The Baltimore Ravens got their first-ever win in London on Sunday, beating the Tennessee Titans 24-16 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
In the days leading up to the Baltimore’ first London Game since 2017, Neil Reynolds sat down with the Ravens’ legendary 2x Super Bowl Champion and first ballot Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis for an exclusive chat on the latest episode of the Decyfr Handoff Podcast.
Described by Reynolds as “one of the greatest NFL players who ever lived,” Lewis began with how his journey in football started and the process of discovery that ensued.
“Football was such a getaway from everyday circumstances. I don’t necessarily think it was about being the best football player back then, it was just about being a better person. Trying to find who are you, what pushes you and what drives you.
“When someone knocks you down, do you get back up or do you whine and cry? So that was the test back then to see whether you’re on your way to being a strong man, a tough young man. I just used to love going to practice.”
His true introduction to the sport, however, came around 1985, when he started watching NFL Games at people’s houses after church. The penny finally dropped in 1986, when Lewis’ grandfather introduced him to one of the game’s greatest-ever linebackers, the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor.
“He was like ‘I want you to watch this person,’ and I was like ‘Wow, what’s wrong, is he mad? Or is that just the way he wants to treat people?’ And my grandad was like ‘that’s the way to play football’.
“I was like ‘wow!’, so he just played p*ssed off.”
Lewis went on to become an all-time linebacker himself – registering 43.5 sacks and 2,277 combined solo and assisted tackles during his 17-year career in the NFL.
Despite being one of the game’s most powerful motivators – inspiring others both inside and outside the locker room, Lewis was reluctant to speak when he first started. It was in fact the encouragement of his high school coach, Grady Maddox that was instrumental in shaping Lewis’ leadership.
“He was like ‘I want you to talk to the team’ and I was like ‘Coach, you know I stutter, I’m not going to be able to get it out,’ I had a really bad stuttering problem back in the day.
“And he was like ‘You’ll get it out.’ So, I started to speak.”
Lewis would go on to reprise that role at the University of Miami, breaking the huddle with a team that featured future Hall of Famer, Warren Sapp, no less.
A precocious talent, his obsession with learning the sport drove him to become what he describes as being a ‘student of the game’.
“From high school I always said the reason why most of my opponents never pushed the button is because they were afraid to go the extra mile. They were afraid to become a student of the game because being a student of the game takes time.
“Athleticism was easy, but knowing what you were doing was crucial. If you had too many mental errors you weren’t playing. Being a student of the game for me was what drove me to want to always be the leader.”
Lewis won Super Bowl XXXV and XLVII with the Ravens, the first of which came in 2000 against the New York Giants, in a game that saw the Baltimore linebacker named Super Bowl MVP.
Reynolds described Lewis’ performance in Super Bowl XXXV, saying “it was unfair what he did to the New York Giants,” before asking Lewis about his memories from playing on that Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team.
“A lot of people on that team was p*ssed off. And that team was built by the integrity of men to never let each other down.
“That team, we would die for each other. Literally.”
🗣️ "That team?
We would die for each other. Literally."
— Decyfr Sport (@DecyfrSport) October 14, 2023
“That style of a team raised me. It’s because when you have that culture, that culture takes you to heaven with a smile.
“I don’t care how many times you win, nothing outdoes the first one.”
With Marvin Lewis as defensive coach, the Ravens allowed the fewest rushing yards (970) and the fewest points (165) in a 16-game regular season that year.
The second of those Super Bowl wins came in 2012, in the final year of Lewis’ career. Super Bowl XLVII took place in New Orleans, with the Ravens facing NFC Champions, the San Francisco 49ers. And while a Hollywood ending isn’t afforded to most sporting legends, Ray Lewis and the Ravens were not to be denied that evening at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“It is a movie, just this time there’s no action, there’s no cut, there’s no break. We were that team building up in ’09, ’10, ’11. We had the right mix of wisdom, talent, grit, heart, commitment, it was all there and we knew that.
“I wanted to do something that would make sure I’m remembered forever.”
Lewis had torn his triceps in October 2012 and was on the road to recovery following surgery. But misfortune would strike once again, as he re-tore his right triceps just before Super Bowl XLVII.
“I knew I was not going to come back 100%. So, I knew most of that run was on faith. It was on me trusting God. Although my pain was unbearable at times, the mission was bigger.
“That Super Bowl run was probably one of the greatest runs I’ve ever been on in life. That team started to get a sense of what we had in 2000.
“I saw how genuine men’s hearts were to watch a general call his last dance.
“I wanted to show them, the road ends in New Orleans with me holding the Lombardi trophy. That run was about legacy.”
Lewis and the Ravens held on to defeat the 49ers 34-31 in a close encounter, leading to a fairy tale ending for the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Reynolds proceeded to ask Lewis about how he would want to be remembered.
“He made people better. There is no better legacy.
“The thing that resonates the most with my soul is when someone says ‘You changed my life, you changed my perspective, you gave me hope.’
“If you ask me to sum up my legacy and how I want to be remembered?
“He was for the people. He is the people.”
You can watch the episode in full on YouTube.
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