Bursting into view like a laser, Ray Lewis injects into his surroundings a jolt of unfettered energy. As Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens' star middle linebacker, emerges from the locker room tunnel, his teammates—and nearly 70,000 fans at PSINet Stadium—react to his grand entrance the way religious zealots might greet a strutting evangelist. Lewis, the leader of the NFL's most dominant defense, behaves during pregame introductions with trancelike fervor. He grabs a husk of end-zone turf and screams, "It's my house! It's my grass!" before charging forward and chest-bumping everyone in his path.
When Lewis reaches this state of frenzied possession, as he did before the Ravens' emphatic 21-3 wild-card playoff victory over the Denver Broncos on Dec. 31, he enters a world few of his peers experience. "My mind lets go and my body takes over," says Lewis. "It's nothing that I could ever anticipate or rehearse. I just go to that place, and my teammates feed off of me."
The result is the sort of emotional binge that helped stifle the Broncos' vaunted offense and pushed Baltimore, an 8-8 team in '99, into the thick of the Super Bowl chase. Thanks largely to Lewis, the Ravens were, as Baltimore defensive end Rob Burnett put it shortly after the destruction of Denver, "all Viagra'd up."
As they prepared to face the defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans in a divisional playoff clash in Nashville on Sunday, the Ravens were poised to fly as high as Lewis could take them. He has become the most menacing defensive presence on a unit that set a league record for the fewest points allowed—165—in a 16-game season. On Tuesday, Lewis was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, receiving 30 of 50 votes from a nationwide panel of media members. ( New Orleans Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover was a distant second with 11 votes.) Having become the league's most menacing defensive presence, the 25-year-old Lewis now plans to chase legends. Excelling at a position defined by Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary, he says he wants to be remembered as "the greatest linebacker ever to play this position."
Doing so won't be easy, no matter how well he plays. To most people, Lewis is known less for his football prowess than as the celebrated defendant in a double-murder case last spring stemming from a deadly brawl outside an Atlanta club in the hours following Super Bowl XXXIV. Though charges against him were dropped in a plea-bargain agreement and his two codefendants were acquitted, Lewis knows his life will never be the same. "It doesn't matter to me what others might say or think," he says. "Really, it's irrelevant. I have too many good people around me, on this team and in the community, who look at me as a football player first."
In Baltimore the magnitude of Lewis's presence almost defies description. "I've never seen a team rally around a guy the way the Ravens do around Ray," says quarterback Trent Dilfer, who signed with Baltimore last March after six years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "We can be flat in pregame warmups, and he'll change the mood in an instant. When he does something extra special, there's an incredible electricity that rushes through the team and through the stadium."
Baltimore's creative defensive schemes are designed around the 6'1", 245-pound Lewis, whose range, nose for the ball and ferocious tackling style are unsurpassed. Marvin Lewis (no relation), the Ravens' brainy defensive coordinator, asks his linemen—hulking tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams and quick ends Burnett and Michael McCrary—to occupy blockers so that his star linebacker can make the play. "The way Marvin designs a lot of his blitzes is that he sort of leaves holes open for tailbacks and invites them to run through," Siragusa says. "That's because he trusts Ray to fill the hole and slam it shut. Our schemes wouldn't work with an average middle linebacker."
The NFL is brimming with superior inside linebackers, and until recently Lewis was regarded as one of a large pack. In addition to future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who is now listed at outside linebacker by the San Diego Chargers, the stars include Sam Cowart ( Buffalo Bills), Zach Thomas ( Miami Dolphins), Levon Kirkland ( Pittsburgh Steelers) and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Urlacher ( Chicago Bears), as well as such lesser-known standouts as Jeremiah Trotter ( Philadelphia Eagles), John Holecek (Bills) and Micheal Barrow ( New York Giants). Now, most NFL insiders agree, Lewis has left even Seau in his wake. "None of those guys can do what Ray can do—run sideline to sideline, cover receivers and play in space," Marvin Lewis says. "He's got everything you want, from a great mental capacity to leadership skills to incredible intensity and athletic ability." Adds Broncos quarterback Gus Frerotte, "You look at him and say, Is this guy really that good? But the more you watch him run all over the field, the more you realize how awesome he is. The guy's the best there is."
There are numbers to support this assertion. Lewis had a team-high 184 tackles during the regular season as well as three sacks, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. However, as with so many great players—a Singletary, a Jerry Rice, a Terrell Davis-conventional measurables don't do Lewis justice. You can ignore, for example, that his time in the 40-yard dash is a relatively unimpressive 4.7 seconds. "He anticipates, diagnoses and reacts as quickly as any player I've seen," Ravens coach Brian Billick says. "You could say it's instinctive, but that belies it, because a lot of it is having studied where to go."
Following the '99 season and the off-field drama that ensued, Lewis improved his already strong study habits. He directs his fellow defenders' movements during practice, and it's difficult to fool him on game day. "The way a lot of our fronts are designed, coaches will leave two gaps open and assign Ray to both," says Baltimore cornerback Chris McAlister. "It's like, 'You go right and you go left,' depending on which way the play flows. They're relying on him to guess right, and he almost always does."