Ray Lewis' Legacy Includes Inspiring Young Athletes
By Keith Mills
For the last 17 years, Ravens fans watched linebacker Ray Lewis pummel opposing ball carriers, sack quarterbacks, intercept passes, recover fumbles and help the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV.
They watched him lift weights, run the hills at Oregon Ridge, practice at a maniacal pace and outhustle even the most gung-ho rookie with the work ethic of a longshoreman.
They watched him give out turkeys on Thanksgiving, help the homeless, counsel kids and make a difference in a city of people who have adopted him as one of their own.
They watched him play Madden, hawk Old Spice, wear Under Armour, drink Gatorade and team with Tom Brady for a spot on the NFL Network.
And through it all, they watched him inspire a generation of high school athletes.
"I remember growing up watching Ray Lewis," said LaQuan Williams, a former Poly standout and current Ravens wide receiver. "Now I'm on the same team with him. That's pretty unbelievable."
Williams grew up in East Baltimore and was 7 years old when the Ravens moved from Cleveland and picked Jonathan Ogden and Lewis during the first round of the 1996 draft.
He was 8 when the Ravens played their first game in September 1996, and 14 when he first saw the two signs under the stands at Lumsden-Scott Stadium at the Poly-Western High School complex in north Baltimore, which served as a reminder of what was possible.
"There are two rooms over at the stadium at Poly," Dr. Barney Wilson said. "They are locker rooms and they're named after Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. They are a constant reminder of what you can achieve if you work hard and believe."
Wilson is now the principal at Reginald Lewis High School. In 2004, he took over at Poly, where Williams was just starting to establish himself as the Engineers' quarterback on the football team and leading scorer in basketball.
"LaQuan grew up looking at the name of Ray Lewis almost every day," Wilson said. "For him to play on the same team is a dream come true."
"J.O. and Ray," Williams said, "I saw those signs on those locker rooms all the time."
When Lewis played his first game for the Ravens in 1996, some of the area's best players were Karim Cross of City, Jason Boyce of Dunbar and Monte Graves of St. Mary's. A year later, Aberdeen's E.J. Henderson was dominating Harford County football on his way to the University of Maryland.
In 1998, the first year Lewis made the Pro Bowl, Dunbar's Chris Barnes, the son of longtime Forest Park coach and athletic director Obie Barnes, and City's Bryant Johnson were among the few local high school players during the late 1990s who went on to play major college football. Barnes attended Boston College, and Johnson went to Penn State. In 2003, the Arizona Cardinals drafted Johnson, who just finished his ninth year in the NFL.
Henderson went on to play at Maryland and spent nine years with the Minnesota Vikings. His younger brother, Erin, also an Aberdeen graduate, still plays for the Vikings.
A few years later, Stan White Jr., who went to Ohio State, and Ambrose Wooden and Victor Abiamiri, who both went to Notre Dame, graduated from Gilman and watched Lewis play linebacker. Every Sunday, they took in Lewis and the Ravens as they steamrolled opposing offenses on their way to a Super Bowl championship.
Since then, Abiamari, Woodlawn's Vince Fuller, Poly's Ricardo Silva, and McDonogh's Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eric King have all played in the NFL, with Dunbar's Tavon Austin knocking on the door right now at West Virginia.
On Jan. 7, Gilman's Cyrus Jones (Alabama); Boys' Latin's Michael Newsome (Notre Dame), the son of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome; and Dennis Mahoney (Notre Dame) played in the Football Bowl Subdivision national championship game.
They may or may not have done it without watching Lewis and the Ravens, though Lewis' imposing presence in the local football community certainly helped.
It certainly did for Williams when he was playing for the Northwood rec team in Northeast Baltimore during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The same goes for Cardinal Gibbons' Kiero Small; Dunbar's Darron Edwards, Sean Farr and Nate Irby; and City's Lamar Manigo and Sheldon Bell, who also all played for Northwood.
They grew up watching Lewis pulverize enemy running backs on the way to a pair of NFL Defensive MVP awards, in 2000 and 2003.
Ed Reed was Williams' favorite Raven growing up, though Williams said he was almost in awe of Lewis and what he could do on the football field.
He said he remembered the young linebacker from the University of Miami playing every game as if it were his last, and then seeing it firsthand when he was signed as a free agent out of the University of Maryland two years ago.
"He never takes it for granted," Williams said. "He practices just like he plays."
And among local football coaches and players, that work ethic, fire, intensity and passion are now his legacy.
