Owner of supplements company publicly apologizes to Ray Lewis

NEW ORLEANS -- The owner of a company that manufactures deer-antler spray and says it helps athletes recover more quickly from injuries issued an apology Friday to the Ravens and linebacker Ray Lewis.

A Sports Illustrated story published this week implied that Mitch Ross, who owns a company called S.W.A.T.S. (Sports With Alternatives To Steroids), provided the spray to Lewis to promote healing of his triceps injury. The spray contains a substance called IGF-1, which is banned under the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.

Lewis, who was out from the middle of October until the start of the playoffs with the injury, vigorously denied ever using the spray and said he never has failed an NFL test for PEDs.

"I never saw Ray put [the spray] in his mouth," Ross said in an impromptu news briefing outside the Super Bowl XLVII media center. "I want to apologize to any athletes that this story hurt."

Ross said he met Lewis in 2008 through former Ravens assistant coach Hue Jackson. He also said he gave Jackson what he called "chips," a new technology that he said improves athletes' performance. The "chips" are not ingested and are not in violation of the league's PED policy.

"Ray Lewis is a great man," Ross said. "Hue Jackson is a hero for starting to work with me in 2008. I'm here to tell you that natural IGF-1 rebuilds brain tissue. I did not walk in the Ravens' door with deer spray. I walked in with chips."

Ross said his client list included Giants punter Steve Weatherford, but Weatherford denied any connection to Ross.

"I've never met the guy in my life," Weatherford said in an interview with Newsday. "I've never spoken to him. He's just out to peddle his snake oil."
Weatherford said he has contacted an attorney.

"For eight years, I've never put anything that's banned into my body," he said. "Some guy comes along and says something like this. It's just wrong."

Ross said another of his clients was Ravens safety James Ihedigbo, the one-time Jets special-teams ace. The team had no comment on Ihedigbo.

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Frank Gore has had staying power for 49ers

NEW ORLEANS — The Miami neighborhood where Frank Gore grew up, in his words, is “small, rough.” He saw athletes he thought could truly excel, maybe play in the NFL, but opted for a different life, a more dangerous life.

So Gore decided he would do the opposite of what those guys had done, the guys who confronted him and thought they were better than him.

Despite academic difficulties, despite growing up poor — his single mother raised him, his two siblings, and her sister’s children in a tiny two-bedroom house — Gore used his football talent to get into the University of Miami.

With the Hurricanes, Gore tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in the spring of 2002, and then his right ACL in 2003.

He persevered, but the injuries, which meant he only played 28 games with the Hurricanes, made him a risky pick in the higher rounds of the 2005 NFL draft. The 49ers chose Gore in the third round, with the 65th overall pick.

Gore’s arrival in San Francisco came in the midst of the franchise’s first string of losing seasons in 25 years; over his first six seasons, not only did the 49ers not reach the playoffs, they didn’t get over .500.

But he quickly became the bright spot on what were some dismal offenses. In his second season, Gore had a franchise-record 1,695 yards.

He added 1,000-yard seasons in 2007, ’08, and ’09, the streak broken in 2010 when he fractured a hip in Week 12. But with 853 yards to that point, he was well on his way to another big season.

The statistics didn’t matter to Gore when San Francisco kept losing.

“It was real tough,” Gore said of his early seasons. “It was tough coming to work, especially for me, coming from a winning program in college. I wasn’t ever used to losing. I used to take it hard.”

It was even more frustrating when then-teammates weren’t as bothered when the losses were piling up.

“Some guys, who are not here anymore, were like ‘whatever.’ I wasn’t used to that. If we lost a game at Miami, it was like our season was over,” Gore said.
In the midst of the football losses came personal loss: Gore’s mother, Liz, died early in the 2007 season of kidney failure. A couple of months later, his close friend, Redskins safety Sean Taylor, was killed in his home.

Every time Gore scores a touchdown he points to the sky, a tribute to his mother.

“I love her,” he said this week. “She was a hard worker, and she did everything to make sure her kids [were] satisfied, and she was a smart woman.”

Finding out she had died was “like a dream, like a bad dream. It was tough.”

Gore never asked out of San Francisco, believing there were good pieces in place: himself, linebacker Patrick Willis, tight end Vernon Davis, defensive lineman Justin Smith.

All they needed was the right man to lead them.

When Gore came back from his hip injury in 2011, there was a new head coach: Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was able to do for the 49ers what the four head coaches who preceded him were not, lead them to a winning season and the playoffs in his first year. And now he has them in the Super Bowl, Sunday against the Ravens.

“I love it. You can get up and walk around with your head up,” Gore said of being part of a winning program again. “Everybody loves you in the city. You want to practice.”

Gore has topped 1,200 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons, with eight touchdowns each year.

When he was drafted, Gore knew he was better than the five running backs taken before him, and history has shown him to be right. Of the five — Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams, J.J. Arrington, and Eric Shelton — only Benson has come close to replicating Gore’s success.

Benson had three straight 1,000-yard seasons in Cincinnati; Brown and Williams only got to that benchmark once, and Arrington and Shelton were busts.
Gore is 29, nearing the time when running backs traditionally start to slow down considerably. But Gore is still the player defenses have to be ready for.

“Frank Gore runs that offense,” Baltimore defensive tackle Arthur Jones said. “He’s a hard runner, and then they change it up a little with LaMichael James. It’s up to us as a front to dominate the line of scrimmage up front and stop the run.”

After quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion in the ninth game of the season and Harbaugh made the decision to stick with Colin Kaepernick even after Smith was cleared to return, Gore was one of the players who spoke out in favor of Smith getting his job back.

But Gore has adjusted to the “pistol” offense the 49ers run with Kaepernick, after spending his college and NFL career up to that point in a pro-style attack. He’s enjoying it now, in part because Kaepernick’s ability to run lessens his workload.

