WESTMINSTER — Ray Lewis constantly shadowed Ray Rice, haunting the elusive running back wherever he ventured around the football field.
Bolting out of his linebacker stance, Lewis chased Rice to the sideline to cut off a sweep.
When the Baltimore Ravens’ offense tried to execute a run up the middle, Lewis instinctively read the play and burst through the gap center-guard gap to get in the backfield for yet another tackle.
It was a trademark performance from the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The All-Pro middle linebacker did nothing to indicate that he’s heading into his 15th year in the NFL, and he remains energized by a routine practice session where no stakes are on the line beyond locker room bragging rights.
If Lewis’ enthusiasm for the game has dimmed at all, it’s impossible to tell during the early stages of the Ravens’ latest camp at McDaniel College.
Lewis doesn’t tend to dwell on nostalgia like his 11 Pro Bowl selections or his Super Bowl XXV Most Valuable Player award.
He’s focused on the now: the next play, the next running back to hit.
“Honestly I just truly believe that if you’re thinking about that then you miss the love for the game,” Lewis said when asked what role sentimentality plays in his motivation. “I love the game too much. Like Day One, that’s how I feel in the 15th year. When Ray Rice made a cut, I was tapping him on his hip just to let him know: ‘I’m out here to work as hard as you’re out here to work.’
“I don’t think about, ‘Oh, this is that.’ That’s not what the integrity of the game is built by. The integrity of the game is built by coming to help your team win a championship.”
Between Lewis’ still above-average speed, ability to diagnose an offense’s intentions and rare intensity, he remains a viable impact defensive player even at the relatively advanced age of 35 years old.
The sculpted, 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive legend first came to Westminster in 1996 when the Ravens drafted him in the first round of the University of Miami.
Since that inaugural camp after the Ravens moved to Maryland from Cleveland, Lewis’ passion for the game has propelled him to inclusion on the NFL All-Decade team for the 2000s.
He has also recorded a franchise-record 2,346 career tackles and 15 fumble recoveries as well as posting 36 ½ sacks, 28 interceptions, 108 pass deflections and 15 forced fumbles.
No active NFL player has registered as many tackles as Lewis.
This offseason, a street sign was dedicated to Lewis on the corner of North Avenue and Broadway in Baltimore that reads, "Ray Lewis Way # 52."
“Everybody around the league knows what kind of respect he gets for what he’s put into the game,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said.
What drives him?
Lewis still covets another Super Bowl ring, especially with the nucleus of a young team quarterbacked by Joe Flacco.
“I think the hunger of winning it with certain people does,” Lewis said. “When I won it, Rod Woodson made that special to me. Shannon Sharpe made that special to me. When you win a championship with certain people, now you realize what that means for a lifetime.
“And now the chemistry I’ve built with a Ray Rice or Michael Oher and Joe, to win one with them, would be a very special thing. And then they’ll be talking about the same thing: ‘When Ray was special, you know.’ It always comes back around.”
For Lewis, that has definitely been the case.
A decade removed from the Ravens’ Super Bowl triumph, he’s still launching himself at ball carriers.
Not as fast as he once was, Lewis makes up for that with his ability to diagnose the play. He wastes no motion in his path toward the football.
It’s all aggressiveness, direct movement and the knowledge of how to avoid getting stuck to blockers.
“Ray is Ray,” inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “That never changes. I learn so much just from watching that guy. He’s special. I can’t say enough good things about him."
The Ravens took a calculated gamble last year by signing Lewis to a seven-year, $44.5 million contract that included slightly over $12 million in bonuses.
Roughly $22 million is due over the first three years of the deal.
Last season, Lewis remained a vital force for one of the NFL’s top defenses.
He led the Ravens with 164 tackles, also contributing three sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
His signature play was when he stuffed elusive San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles on fourth down for a key fourth-quarter stop to preserve a victory.
Lewis is regarded as unlikely to complete all six remaining years left on the contract, but he hasn’t made any definitive plans on how much longer he’ll continue to play.
The acquisition of Boldin this offseason via a trade from the Arizona Cardinals has provided even more motivation for Lewis, who’s accustomed to playing on defensive-oriented teams for the majority of his career.
“If me and Anquan walked into the street yard right now, we would play against anybody one-on-one,” Lewis said. “It’s the same thing when you step out here and play football on this field. It’s just a one-on-one battle, man. And the love for me will never stop. Whenever that day stops, then that day will stop. But until then, I love it too much.”
As long as he enjoys the game and is still maintaining a high standard of play, Lewis is likely to continue chasing and catching running backs.
Lewis has no plans to waver back and forth a la Brett Favre.
“I love Brett, but no Brett, no Brett,” Lewis said when asked if he’ll struggle with when is the right time to retire. “When I’m done, I’m done.”