Ray Lewis always tries to give back, whether it's to the Ravens or the city of Baltimore.
Two days after sealing a Ravens victory with another big play, the magnetizing middle linebacker was making an impact in a different way in West Baltimore, where he handed out 800 turkeys to needy families.
A Thanksgiving tradition for 11 straight years, Lewis has been providing food, handshakes and hugs to the people of his adopted hometown.
From Lewis' perspective, it's not about handouts. It's about being hands-on.
"I was once in that line before," Lewis said. "Me and my mom, we grew up hard. She made sure that when we got older, we knew that giving back was one of the most important things."
The Ravens have been among those who have leaned on Lewis. For a decade and a half, a span of 204 games, he has been the team's leading tackler and unquestioned leader.
Lewis is playing every snap at age 35, a time when most great linebackers have been long retired. He is changing games in the fourth quarter, when most 30-something players are tiring.
"Big Play Ray" is a major reason the Ravens (7-3) are in the playoff hunt heading into Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3).
Although Lewis isn't the same dominant force he was a decade ago, when he won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, he's still among the league's top playmakers. In more than half of the Ravens' victories this season, Lewis has delivered a devastating hit, intercepted a pass or forced a fumble in the fourth quarter.
Those are the moments Lewis relishes most.
"For me, being the leader of this defense, I have to make those plays," Lewis said.
In a one-point win at the New York Jets, Lewis broke up a pass to Dustin Keller with 48 seconds left by drilling the tight end. In Pittsburgh, he clinched the three-point win with a diving interception of Charlie Batch with 18 seconds remaining. Against Buffalo, he ripped the ball away from rookie tight end Shawn Nelson in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.
And on Sunday, seconds after Ed Reed's interception and lateral for a touchdown, Lewis put the finishing touches on a 37-13 win by returning an interception 24 yards to the end zone.
"Great players thrive on opportunities to close games out," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "When you talk Michael Jordan, you talk about him taking the shots at the end of the game. You talk about Tiger Woods making the putt. You talk about Reggie Jackson hitting home runs in the World Series."
Newsome added: "To be able to enjoy this ride and his career, it's been fun. But it's been surprising because he keeps achieving even more and more."Not 'an old man'
It was two years ago when a younger player on another team called Lewis "an old man."
"I looked at him and said, 'You'd better pray you play as long as me,' " Lewis recalled last week.
In his 15th season, Lewis is beating quarterbacks and running backs while he beats the odds. No other great middle linebacker has played as long as Lewis.
Mike Singletary retired after 12 seasons before his play declined. Jack Lambert walked away after 11 years because of a severe toe injury. And Dick Butkus stopped after nine seasons because of multiple knee injuries.
Now, Lewis is set to earn his 12th Pro Bowl invitation.
When John Harbaugh was hired as the Ravens' coach in 2008, he talked about reducing Lewis' snaps to lengthen his career. By taking Lewis off the field in passing situations, the Ravens could lessen the wear and tear on his body.
That conversation apparently didn't last very long.
"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 said he probably won't bring it up again until Lewis turns 40.
Lewis is 11th in the NFL with 83 tackles this season, including a team-high 10 at Carolina. When he returned that interception for a touchdown, he became the first player in NFL history with at least 35 sacks and 30 interceptions.
After Lewis' touchdown put the Ravens ahead by 24 points, a few players, like Reed, were pulled for the final five minutes. Lewis shook his head.
"When I retire, I will be off the field a lot. But right now, I've got too much work to do," he said. "There's no 'backer in the game better at doing what I do."Smarter and stronger
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was feeling good about himself because he watched an hour of film on his day off.
That is, until he realized Lewis had watched six hours.
"A lot of times, you hear, 'He's a student of the game, and he watches film.' But a lot of times, it's not really true," Johnson said. "Ray is ridiculous about how much [of] a student of the game he is. He comes in [Wednesday] morning already telling us what [the Buccaneers are] doing."
His dedication to watching film was tested this week. Because he was handing out turkeys Tuesday, he didn't start breaking down Tampa Bay until late.
"When I got home, I turned on the computer and fell asleep watching it," Lewis said. "That's the normal routine."
An older Lewis is not just smarter. He says he's stronger. It was only last season when Lewis' hit broke the shoulder of Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall.
When he takes the field Sunday, he'll be chasing Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount, who is 12 years younger than the Ravens linebacker. Some would say Lewis is at a disadvantage. Lewis says it's the other way around.
"You look at it and say, 'This guy is 12 years younger.' I'm saying my body is 12 years more developed," Lewis said. "I'm running and hitting these little kids, and I know they're not going to deal with 60 minutes of this."No end in sight
There will be a time when Lewis will leave the football field. But he says he'll never leave Baltimore.
"I got a true vision to clean up Baltimore," he said. "I want us to go away from being rated the No. 2 murder capital of the world and become a place where people are comfortable coming here and not worry about this craziness."
Lewis, who lived in Florida and played college football at Miami, is rooted in the Baltimore community.
He runs the Ray Lewis Foundation, which provides financial help to disadvantaged youth. He has fed more than 4,000 families the past decade at his Thanksgiving event. He held boot camp fitness sessions for Baltimore City police officers and members of a local homeless shelter last year. He is also building a bowling lane and entertainment complex at Hunt Valley Towne Centre.
To honor his contributions, the city renamed a section of North Avenue as "Ray Lewis Way" six months ago.
"It's a blessing that he has the heart to do all of this for a community," Pamela Johnson said after being handed a turkey from Lewis.
But trying to predict when Lewis will retire is as futile as trying to run past him.
In August 2002, the Ravens signed Lewis to a seven-year, $50 million contract that many said would allow him to end his career with the team. Seven years later, Lewis was agreeing to another seven-year contract with $15.5 million guaranteed.
"He surpassed the draft position [26th overall in 1996]. He surpassed the longevity of being a great player," Newsome said. "When you put limitations on Ray, he surpasses them all. I'm beyond what Ray Lewis can and can't do. He just keeps going. I'm just amazed."
For Lewis, the future is now.
"I don't look past tomorrow," he said. "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."Click here to order Ray Lewis’s proCane Rookie Card.