Lewis practices what he preaches and plays as he practices -- with all-out effort and focus. His locker-room speeches and his motivational talks around the country have become almost legendary. But it's not so much what Lewis says, but how he says it, that leaves an impact on the young players of today.
And his reach is not limited to Baltimore-area high school athletes, or even young players in the United States. In July, he flew to Great Britain to talk to the London Warriors of the British American Universities Football League. A few days later, his phone blew up with text messages from that team's coaches and players after the Warriors beat the London Blitz for the BAFA championship.
"The message I got is how they changed their mentality," Lewis said, "that they were starting to focus more, change their direction in regards to what their situation may be. There's always different things you can think about, different ways to look at adversity and challenges. When I get those texts or messages like that, it humbles you. You sit back and say, 'Wow.' It really affects people in ways you never know."
And that's been happening in Baltimore since almost day one of his career. Before he arrived, No. 52 was just another number. Now, almost every team in the town features a varsity player wearing No. 52.
Usually, it's a middle linebacker.
Football coaches in town use Lewis as example of how to do things the right way -- and how to overcome adversity. Since the Atlanta murder trial in June 2000, Lewis had to rebuild his image. With the help of former Ravens owner Art Modell, who stood by Lewis throughout the ordeal, and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who later signed Lewis to be a part of that company's signature Protect This House campaign, he did just that.
Those who know Lewis said he was a model for how to practice the right way, too. A future Hall of Famer, Lewis doesn't take the game for granted and outworks teammates both on and off the field.
"One of the things that really impressed me," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said, "is that when we're in the meeting room, and we're going over an opponent, Ray is sitting in the front row with a notebook and pen taking notes. Here he is, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, in his 17th year, taking notes before we go out to practice. That's why Ray Lewis is such a great player."
That work ethic and passion are contagious. They have motivated and inspired his Ravens teammates since the first day he walked onto the practice field at then-Western Maryland College for training camp 17 years ago.
I first talked to Lewis -- a 1992 graduate of Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Fla., where he was both an all-state wrestler and football player -- two days after that first training camp, in August 1996.
I was working at ABC-2 and knocked on the door to his motel room. He opened with a smile, invited photographer Lamont Williams and me in and said he'd be right with us. He then slipped on a gold chain with a cross on it, put on a pair of sunglasses and sat down for the interview.
Even then, two days into his pro career, he was well aware of what image meant to a young NFL player. But Lewis was different. He talked with an air of confidence and passion one rarely sees in an established veteran, much less a 21-year-old rookie.
Again, it wasn't what he said that day, but how he said it. He didn't talk wins and losses, but effort and commitment. He made no guarantees to the Baltimore fans that day, but he did make a promise -- as long as he was playing for the Ravens, they would do whatever it took to bring a championship to his new city.
He and the Ravens made good on that promise four years later.
He played with a controlled rage that you certainly can't teach. He became the leader of a defense that struggled during his first three years, but then evolved into one of the NFL's best ever during his fourth.
Leadership is not anointed in sports. It's earned. And from day one, Lewis owned the Ravens' locker room.
And a young Williams took notice. Every Sunday, he watched Lewis give passionate pregame talks to his team and then go out and deliver bone-crushing tackles and orchestrate a defense that hardly ever gave up first downs, much less touchdowns.
Then later, win or lose, Williams watched Lewis talk about the game. Usually Lewis was dressed in a three-piece suit. He'd choose his words carefully when Baltimore lost, giving credit to his opponents, while praising his teammates and coaches when the Ravens won. He seemed to put the final score in perspective, savoring instead the mere opportunity to play and compete.
When Williams joined the Ravens two years ago, he studied Lewis closely -- during practice, meetings and games. He said he saw the same competitor now that he watched as a seventh-grade student.
He also saw the same player who gave his time to local schools and community groups, much as Lewis did when Williams was playing for Northwood rec 10 years ago.
"Ray and Ed would come out to events all the time when I was younger," Williams said, "telling us about how important school was and how important it was being passionate about what you want to do."
And now Williams is doing the same thing. When he signed with the Ravens, he set up his own foundation and began giving back to his hometown, as Lewis has given to his adopted one.
"I thought I could stand up and change a child's life like they did for me," Williams said. "I wanted to do that. I remember how hard the community can be. I want to be a guy who stands out in the community and gives back, encourage young guys to stay positive and focused and stay true to their dream."
Issue 181: January 2013