Ray Lewis rides off as a champion

NEW ORLEANS -- Michael Phelps was milling around the festive, extremely cramped and steamy visitor's locker room on Sunday night, when Ray Lewis popped out of the shower.

The iconic Baltimore Ravens linebacker, clad in a towel, spotted the Olympic swimming champ and unleashed a grin so wide that it might have lit up the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during a power outrage.

"I told you I was going out on top!" Lewis told Phelps. "And somebody gave me the formula. Baltimore! Champions!"

They hugged, and Lewis grabbed Phelps behind his neck and pulled him closer. They pressed foreheads and whispered. It was a classic moment. Two outgoing champions. Two sports. One hellacious connection.

Then Lewis kissed the Baltimore native on the forehead.

"I love you to death," Lewis told him. "You gave me the formula."

Phelps -- the most decorated Olympian ever with 22 medals, including a record 18 gold medals -- wouldn't reveal the specifics of the formula that Lewis alluded to.

But he insists that this goes both ways.

"We had some talks," Phelps said. "He helped me."

On a very personal level -- and as a huge Ravens fan -- Phelps could relate to Lewis' emotion of the moment.

"Being able to watch somebody put the their mind to something and do it," Phelps said, "is one of the coolest things."

So this is how the last ride ends for Lewis, 37, after 17 mostly terrific NFL seasons.

He put his mind to it, and knowing Lewis, prayed on it.

Even so, his team nearly blew it against the San Francisco 49ers. His defense gave up 468 yards, but came through when it mattered most with a goal-line stand in the final two minutes, allowing the Ravens to hang on for a 34-31 victory.

Experience and grit prevailed over the fresh legs and a fancy, new-wave offense.

That seemed fitting in its own way, after Colin Kaepernick's rolling, fourth-and-goal throw from the 5-yard line sailed wide of Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone. One of the greatest players in NFL history, the signature linebacker of his era, wins the final game of his career with a goal-line stand to earn his team the Lombardi Trophy.

When the pass fell incomplete, the Ravens exhaled. The bench erupted, as players and coaches leaped for joy. Two defenders slumped to the turf. Others embraced.

But where was Lewis?

The crafty veteran that he is, Lewis went to retrieve the football.

It was like giving himself a going-away present -- compliments of teammates that included MVP quarterback Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed, and coaches that included one of the Harbaugh brothers.

While Lewis worked the locker room, that football from the play that sealed the game was in the safe and secure hands of one of Lewis' sons -- a kid no older than 10, who sat next to his dad's locker tossing and spinning the ball in the air.

This wasn't the only momento from the weekend. On Friday night, Lewis went over to the University of New Orleans for the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.
During media sessions leading up to the game, Lewis was grilled about allegations published by SI.com that he tried to obtain deer antler spray, which contains a substance banned by the NFL's steroids policy. He denied the claims.

And he fielded questions about an old, unsolved controversy, too. Lewis was at the scene of an incident that left two men murdered following a post-Super Bowl party 13 years ago. Murder charges against Lewis were dropped, and he was pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. But after two others were acquitted, the murders were never solved.

In his moment to crown the last ride, Lewis was agitated by the controversies.

Yet he a got a much different reception from the gospel crowd at Lakefront Arena. It was about redemption. Lewis who was honored.
They gave him a Lifetime of Inspiration Award.

"Fantasia and her mother gave me the award," Lewis told USA TODAY Sports. "They sang my favorite song for me, too."

Really? What's that?

"The Sam Cooke song," he said, "A Change is Gonna Come."

So true. Lewis rides off into retirement with a championship, like Michael Strahan, Jerome Bettis and John Elway.

It wasn't a classic performance, when considering all the career highlights that a player who was twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year supplied over the years. Lewis had seven tackles, but none of the game-changing variety, and at one point he seemed frustrated when he shoved Vernon Davis after a tackle. Maybe the most noticeable plays that he was involved in came on a couple of missed tackles, including a case early in the game when Michael Crabtree stutter-stepped on a crossing route over the middle, then broke Lewis' tackle and wound up with a 19-yard gain.

But Lewis had plenty of help. In one instance, after pulling guard Mike Iupati pile-drove Lewis to create a lane for Kaepernick, Reed and Cary Williams came over and pushed Iupati off Lewis in a classic got-your-back display.

That's fair enough. Lewis covered the backs of his defense for years. He was the rock. It really doesn't matter now, that Lewis wasn't the designated driver for his last ride.

He won. He had a perfect ending. A month ago, when Lewis announced his intent to retire, it seemed improbable that Lewis' last ride would last this long. Then the Ravens beat Denver in double-overtime, aided by Flacco's miracle 70-yard TD throw to Jacoby Jones at the end of regulation, and got sweet revenge at New England.

The stars were surely aligned. Lewis had Flacco on his team, and Jonathan Ogden was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in New Orleans. Ogden and Lewis came in as the original Ravens draft class in 1996 and were rookie roommates.

"It's the journey, man," Lewis said.


"My best play?" Lewis said, repeating a question. "When the confetti dropped."

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