His name is almost synonymous with the Baltimore Ravens and it’s a name that, after a career lasting 17 seasons, sits in the NFL Hall of Fame. He is the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, a player known for his hard hits, extraordinary drive and his intense motivational speeches. He’s the undersized player who joined a team with no name and wrote himself – and the team – into the history books.
Ray Lewis’s name is interesting and it tells us more about the man than a person’s name usually does. Born in 1975, his father is Elbert Ray Jackson and his mother is Sunseria Smith. He has two sisters, Laquesha and Lakeisha Jenkins. In his autobiography, I Feel Like Going On, he writes: “My baby sister had another name – my brother, too.”Embed from Getty Images
As you have probably noticed, nobody mentioned above is named Lewis. “Whose name do I have,” he asked his mother when he was a child. “We don’t know no Lewises.” His mother told him that his father hadn’t hung around and a young man at the hospital had offered to help her with the hospital bills.
“He was a military man, and he’d done my mother this great good turn, so she reached out to him a second time,” Lewis writes. “She asked him to sign the hospital paperwork, where it asks for the name of the baby’s father – and happily, mercifully, he agreed. That young man’s name was Ray Lewis, so my name became Ray Lewis. Just like that. My mother hardly knew this man, but it was a way to honour him.”
Years later, in High School, Lewis met the man and told him: “Thank you for giving me your name, sir. I will make it great.”
His name became a kind of weapon. Young Ray was a talented wrestler, as his dad had been. He went to the same High School, where his dad was still remembered as a great athlete. It became Ray’s mission to erase his dad’s name from the school record books. To replace every one with his name. It took years but he did it. He set after and broke every single one of his dad’s records.Embed from Getty Images
It’s an early demonstration of that phenomenal singularity of purpose that would later be visible to every NFL fan.
You can find it elsewhere in Lewis’s childhood, too. His mother was involved with a man who beat her – and him too. Driven by the frustration of a child suffering at the hands of a grown man, Lewis took to his room with a pack of cards. He would turn a card and whatever number was on it, he would do the same number of push-ups. He still does it today.
We’re 500-words into this piece about Ray Lewis and I haven’t mentioned him playing football but I think these two stories from his childhood tell as much about the kind of player Lewis became as any story about his on-field exploits. They describe a figure of unbelievable determination, one who can set himself even the most unreasonable goal and then work and suffer to achieve it. Since he reached all of these goals, it’s little wonder that he possesses a self confidence bordering on egomania.
Despite an outstanding career at the University of Miami, Lewis was not expected to be picked high in the 1996 NFL Draft. At 6’1 and 235lbs, he was considered undersized for an NFL middle linebacker. The Dolphins were expected to take him at 20 but they took defensive tackle Daryl Gardener instead. Lewis had been told by the Packers’ general manager Ron Wolf that they would take him at 27. Instead, he was taken at 26 by the as-yet-unnamed Baltimore franchise with their second ever draft pick.Embed from Getty Images
He led the Ravens in tackles in his rookie year; a year later, he led the NFL in tackles. He became the undisputed leader of the defense and would hype-up the Baltimore crowd with his ‘squirrel dance’, which he would perform when he was introduced.
By 2000, his fifth season, the Ravens defense was the best defense in football and set numerous records on its way to Super Bowl XXXV. In a 34-7 victory, the Giants scored only on a kickoff return. Their offense was strangled, with Kerry Collins intercepted four times, one of which was returned for a TD. Lewis was voted MVP – just the second linebacker in Super Bowl history to take the honour.
He was NFL Defensive Player of the Year that year too, and took the award for the second time in 2003. By the time he returned to the Super Bowl, in 2012, he was in the 17th – and final – year of his career. Along the way he accumulated 1,562 tackles, 493 assists, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries. He was selected to 13 Pro Bowls, named a First Team All-Pro seven times and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-2000s Team.
The stats and the awards tell only part of the story. You can’t pick up from them just how lightning-quick he was, the teeth-loosening hits he could deliver or his uncanny ability to diagnose a play before it had unfolded. This wasn’t all down to instinct – his teammates talk about his dedication to film study and preparation.Embed from Getty Images
Towards the end he had lost some of that speed and the motivational speeches perhaps became a little self-indulgent but he could still turn it on at times – as a player and as a leader. Watch the speech he gave after the Ravens lost the AFC Championship Game at the end of the 2011 season if you want a sense of how inspirational he could be.
With that same single-mindedness with which he had chased down his father’s wrestling records, Ray Lewis had focused on becoming the best ever. In February 2018, he became the second Ravens player in the NFL Hall of Fame. Appropriately, he followed Jonathan Ogden, who the Ravens drafted immediately before Lewis in 1996.
His name is Ray Lewis and it’s a name he once promised to make great. He succeeded.