OWINGS MILLS, MD. (AP) - Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis chuckles while talking about the time two years ago when an opponent called him an "old man."
"I looked at him and said, 'You'd better pray you play as long as me,'" said Lewis, now 35 and in his 15th NFL season.
"That's what young guys don't understand," he said. "They think they run fast and they jump high and that's all there is to the game."
But there's more to being a professional, like working hard during the offseason, eating right, getting plenty of sleep and studying hours of film each week. Lewis may not be as quick as he was during his rookie year in 1996, but he's smarter and seemingly just as effective.
Lewis leads the Ravens in tackles _ just as he has done in 12 of his previous 14 seasons. Last week he sealed Baltimore's 37-13 win over Carolina by returning an interception 24 yards for a touchdown. It was his 30th career pick, making him the first player in NFL history with at least 35 career sacks and 30 interceptions.
There might come a time when Lewis finally slows down. He might even agree to being a platoon player, as coach John Harbaugh suggested this week.
"I broached the subject with him, and the response I basically get is, 'When the time comes we can talk about it,'" Harbaugh said. "I agree with that because he's humble enough to say the time is going to come. ... But he's not going to easily admit that he's not the best player on the field. And right now, if I tried to make that case, it would be impossible because he's playing so well."
Harbaugh acknowledged that the conversation might not occur until Lewis is 40.
"There's no backer in the game better at doing what I do, so I don't worry about that stuff," Lewis said Wednesday.
Few would argue Lewis' assessment of himself. Certainly not a man whose team will face the 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker on Sunday.
"Ray Lewis is an unbelievable football player, arguably one of the best to ever play football," Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said. "I respect him so much and love what he's been able to do over his career."
Lewis has performed at such a high level for so long, it seems crazy to think about him coming out on third down or skipping a series or two so he will be fresh in the fourth quarter. Why, the term "platoon player" doesn't even exist in the world of Ray Lewis.
"What's a platoon player? If I do that, I'd cheat a whole lot of people," Lewis said. "To give you an example, in Carolina last week when the game was almost over, after I had that pick, coach said, 'Come out.' And (teammate Terrell Suggs) looked at me and said, 'You can't come out.'
"That's what men look for," Lewis said. "You go around the league and you don't see (many) leaders that go fight with their men no matter what. When I retire I will be off the field a lot. But right now I've got too much work to do, and there's no way I can lead them out there fighting that battle and say I can't be out there with them."
Asked if could imagine Ray Lewis ever coming out during a game, Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said, "No. I think if it comes to that, he'd retire. The guy is phenomenal. He amazes you every week. He's been doing it for this many years and he's still going strong."
Lewis will eventually call it a career, but that day is apparently so far away that he can't even bring himself to grasp the concept.
"I've got a heck of a group of guys right now that if I wanted to, they won't let me. And I haven't even thought about it," he said. "The game is too good. Anytime you can be as healthy as I am in your 15th year, it just says, 'Thank you Father for another opportunity.'
"I don't look past tomorrow. That's my message not just to football players, but people in general. We rush to tomorrow so quickly, we forget about living in today. Right now it's about today, and right now we're 7-3 and sit in a heck of a position. And I've got a heck of a team on my shoulders that I'd go to battle with any day of the week. That's my job as a leader, to get us ready to go."