OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After heading home to Florida to rehabilitate a torn triceps, Ray Lewis looked into his oldest son's eyes and knew this would be his final NFL season.
The only problem was he wanted to finish it. A piece of advice Lewis often tells his six children is to finish what you start. Lewis began the season with aspirations of winning a second Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens. He's determined to finish what he started before beginning a new phase in life.
Lewis promised his oldest son, Ray Lewis III, that if he received a college football scholarship that he'd be there to mentor him and watch him grow as a player. His son committed to the University of Miami, Lewis' alma mater, as a high school junior a year ago and will honor that commitment this fall.
This means Lewis will have to keep his promise.
"I've done what I wanted to do in this business," Lewis said, after announcing his intention to retire after Baltimore's postseason is over. "Now it's my turn to give [my children] back something. It's either hold on to the game and keep playing and let my kids miss out on times we could be sharing together, because I always promised my son that if he got a full-ride scholarship, daddy was going to be there. I can't miss that."
Lewis, 37, has accomplished almost everything imaginable throughout his 17-year career. He won a Super Bowl title in 2000 and was named the game's MVP. He's been named to 13 Pro Bowls and received the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award twice.
He was a part of the first draft class in Baltimore, selected in the first round with the 26th overall pick.
Though Lewis looked into his son's eyes and immediately knew his legendary career would soon come to a close, he was determined not to let it end with an injury. He began a strenuous rehabilitation program that required round-the-clock treatment for an injury that typically can end an NFL player's season. Lewis tore his triceps in the fourth quarter of Baltimore's 31-29 win over Dallas in Week 6, which was thought to have ended his season.
Instead, Lewis dealt with the pain in his quest to return to the gridiron for one last go-around.
"I probably went through the craziest 12 weeks of training in my life," Lewis said. "But I think I'm there where I should be. I'm way past where I was supposed to be, I was supposed to be out for the year."
Lewis is expected to play when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round of the playoffs, as he said, "There is no reason for me not to be playing on Sunday."
Unless Baltimore and Cincinnati advance to the AFC Championship Game, this will be the last time Lewis runs onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium, which is a surreal thought for Lewis' teammates.
"That's when I think it's going to hit the city of Baltimore the most, that it could be possibly his last time coming through that tunnel," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "I just really can't prepare for that. The emotions are going to be too rough to even think about because Baltimore is Ray Lewis. When he comes out of that tunnel, everybody is electrified."
There was speculation as to whether this would be Lewis' last season. But not even outside linebacker Terrell Suggs thought the Hall of Famer-in-waiting would make the announcement Wednesday.
"It caught me by surprise because we all thought the great Ray Lewis was going to play forever," Suggs said. "I thought he was going to surpass Brett Favre and still be out there doing it well into his 40s."
Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator in 2011, said Lewis was like an extension of the coaching staff on the field
"No one studied the game and prepared the way as well as Ray," Pagano said. "He taught so many how to do that. He's such a great mentor and such a great leader in that respect. He always had great insight and great perspective of not only going into a game but then what was transpiring in a game on the football field and then communicate it to not only myself, but many coordinators before me."
When Lewis traveled to his home state of Florida to begin rehabbing his torn triceps, his right arm was wrapped in a cast. Though he was hurt, he got to do something he hadn't done through the majority of his NFL career, and that was watching a significant amount of his sons' football games. Two of his sons, including Ray Lewis III, played on the same high school team, which finished its season 11-1.
There will be one more opportunity this postseason for Lewis to cement his legacy as the game's greatest middle linebacker. Then Lewis will become a full-time father, devoting as much time to his children as he can.
"Me, being who I am and not having a father myself, that damaged me a lot," Lewis said. "I didn't want my kids to relive that."