.
Make no mistake about it — Ogden lived up to his high draft slot and more, and will most likely be voted into the Hall of Fame this year. He anchored the Ravens offensive line for years, and helped pave the way for running back Jamal Lewis to rush for more than 2,000 yards one season, along with helping the team win a Super Bowl. “JO” was a true star for the Ravens, and troubled back Phillips found his way out of the NFL and into prison.
Good pick, Ravens.
But that little linebacker out of Miami became my favorite player almost immediately. He was a tireless ball of energy, running down ball carriers and harassing quarterbacks. He got bigger and stronger, and you could see him standing tall on a team that didn’t come out on top very often in those early years.
But there was always a bit of a “thug” image to Lewis in those early years, and it escalated greatly with his involvement in a double homicide in Atlanta in January 2000. Lewis eventually pled guilty to obstruction of justice in that case, though we never really found out what happened that night, except that two young men lost their lives, and Lewis was under a national microscope.
Most of you know that Lewis came back to the Ravens, led them to that Super Bowl victory with his desire and talent and spent the next decade-plus rehabbing his public image. His is a tale of redemption and second chances, even if the two murdered men never got that same opportunity.
There are those who will never forgive Lewis for whatever role he played that night in Atlanta, and I can understand that. It’s never really left my mind, either. But he had two choices following those events — continue down the same path he was on, or force personal change. He chose to change. We can all learn from that.
Along with that change came a unique sense of leadership. Lewis motivated his teammates to play harder, and his coaches to be on the top of their games. He demanded the best out of others, and willed the best from himself. Every game. Every series. Every play.
Saturday could be the final chapter in the long, strange book on Ray Lewis’ playing career. It’s been a heck of a ride, for good and bad. The Ravens will never quite be the same without him.