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OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewis uncoiled his gloved fingers and dug his cleats into the grass before bursting toward the football with uncommon quickness.
It was an instinctive reaction honed by time with zero motion wasted.
What made the oft-repeated action remarkable for the Baltimore Ravens’ perennial All-Pro middle linebacker is that he feels like a rejuvenated, younger man despite entering his 12th season in the NFL and celebrating his 32nd birthday last month.
The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is hoping to defy the aging process through a disciplined exercise regimen and diet, and showed up at the Ravens’ mandatory minicamp Tuesday looking fit and lean.
"It’s incredible, you know," Lewis said. "Some people say you go in reverse once you hit the 30 mark, but I think I’m going the other way. Where I am right now, it’s scary.
â€œI will say that because now I can see that my best football is definitely ahead of me. That’s what’s more exciting for me than anything."
Lewis, who’s listed on the roster at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, emphasized that he didn’t lose weight. However, he has trimmed his body fat percentage considerably.
Lewis’ face was noticeably thinner, his arms and legs were ripped and he appeared 10 to 15 pounds lighter.
Lewis, who has followed an intense workout routine in the past that included sprinting up Oregon Ridge while pumping heavy dumbbells in each fist, decided to shake things up this offseason.
Instead of rising at 6 a.m. to train, he opted to work out at night for the most part while integrating kickboxing, wrestling and swimming into his repertoire.
"I’m sitting right now at an easy 250, 255, but my body fat is crazy right now," said Lewis, a former 189-pound Florida state high school wrestling champion. "I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. That’s why I don’t have no nicks, no real bruises.
â€œI’ve been getting in a lot of creative work. I’m starting to feel so good. It’s amazing. I’ve got a lot of energy."
A year ago, it was an entirely different personal story for Lewis. He was sidelined at minicamp while still recovering from hamstring surgery.
And the seven-time Pro Bowl selection wasn’t smiling last year as he issued a lengthy apology after criticizing the team’s defensive line and scheme during interviews. He also defended a much-debated "No comment" in response to a question about Ravens coach Brian Billick’s retention.
"I feel real good," Lewis said. "I’m happy right now."
Now, Lewis is coming off a resurgent season where he led the NFL’s top-ranked defense with 164 tackles while registering five sacks and two interceptions.
Since the Ravens drafted Lewis in the first round out of the University of Miami in 1996, he has posted a franchise-high 1,838 tackles along with 11 fumble recoveries and 23 interceptions.
"Heâ€™s still the leader in spirit," safety Ed Reed said. "Heâ€™s still the focal point of the defense, to stop the run and make sure we get the calls and the personnel and definitely keep that swagger that we have around here as a defense.â€
Lewis skipped the previous voluntary minicamps, but was obviously training hard on his own at his Florida residence, at his home near the Ravens’ training complex and during a vacation.
The chief difference for Lewis was adding variety and altering his training cycle to get more shuteye. The primary reason why he changed his workout schedule was to shock his body into a new pattern.
"Most of the time I used to get up at 6 in the morning, but now I’ve moved my training back to the evenings," Lewis said. "I started averaging 10 hours of sleep a night, and some nights I was getting like 12 to 14 hours.
"Rest is probably the No. 1 thing. It’s really paid off because right now I’m sitting at a place that I don’t think I’ve ever been in my career."
For Lewis, the tangible changes, including differences recognized by his mother, Sunseria, had one purpose behind them.
Following a franchise-record 13-3 campaign that ended with a 15-6 playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, heâ€™s intent on earning his second Super Bowl ring at the end of this season in Arizona.
That’s why Lewis continued to push himself past quitting time while other NFL athletes enjoy the nightlife or sleeping.
"It doesn’t have anything to do with last year, it has to do with this year," Lewis said. "The bottom line for me is I need to be in Arizona. That’s my greatest motivation.
â€œLast year left a bitter taste. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. It did. But I’m not feeling that anymore."
Lewis is no longer looking to be traded, an avenue team executives declined to explore when their star defender griped a year ago. Under contract through 2008 with $6.5 million base salaries for the next two seasons, heâ€™s is no longer questioning the team’s direction.
"The adjustment that’s happened in my life right now, I canâ€™t explain it," Lewis said. "My mom has been talking about it like everyday. I’m just telling her the things that I’m doing in the weight room and the way I’m running right now, I’ve never felt that. I feel good."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital