Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis could not have dreamed of a sweeter end to his 17-year career than returning to the Super Bowl, but the 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker said he was happiest for his team mates.
The 37-year-old Lewis, who got to raise the Lombardi Trophy in 2001, is the only remaining member of that Baltimore title team as the Ravens return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years.
"To do it for (Joe Flacco), to do it for Sizzle (Terrell Suggs), to do it for Ray Rice, to do it for Ed Reed ... I really wanted them to feel what that confetti felt like, just hearing your name being announced going to the Super Bowl," Lewis said after yesterday's 28-13 win over New England in the AFC title game.
That road victory lifted the Ravens into the National Football League title game on February 4 (NZ time) in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers, who beat Atlanta for the NFC crown.
Lewis has already announced this postseason would be his "last ride," and the two-time defensive player of the year has spent a lot of time reflecting on his life in football.
"There's something special in that locker room," Lewis said. "There's just a certain type of love that we have for each other.
"You walk in your locker room, and sometimes (it is) the hardest thing for me to do. It's hard because sometimes you walk in the locker room and everybody wants something from you," he said about high expectations.
"I'm willing to give everything back to them. Everything, no matter if it's leadership, if it's teaching them, 'Don't make the same mistakes I made in life. Learn from my mistakes.'
"And just the beautiful conversations that we've had every Saturday night. I sit there and I talk to my team and I talk to different players just about what I used to be when I was in my 20s and what God has brought me from (to) now."
The fiercely competitive linebacker hit a scary low when he was held in an Atlanta jail linked to a double-killing outside a nightclub in the early morning hours after he had attended the 2000 Super Bowl as a spectator.
Five months later, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and was fined US$250,000 by the NFL.
One year after the fatal incident cast a cloud over his future, Lewis was named MVP of a Super Bowl win against the New York Giants as the unquestioned leader of a defence that set a record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.
Lewis worked to build a life away from the playing field that mirrored the quality he achieved on it, creating a foundation to help disadvantaged youth in Baltimore and growing to become one of the league's most respected players.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about the impact Lewis has had on the team's march to the Super Bowl.
"I'm just feeling an incredible amount of awe. Ray would be the first to tell you this, so I'm just going to share it: awe in the work that God can do in one man's life. To me, Ray's the epitome of that," the coach said.
"He's a different man than he was when he was 22 or 15 or whatever. I think everybody sees that right now. I think it's a great thing for kids to see. It's a great thing for fathers to see. It's a great thing for athletes to see."
Lewis returned this season after missing 10 games because of a torn tricep to join Baltimore's playoff push.
Ravens players keep bringing up Lewis and his last hurrah as a rallying point.
"Ray Lewis has done so much for this team and for Baltimore," said Ravens' four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "For us to help him get to the Super Bowl for his retirement is an amazing feeling."
Lewis, the only NFL player ever to amass at least 40 sacks and 30 interceptions, said knowing that his team mates feel that way is his greatest satisfaction.
"It's why you play the game," he said. "To hear men tell you they love you, to hear men tell you they respect the life that you live, it's the ultimate."
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