Harbaugh counts himself among Gore’s biggest fans.

“Nobody does it better than Frank Gore, nobody,” Harbaugh said. “I have the greatest respect for Frank because he has the greatest respect for the game. It’s evidenced by how he plays, every single game, every single day. Nobody does it better than Frank Gore.”

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Bryant McKinnie enjoying 'new chapter' in his

A Super Bowl victory can serve as a sort of career redemption for a lot of players.

If the Baltimore Ravens prevail on Sunday, it certainly will be that for left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the longtime Minnesota Viking who was released in August 2011 when he was terribly out of shape.

McKinnie is now the starting left tackle for the Ravens and back to being the kind of player he was for a number of seasons with the Vikings, where he wasn’t a stranger to off-field trouble on occasion. McKinnie was a main figure in the Love Boat scandal and he was booted off the NFC Pro Bowl team in 2010 when he didn’t go to practice but used social media to brag about all the time he was spending in a strip club.

McKinnie says he is in a “new chapter” in his life now, according to Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and he certainly is in his career too. Once the party animal, McKinnie says he’s trying to set an example now.

"We'll have our meetings this week and we'll bring up the importance of guys (staying out of trouble)," McKinnie said. "Everybody has to realize what's at stake here. You don't know if you'll ever get back to this point ever again.

"Is it tempting being in New Orleans? I've been here before, but I've never been to the Super Bowl. So it's not tempting. What's more tempting is getting that Super Bowl ring."

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Frank Gore the ‘main focus’ for Ravens defense

NEW ORLEANS — Colin Kaepernick is the exciting young quarterback. He’s the one with the multi-dimensional skill set that has helped transform the San Francisco 49ers from a team primarily known for its defense into a team for its explosive offense as well. And he’s the one featured in the giant picture that hangs across the wall of the lobby inside the 49ers’ team hotel.

But it’s actually running back Frank Gore that Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees described as the “main focus” for Baltimore’s defense heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup with San Francisco.

Said Pees: “Everyone talks about No. 7 (Kaepernick), but 21 (Gore) can beat you just as easy as (Kaepernick) can and he’s still, to me, the main focus.”

Added Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones: “That’s what it all comes down to — stopping that run. Frank Gore runs that offense. … It’s up to us up front to dominate the line of scrimmage up front and stop the run.”

Gore’s a four-time Pro Bowler. He has rushed for 1,036 yards or more during each of the last six seasons that he’s played in at least 14 games. He finished this year’s regular season with 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns.

He has added 209 yards and three scores in San Francisco’s two playoff victories.

“Frank Gore, to me, is the most important part of the 49ers’ offense,” said former Pro Bowl running back and current NFL Network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson. “He allows them, for one, to wear down the defense with that dive (play). He’s the physical guy that can wear down the defense, but he can also still take it to the house and catch the ball out of the backfield.”

For the year — including the playoffs — the 5-foot-9, 217-pound Gore is averaging nearly five yards per carry.

He rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns in the 49ers’ NFL championship win over the Atlanta Falcons, one of nine times this year Gore has totaled 83 yards or more on the ground.

He had 119 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries — as well as 48 yards on two catches — during San Francisco’s 45-31 divisional round playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.

Gore had a season-high 131 yards on just 16 carries against the Seattle Seahawks in mid-October.

“He’s just like a bull,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said of Gore. “He goes downhill on you really fast and I think he’s more (agile) than people think he is. I have respect for his game because if you watch Frank Gore, he doesn’t take the hits. He actually delivers them because of his low center of gravity. You go ask Ray Lewis who he has respect for in that offense, and obviously he has respect for everybody, but the main person he’ll tell you right now is Frank Gore.”

Gore has been selected to the Pro Bowl each of the last two years, rushing for a combined 2,426 yards and 16 touchdowns during the last two regular seasons.

“Nobody does it better than Frank Gore,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Nobody. I have the greatest respect for Frank because he has the greatest respect for the game. It’s evidenced by how he plays, every single game, every single day. Nobody does it better than Frank Gore. I really believe in his talent, but the greatest share is his love for the game; his love and respect for the game of football.”

On Sunday, Gore will be matched up against a Ravens defense — led by Lewis — that has limited opposing running backs to an average of just 3.6 yards per carry in the playoffs.

“They play well together,” Gore said. “The (defensive line) is very big, fast and strong. Their linebacker, (Lewis is) one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. … We are just going to have to keep chipping away and keep getting the ball to the offense. And whenever we get an opportunity to make a big play we need to capitalize and get it.”

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PHOTOS: The Cleats Ray Lewis Will Wear in Super Bowl XLVII


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PHOTO: proCane Ravens Ray Lewis, Ed Reed & Bryant McKinnie At Their Last SB XLVII Practice

Bryant McKinnie posted this photo of himself and fellow proCanes Ray Lewis and Ed Reed at their last practice before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Reed and Lewis are not wearing their usual number 20 and number 52 respectively because the Ravens on their Friday practices usually have defensive players exchange jerseys.


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All Canes Radio With Vernon Carey & Mike Langley

Every MONDAY Night proCanes.com joins All Canes Radio to bring the latest news on not only current Hurricane football but also proCane news and exclusive interviews with current and former proCanes live from Shake Shack in Coral Gables.

Click here to listen to this week’s show and hear our exclusive interviews with proCanes Vernon Carey and Mike Langley.

Listen to Vernon Carey break the news for the first time that he is making an NFL comeback and is already training for the 2013 season. After receiving many calls from NFL teams in 2012, but deciding to forego those call and Coach at his Alma Mater Northwester High School, Carey is ready for a comeback. Listen as Carey talks about his days as a Dolphin and Cane. Also listen to former walk on Mike Langley talk about his days as a Cane!

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Football factory: The U's astounding presence in Super Bowl XLVII

NEW ORLEANS – Six-foot-eight-inch Bryant McKinnie, towering above everyone else in the Superdome, smiled and shared a joke about his old college team.

"We used to say if one of us didn't get to the Super Bowl," the former Miami Hurricane and current Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman said Tuesday, "we'd all take a pay cut and play for the Dolphins."

No need for that plan now. McKinnie and his Ravens teammate Ed Reed, another former 'Cane, will both play in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday. So will Frank Gore, for the San Francisco 49ers. They were all on the same 2001 Miami Hurricanes roster that many consider the best collection of college talent of all time. And they are all stars.

In a league where the average career lasts four years, these three former college teammates continue to dominate more than a decade later.

And they're hardly alone.

That '01 Hurricanes team, which went undefeated and routed Nebraska in the BCS Championship Game, produced NFL players at just about every position. That Miami roster produced 17 first-round draft picks and 38 players were drafted into the NFL. Andre Johnson was on that roster. So was Vince Wilfork. So was D.J. Williams. So was Jonathan Vilma. So was Antrelle Rolle. So were Willis McGahee and Clinton Portis, who were both ahead of Gore on the depth chart. So was Sean Taylor, who was Reed's backup and made the Pro Bowl twice before being tragically killed in a home invasion. And so was 2012 Pro Bowler Chris Myers, who didn't start at Miami but logged significant playing time as a backup because, in his matter-of-fact words, "We were blowing teams out by 40 points." (That team's average margin of victory was actually 32.9 points.)

"Every now and then you get to coach a great one," says Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, who helped recruit that Miami team and coached Reed before leaving for Rutgers in 2000. "That team was littered with great ones. I don't know that there will ever be a team assembled with all that talent again."

The heft of the credit for the millennium Hurricanes' success goes to Butch Davis, the head coach who assembled all that talent in one place before bolting to the NFL. "Butch Davis was an incredible, incredible evaluator of talent," says then-assistant Curtis Johnson, who is now at Tulane. Davis' legacy is mixed because of a two-pronged NCAA investigation at North Carolina that resulted in his firing, but in 10 years as a college head coach, he recruited dozens of future NFL players and more than 30 first-round draft picks. Most came at Miami.

"We were looking for athletic, speed guys who loved football," explains Schiano. That was a directive from Davis, who got his start coaching multiple sports and always looked for players who could excel at basketball, track, wrestling, whatever. "When you coach a lot of different sports," Davis says, "you start to appreciate a lot of skills and how they work together." He would assemble his staff in a film room, look at high school games, and wait for preps to "jump off the screen."

The recruiting ground in South Florida was fertile, but a lot of the stars on that 2001 roster came from elsewhere. Reed arrived from Louisiana. McKinnie came from New Jersey. Jeremy Shockey grew up in Oklahoma. Davis didn't much care for five-star guys as much as he wanted those three ingredients: athleticism, speed and love of football. For every Andre Johnson, who probably could have played in the NFL as a college freshman, there was an undersized talent nobody else saw. "Roscoe Parrish was a midget," says Curtis Johnson. (For the record, Parrish is 5-9.)

The "loved football" part was perhaps most important. Gore was a great example, as he came to Miami despite having to wait behind Portis and McGahee. Asked at Super Bowl media day Tuesday why he didn't shy away from that, Gore said, "Competition. If you want to be the best, you have to play with the best. I wasn't scared of competition."

Gore carried a football around campus in those days, held high and tight, because he knew his day would come. "He could care less about anything but school and football," says Mike Rumph, one of those 17 first-round picks. "Most guys are chasing girls, thinking about stuff at home. Not him. First day out to practice, most guys have special sleeves or new shoes. He's out there with no gloves. Just a jersey, shorts, and helmet. He was like Mike Tyson."

There were several players on the team with that mentality. "We had tackling going on in walk-throughs," says Curtis Johnson, and that was on purpose. Davis wanted practices to be more difficult than games, even if it meant grueling workouts and ferocious drills.

"The toughest battle was Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," says Schiano. "That's the thing I remember – the competition." Asked if it was as intense as the NFL, Schiano said: "In some ways even more so. At the U of Miami, we were trying to bring the program back. There was such a hunger there. That's one of the reasons they practiced so hard against each other."

Schiano remembers being disturbed in his office one spring by "a loud noise" and looking out the window to see a rowdy 7-on-7 game that included Michael Irvin, who had retired from football, and Sinorice Moss (Santana's younger brother), who was 15 at the time. Irvin, Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp had long since left campus, yet there was an unspoken expectation that the bar needed to be raised every single year. There's even a book written about the building and sustaining of the Miami program: Cane Mutiny.

"The level of work ethic was established," says Myers. "We wanted to keep that going. You wanted to prove to yourself you could keep doing what was done before."

Former players credit not only the strength coaches, but also the fact that the facilities weren't all that great. Today, major schools have professional-grade equipment. At that time, Miami had something resembling a boxing gym. That only seemed to motivate players more.

"It was the work ethic," Reed said Tuesday. "With the people we had, we tended to get the best guys."

It all culminated with a one-loss season in 2000, an undefeated season in 2001 and another one-loss season in 2002. But the 2001 team was especially dominant. The final score for that entire year, with point totals from all games added up, was Miami 512, Opponents 117.

"I really felt like we could have beaten the Cincinnati Bengals that year," says Rumph, who played five seasons in the NFL and now coaches at American Heritage High in Boca Raton. "It wouldn't be a blowout game!"

The most remarkable aspect of that team is only now coming into view. Nearly 12 years later, Gore is maybe the most dangerous player on the 49ers roster. The same could be said about Johnson in Houston, and Wilfork is a rare stalwart on a constantly rotating Patriots defense.

Yet when forced to pick a player or two from that '01 squad, two names come up: McKinnie and Reed.

Former 'Canes love to talk about the much-hyped matchup that season between "Mt. McKinnie" and defensive end Dwight Freeney, who starred at Syracuse and is building himself a Hall of Fame career with Indianapolis.

"Bryant is the best lazy player I've ever seen in my life," Rumph says. "He don't like to work out, his back is bothering him, that kind of thing. But even on his laziest day, he would not give up a sack. Dwight Freeney came to town, and Bryant literally rolled him down the field."

Miami beat No. 14 Syracuse that November day, 59-0.

While McKinnie is revered for his strength, Reed is awed for his smarts. The signature play from that championship season came when Miami struggled with Boston College into the fourth quarter and defensive lineman Matt Walters intercepted a pass deep in Miami territory. Reed raced up on his 270-pound teammate, ripped the ball out of his hands and ran 80 yards to the end zone. He was such a ball hawk that he forced his own teammate to fumble. "He had ball skills like an elite receiver and footwork like a top DB," Rumph says. "He was a coach on the field."

Davis, the architect of all this, admits he looks back at his Miami days wistfully. "In retrospect, obviously I would have loved to stay for eight, 10, 12, 15 years and maybe still be there," Davis says. "It was ridiculous how much success we had."

And it wasn't just on the field. Chuck Pagano was a secondary coach who left in 2000. Rob Chudzinski was an offensive coordinator. Schiano was defensive coordinator until the 2000 season. All three are now NFL head coaches.

In the college ranks, head coach Larry Coker is now the top guy at Texas San-Antonio. Mario Cristobal became a head coach at Florida International. Randy Shannon was in charge at Miami for a time. Curtis Johnson is now head coach at Tulane. Mark Stoops is head coach at Kentucky.

And Ken Dorsey, the quarterback on that unbeaten team, is now the quarterbacks coach for the Carolina Panthers.

Ironically, Davis has never reached that level of success again as a head coach. He struggled with the Cleveland Browns before leaving for North Carolina, which is now mired in scandal. Davis never won a national title as a head coach, but hopes to get one more shot. He's now an assistant with Schiano's Bucs.

Other lingering aspects of the Miami juggernaut are more subtle. Every time Myers gets ready to take the field for the Texans, he listens to the same song before he runs out into the din of the stadium: "In The Air Tonight," by Phil Collins. That was the song hand-picked by Davis to signal the entrance of the Hurricanes onto the field at the old Orange Bowl. He picked it to set a tempo and tone, but also to time a pregame stretch.

"The drum roll signified time to break down and go to the next phase of pregame," Davis says. "The tempo and mindset was now in place." Myers is not alone in his ritual. "Everybody still listens to that song before games," Myers says. "It brings me back to a little bit of Miami."

There is a little bit of Miami all over the NFL. In fact, there is a lot. And some of it will be on display in New Orleans on Sunday.

In fact, it's hard not to wonder how good those Hurricanes would have been if they could have experienced McKinnie's joke about playing together in the NFL: Gore, Portis and McGahee in the backfield, Johnson at wideout, Shockey at tight end, McKinnie blocking, Wilfork rushing, Williams at linebacker, Reed, Rolle and the late Taylor in the defensive backfield. And all those coaches.

Asked how good that team would have been in the NFL, Tulane's Johnson lets out a howling laugh before giving a one-word answer:


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Frank Gore has warmed to the Pistol offense in time for Super Bowl 2013

When the San Francisco 49ers coaches approached veteran running back Frank Gore midway through the season and told him they'd be making some changes to the offense, Gore didn't take the news all too well.

For a player who had made his living and established himself among the league's top backs by lining up in a pro-style offense and running the football behind a fullback, Gore didn't initially welcome the idea of switching to the Pistol formation.

In fact, he downright hated it, saying at least once that the offensive formation -- which called for the quarterback to line up four yards behind the center and the running back another few yards behind the quarterback -- was not real football.

But after helping the 49ers rank fourth in the NFL in rushing offense and leading them to Sunday's Super Bowl 2013 against the Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Super Bowl, Gore appears to be warming to the offensive system.

"I didn't like the Pistol at first, but I am a team guy and it helped us get here," Gore said. "We are doing great things with it so I am with it now."

San Francisco Coach Jim Harbaugh said he knew it wouldn't take long for Gore to get over his apprehensions. Gore, whose time in a pro-style offense dates back to his college days at Miami, studied the philosophies of nuance in the Pistol and read-option offense.

And while he went the final nine regular season games of the regular season without a 100-yard rushing game, Gore has proven in the playoff that he still is a major factor in the offense.

After rushing for 119 yards a touchdown on 23 carries in the 49ers' 45-31 divisional playoff win against the Green Bay Packers, Gore followed up the performance with a 20-carry, 90-yard, two-touchdown performance in the NFC Championship game win against the Atlanta Falcons. Gore scored both touchdowns in the second half as the 49ers overcame a 17-point deficit on the way to a 28-24 victory.

"Nobody does it better than Frank Gore, nobody," Harbaugh said. "I have the greatest respect for Frank because he has the greatest respect for the game. It's evidenced by how he plays, every single game, every single day. Nobody does it better than Frank Gore. I really believe in his talent, but the greatest share is his love for the game; his love and respect for the game of football."

Gore, who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in six of his eight seasons on his way to becoming the 49ers' all-time leading rusher, is finally seeing the fruits of his hard work.

Despite individual success in his first six seasons, Gore experienced few team triumphs before Harbaugh arrived before the 2011 season.

In his first six seasons, the 49ers failed to make the playoffs. And Gore was repeatedly dogged by an assortment of injuries.

But now his team's fortunes have changed, even if the offense had to change with it.

"It's big," Gore said of finally advancing to the Super Bowl. "It's big, especially going through so much with this organization. I was drafted in '05 and I had a lot of struggles. We had some players in the locker room, but now we have a chance to play in the big game, so it's big.

"I've dreamed about playing in this game a long time. I'm excited and ready."

While 49ers' upstart quarterback Colin Kaepernick is clearly San Francisco's most talked-about player here at the Super Bowl, Gore is their rock.

"He's a great player," Kaepernick said. "He's a great leader. He's a workhorse. He's going to do whatever it takes to win and we need Frank Gore to be Frank. That will be good enough on Sunday. I think you can put Frank in any offense and he will be successful. He's the type of running back that can adapt. He can do anything we need him to do. I think that's why he has been doing so well."

Gore, who has made the Pro Bowl four times, has done his job quietly, too. The unassuming running back who has rushed for a franchise-record 8,839 yards in the regular season during his career, said he'll continue to do his job and handle his business just as he did the change in offensive strategy.

"I've always been quiet," he said. "I like to just chill and watch and let everybody else do the talking and not waste time.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to win, blocking, running, catching."

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Ed Reed ranks fourth all time with eight postseason interceptions

NEW ORLEANS -- For all he's accomplished in his career, Baltimore safety Ed Reed wondered if he'd ever reach a Super Bowl.

He's been an eight-time Pro Bowler, has played in 13 playoff games, including three AFC championship games, and has intercepted eight passes in postseason games, which is tied for fourth all time in NFL history.

But there would always be a New England Patriots or a Pittsburgh Steelers or an Indianapolis Colts team that would stand in the Ravens' way, and at age 34, Reed knew he was running out of time.

"I didn't doubt it," Reed said of playing in a Super Bowl. "I just wondered when and if. I asked that question a couple times in my career. You have to have a special team. Everything has to be clicking, and you've definitely got to want it to get here.

"Not everyone is fortunate enough to go to a Super Bowl. I'm thankful and grateful. I've been saying that the whole time. I know guys who didn't play a down (with Baltimore) and went to other teams and got to Super Bowls. You've just got to be part of something special and we're glad to have it this year."

Reed's 11-year wait was worth it. Not only will the Ravens be playing San Francisco on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, they'll be playing in Reed's hometown of New Orleans.

"To come home, to be in Louisiana, in front of the home team, the home crowd, playing for the Super Bowl . . . I can't really explain it," Reed said. "I'm really speechless. For everything that I've been through to get to this point, everything we've been through as a team to get to this point, it's just awesome."

Though Reed has never played in a Super Bowl, he won a Punt, Pass & Kick competition at the 1997 Super Bowl at the Superdome.

"It was awesome," he said. "I remember everything, really . . . going against Craig Nall and guys like that, guys who played in the league. I was going against quarterbacks. I was a safety/quarterback athlete. I wound up winning the event, and the winner of the event came to Media Day . . . I was just standing around, me and my dad.

"I remember seeing the Superdome field, I remember seeing you guys crowd around. . . . It was just an awesome day. After that, I wound up going to Disney World and competed in their Punt, Pass & Kick."

While much has been made about this being linebacker Ray Lewis' final game, there's also speculation on whether Reed will be playing his final game for Baltimore on Sunday. Reed's six-year, $44 million contract expires after the Super Bowl, and it's doubtful the Ravens want to commit a big contract to Reed, who despite his team-leading four interceptions and three fumble recoveries, has slowed a bit.

Reed said this week that he could envision playing for the Patriots and praised New England coach Bill Belichick. But his preference would be to finish his career in Baltimore.

"I always said when I came into the league and got drafted that I didn't want to be one of those guys jumping from team to team," said Reed, whose career 61 interceptions are the most among active players, and his 1,541 yards in interception returns rank first in NFL history. "If it was up to me, I would be right in Baltimore. If it happens to be somewhere else, I can play football on the moon.

"The decision is solely mine. Who I really talk to is my dad and my doctor, if I'm physically able. . . . If I have the heart for it and I want to continue to play, then I'm going to do it. If I don't want to play, I just don't want to play."

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh can't imagine the Ravens without Reed in the middle of their secondary.

"Ed is a huge part of what we do," Harbaugh said. "He's a staple. Ray Lewis gets a lot of the attention, and rightly so, he's been with the organization from 1996 on, but Ed's been here 11 years now. Ed is a fixture in Baltimore. He's a fixture in the community with kids. He's huge in different schools around the city; he brings kids to practice all the time.

"He's a mentor for our players, particularly the players in the back in the defense but really our whole football team. He's a spiritual leader, he's an emotional leader, and he's a big part of who we are."

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Andre Johnson earns big raise in 2013

Over the last few days, "Shutdown Corner" has reported on some of the base salary increases for the 2013 season. In the first report last Saturday, which was updated on Monday, the highest increase belong to Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, whose performances during his first two seasons in the NFL added $1.75 million to his 2013 base salary.

Move over, Colt.
According to NFLPA records, Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson triggered a $3.3 million escalator in his contract and is now scheduled to earn $9.5 million in base salary in 2013. Johnson, who turns 32 in July, caught 112 passes for 1,598 yards – both numbers ranked in the Top 5 in the NFL – with four touchdowns in 2012 and was named to the Pro Bowl for the sixth time in his career.

In addition to Johnson, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews will be on the receiving end of a hefty pay raise in 2013.

New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham will also get a significant raise from $630,000 to $1.323 million.

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Ravens “got goosebumps” when Ray Lewis announced Last Ride

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced on January 2 that this year’s postseason run would be his “last ride” in the NFL. Lewis isn’t the incredibly high-impact football player he once was, but there are stats that suggest his on-field presence is as valuable as ever.

Over Lewis’ last 16 games, the Ravens are 12-4 with four playoff victories. Without Lewis in the lineup for ten games this season, Baltimore went 5-5.

In an interview with WFAN in New York, via SportsRadioInterviews.com, Ravens safety James Ihedigbo attempted to explain the impact Lewis has from an intangible standpoint. Leadership is not quantifiable, but Lewis still impacts the outcome of games in spite of declining ability.

“He’s our leader, he’s our general, and when he spoke to the team guys truly got goosebumps,” Ihedigbo described. “There was a change in that locker room, there was a change when we had that conversation.

“And I’m not going to get into the depth of what was said, but from that point on it lit a different type of fire under us.”

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Ed Reed: NFL fining wrong offenses

Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed said Thursday the NFL is fining players for the wrong infractions.

Reed, in an interview with Comcast SportsNet Baltimore, said the NFL is "policing the wrong things, for real."

"It's so much you can do. There's so much that needs to be done, but they'd rather police certain things," Reed said. "You tend to miss things when you're making a certain amount of money, and not playing the game, you're missing out. You're just somebody upstairs wearing a suit, fining people and stuff like that for the wrong things. We're policing the wrong things, for real."

Reed was fined more than $100,000 this season for unnecessary roughness penalties.

"I don't know, man, I really don't know what to say about our commissioner (Roger Goodell), honestly ... it's probably more him and his staff who came up with the things we are being fined for," Reed said. "It's not just Mr. Goodell. I think he needs more help at the fining process, not just have do-boys who want to please you.

"... I try and stay away from as far as possible, kinda just stay away from the principal like school, stay away from the principal's office as much as possible, but obviously they found me and the way they found me, it's been ridiculous, honestly. The bad part about it (is) we were talking about how much guys were fined this year. I think I topped the charts. It's bad how the game's been policed this year and the process we have been through from the lockout with us, the lockout with the referees. C'mon man, it's all a joke ... they the ones making all the money and doing nothing."

Reed, now in his 11th season, will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday. He collected 58 tackles and four interceptions in 16 regular-season games this season.

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Hue Jackson apologizes to Ray Lewis and entire Ravens organization for introducing them to S.W.A.T.S owner

Ray Lewis has said he never took the supplements offered by Sports With Alternatives to Steroids, but it's hard to deny he didn't know the co-owner of the controversial supplement company after Hue Jackson has apologized for introducing Lewis and other Baltimore Ravens to him.

In a phone interview with the Baltimore Sun, former Ravens assistant Jackson said he was sorry for the distraction the controversy has caused. He told the paper he met S.W.A.T.S. co-owner Mitch Ross at the 2008 scouting combine. Yahoo! Sports online magazine ThePostGame.com reported in 2011 that the NFL told Jackson, then the Raiders coach, to cut ties with the company because it produced a deer-antler extract spray that contained the banned substance IGF-1. Ross said he gave supplements to Lewis after the linebacker tore his triceps in October.
"First of all, I'm disappointed for the Ravens," Jackson told The Sun in a telephone interview Wednesday night. "You hate to ever put an organization in that kind of situation. I never knew the young man [Ross] could be that way. I apologize for the whole organization. It should be about the Super Bowl."

Lewis has denied taking supplements from S.W.A.T.S. As Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel wrote, Lewis said he "never ever took what he said," and called Ross "a coward."

Jackson, who is now on the Cincinnati Bengals' staff, told the Sun he believes Lewis is clean and has never used banned substances.

"Ray is one of the greatest football players to ever play the game," Jackson said, according to the Sun. "This kind of thing should never happen to him. He doesn't deserve it. It's not fair. This is not about talking about a relationship that he met a guy a few years back. It should be about him trying to win the most important game of all this season. Ray means the world to me. Ray has spoken his peace and I stand behind him 100 percent."

After Sports Illustrated brought the issue to light early this week, Ross has continued to stick by his story and defend his company, saying he did set Lewis up with a recovery program but Lewis didn't do anything wrong.

“It's a shame that Ray is denying taking it," Ross told the Sun. "The NFL is uneducated. This is not a steroid. It’s not illegal. Ray is not a cheater. He did it the right way. Ray is a good man. He did the work. He rehabbed his arm and did the workouts. This isn’t a shortcut. It’s just natural science.”

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Spencer Adkins was ready when Ravens came calling

Spencer Adkins always knew he was going to get another shot at his NFL dream.

After the Atlanta Falcons cut the linebacker in August after three years with the team, Adkins had to bide his time. The former Naples High star stayed in Atlanta, followed his normal workout regimen while his agent explored other NFL offers.

His patience paid off, and now Adkins could soon be playing for a Super Bowl champion.

Adkins signed a reserve-futures contract with the Baltimore Ravens in early January. Though he can't join the team until its offseason program begins, Adkins could be joining the defending champs if the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII.

"I was in the NFL; I know what it takes to play in the NFL," the 25-year-old said. "I know I belong there. I was just waiting for my next opportunity. I never questioned my ability to play the game."

Adkins said he's worked hard to stay in peak physical condition the past four months. He said he worked out for seven NFL teams, which he declined to name. Adkins was set to work out for another when the Ravens called and said they wanted to sign him.

Naples coach Bill Kramer had no doubt Adkins would get a second chance in the NFL, and he knew his former player would be ready.
"He never stops training," Kramer said. "He's been working toward another team since Day 1."

When Adkins went to Baltimore to meet with Ravens coaches and officials, the 2005 grad who played at the University of Miami was reunited with several former Hurricanes teammates. Running back Damien Berry and receiver Tommy Streeter also played at Miami. And defensive lineman Terrence Cody is a graduate of Riverdale High School in Fort Myers.

Adkins said he knows Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is 12 years older, from several events at Miami. Adkins is disappointed he won't get to play alongside Lewis, who is retiring after the Super Bowl, but he wishes the future Hall of Famer well.

"He played the game at a high level for a long time," Adkins said. "I guess he wants to go out on top."

Adkins said he was surprised when he was released by the Falcons on Aug. 30. After being drafted in the sixth round in 2009, the 5-foot-11, 242-pounder played in 24 games for Atlanta.

The only start of Adkins' career came in last season's playoff loss to the Giants thanks to injuries. The Falcons were again thin at linebacker in training camp because of injuries, which is why Adkins was blindsided by being cut.

"A lot of people were surprised," Kramer said. "(The NFL) is a funny business. Spencer can only control what he can control. He just controlled his effort and preparation."

Adkins was particularly disappointed because he knew the Falcons were primed for a big season. Atlanta went 13-3 in the regular season, and was the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Falcons lost 28-24 to the 49ers in the conference championship.

"With that offense and their new defense, I knew they would be something special," Adkins said.

Because of his college connections in Baltimore, Adkins was pulling for the Ravens already. Now that he has a chance to join the potential Super Bowl champs, he'll be cheering even louder come Sunday.

Adkins stopped short of making a prediction on the game, but he said it should be a close contest.

"I'm expecting it to be a battle," Adkins said. "The Harbaugh brothers, they're both great coaches. The teams are kind of built alike — real physical defenses with explosive offenses. They're matched up well, so it should be a good competition."

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Ed Reed has earned respect as one of the NFL's all-time greatest safeties

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson had known Ed Reed since he was a kid. And he knew what a special talent Reed was as a triple-threat quarterback/defensive back/kick returner at Destrehan High School in the mid-1990s.

But Johnson also had a problem when he came to try and recruit Reed to the University of Miami. The Hurricanes’ scholarships were limited because of partial probation, and Johnson and defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano were hoping to try to convince Reed to come to Miami on a track scholarship.

“Chuck’s brother, John Pagano, was with the Saints at the time (as a defensive assistant). So we went with him out to Destrehan, and we put on the film of Ed making play after play,” Johnson recalled. “And Chuck was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ So John goes, ‘I don’t know if he could play for you guys at the University of Miami. But he sure could start with us for the New Orleans Saints.’

“So that’s why we took him. Not because of Chuck Pagano, but because of John Pagano.”

Sixteen years later, Reed is still the kind of impact player the Saints could use in their secondary.

He’s 34 years old now, and he’s fighting through all the ailments that come with an 11-year career – a torn labrum suffered early this season, a painful nerve impingement that has nagged him for an estimated six or seven years, a series of concussions he’s endured.

And that little gray patch sprouting from his hair seems to be growing a little bit more each year – though Johnson said he’s always told Reed that’s a sign of “wisdom.”

Regardless, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer remains one of the most dangerous threats ever to roam the back end of a NFL defense. And he is still expected to be one of the biggest impact players on Sunday when his Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 2013 in his home turf of New Orleans.

 “Even though injuries have robbed him of some of his speed, and he’s been playing with a torn labrum, I still think he’s the best safety in the league as far as taking the football away,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who now works as an analyst for CBS. “I mean, the dude’s special. … This dude is unbelievable.

“I gave him the nickname, the ‘Ball Hawk.’ I’ve never seen a guy from that position be able to take the ball away like he has.”

Reed ranks 10th in NFL history with 61 career interceptions. And he ranks first in NFL history with 1,541 return yards.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees is one of Reed’s many victims. Brees is 0-3 in his career against Reed and the Ravens, and Reed picked him off in their early days when Brees was with the San Diego Chargers in 2003.

“You talk about one of the best safeties of all time,” Brees said. “He’s one of those guys that’s extremely smart. And just a football player. He’s a ball hawk. He’s always around the ball. When you play him, as the game goes on, you see him start to kind of dissect what’s happening. And you have to become even more careful as the game goes on as to where he is and the plays he’s trying to make.”

When asked if he had to try and change his routine or tendencies before facing Reed, Brees said, “Here’s the thing. On the chalkboard, certain coverages are supposed to look certain ways. But when Ed Reed’s back there, it doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to look like on the chalkboard. He’s gonna read your eyes, he’s gonna read formations, he’s gonna read splits, he’s gonna jump certain things.

“And you just gotta be aware of where he is, or he can make you pay.”

Reed was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He’s earned nine Pro Bowl selections. He’s been named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team All-Pro three times. He has scored 14 touchdowns in his career, and he’s the only player in NFL history to score off a punt return, a blocked punt, an interception and a fumble recovery.

All of those accomplishments made Reed an easy choice for our list of the top-10 NFL players from the New Orleans area.

He probably belongs in the top three or four, along with quarterback Peyton Manning and Hall of Fame running backs Steve Van Buren and Marshall Faulk -- whom Johnson also recruited when he was with San Diego State.

“I was fortunate to be around two of them. And those two guys, Ed and Marshall were very similar in how smart they are. Exceptionally smart. … (Reed) is probably one of the smartest players I’ve been around, him and Drew Brees,” said Johnson, who appreciates better than most how many great players – and great defensive backs, in particular – have sprouted from the New Orleans area.

Another one of them, Aeneas Williams, is up for Hall of Fame induction this weekend. And another, 15-year NFL veteran Lionel Washington, is now serving as Johnson’s co-defensive coordinator at Tulane.

Reed rattled off a number of attributes that make Reed stand out – from his smarts to his skills to his competitive drive. He said he used to play basketball with Reed a lot, and he acted like Michael Jordan on the court. Always willing to take the final shot, always wanting to lock down the other team’s best player on defense.

Johnson said Reed was also the classic guy who would “make his teammates better.” He remembers him driving another all-time NFL great safety Sean Taylor to be the best he could be at Miami. And Reed has even given Johnson pointers over the years.

They were just in Johnson’s office recently, with Reed explaining to Johnson how he would always just follow Saints receiver Marques Colston, because he knew that’s where the Saints would go eventually.

Former Saints safety Darren Sharper said Reed gave him similar pointers before the Saints played in the Super Bowl against Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. And sure enough, Reed was spot-on with predicting some of Manning’s tendencies – including the quick slant to Reggie Wayne that was intercepted by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter to seal the victory.

But as smart and well-prepared as Reed is, his instincts are even better.

Sharper, who ranks two interceptions ahead of Reed on the all-time NFL list with 63, said he’s always been a fan of Reed because they play with that same “riverboat gambler” style.

“I love watching him play,” said Sharper, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. “I see what he’s seeing -- knowing how to take proper angles. Anticipation. Not being afraid to take a chance.

“He definitely takes calculated risks. And I can appreciate that as someone who likes to play the game that way.”

Reed’s pro coaches speak about Reed with the same reverence as Johnson does. Both current Ravens coach John Harbaugh and former Ravens coach Brian Billick said that while it’s understandable that veteran linebacker Ray Lewis is getting so much attention leading up to his final game, Reed is a similar type of player and leader.

Harbaugh called Reed a “staple,” "a spiritual and emotional leader” and “a huge part of what we do” this week, raving about what he’s meant to the Baltimore community off the field as well as what he’s meant on the field.

Billick, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network and FOX, said Reed has “an incredible, unique perspective on the game. He’s Ray Lewis-like in his emotion, his passion and intelligence for the game.”

And when asked for his memories of Reed, Billick laughed.

“How many times where you’re looking up and you’re going, ‘What the hell are you doing there? Oh great, you intercepted the ball! Go!’” said Billick. “Just his ability to come out of the structure of the defense and make plays is second to none.”

Reed is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, and he said he intends to keep playing. But the Saints aren’t a very realistic destination since they have limited cap space to work with and so many holes to fill on a defense that needs to be rebuilt.

And the Saints would hardly be the only team interested in his services. There’s already buzz building that the New England Patriots will make a run at Reed since coach Bill Belichick has always been so gushing with his praise for Reed.

When Belichick was asked before the AFC championship game what he admires so much about Reed, he said, “It’s everything.”

“He just does things that nobody else at that position does, or I don’t know if they’ve ever done it,” Belichick said. “He’s special. He’s really special.”

That’s as true today as it was 16 years ago.

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Jimmy Graham says everything is going well with injured left wrist

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tried his best to conceal his injured left wrist from opponents throughout the 2012 season by taping both hands almost exactly the same on gameday. There was no concealing the injury Wednesday afternoon, though.

Graham donned a  black cast on his surgically repaired left wrist during a press conference for the NFL's Play 60 program at the NFL Experience at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Graham was asked to fill in at the Pro Bowl last week, but couldn't because of his wrist injury.

"I had surgery a couple of weeks ago and everything is going well," Graham said. "I'm going to start working out and doing rehab and just managing it for next fall."

Graham didn't go into any other details about the extent of his injury. Graham is entering the final year of his contract in 2013. While the amount of dropped passes Graham endured was alarming, he still towered over most tight ends in 2012 with 85 catches for 982 yards and nine touchdowns.

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Ed Reed disagrees with Randy Moss' assessment of himself

NEW ORLEANS -- Randy Moss has considerable convincing to do in Super Bowl XLVII against Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who took a swipe at Moss purporting himself to be "the greatest receiver to ever play'' since Jerry Rice "never pulled his pants down in a touchdown celebration.''

Actually, Moss only pantomimed mooning Green Bay Packers fans after his 34-yard touchdown catch during Minnesota's 31-17 win in a 2005 wild-card game at Lambeau Field.

But Reed made it quite clear why Jerry Rice was the greatest pass catcher ever, which should make for some interesting exchanges down the Superdome field when Reed is bracketing Moss in Baltimore's usual single-high safety looks.

"I watched Jerry Rice, man. And I have a lot of respect for Randy Moss,'' Reed said Thursday at the Ravens team hotel. "But I've watched Jerry Rice and his work ethic on and off the field and how he's represented the game.

"He has never pulled his pants down in a touchdown celebration and done certain things to diminish his legacy.''

Moss said during Tuesday's Media Day, "I really think I'm the greatest receiver to ever play the game.''

But greatness means a lot more to Reed, 34, than just the sheer numbers edge Rice owns on Moss. Rice is first in receiving yards with 22,895 while Moss is third with 15,292. Rice is first and Moss second in touchdown catches with 197 to 156 for Moss.

"You have to play the game a certain way before you consider yourself to be somebody like that,'' Reed said. "He is a great receiver and has been a great receiver for a long time. But you have guys out there like Lynn Swann and Jerry Rice, who really played the game, and Cris Carter.''

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Chris Perez honored to pitch for Team USA in World Baseball Classic

The call came, but Chris Perez missed it.

The Holmes Beach native, IMG alum and Cleveland Indians closer was busy moving the day his cell phone rang and Joe Torre was waiting on the other end.

"I hope it's good news," Perez remembered thinking.

The owner of four World Series rings, Torre, as it turns out, isn't above leaving a voice mail.

And once Perez returned it, his fears melted away.

Torre, who will manage Team USA during next month's World Baseball Classic, was calling Perez to tell him he was on the team.

And unlike a large of swath of superstars, Perez didn't turn down the invitation.

He was the one he wanted it to begin with, as soon as the player's association began taking a preliminary head count toward the end of last season.

"I was like, 'Yes, I'd love to play,'" Perez said. "It's a great game, and we invented it."

It's understandable why some of the sport's biggest names have waved away Torre's request to play for Team USA, which will come together in early March at the Colorado Rockies' spring training complex in Salt River Flats, Ariz.

Spring training is all about easing into a routine; the World Baseball Classic is all about playing to win in mid-March. And while teams aren't permitted to prevent a player from participating in the WBC, it isn't always the easiest thing to go against the guy who signs your paycheck, especially when said paycheck could easily put a few dozen twins through college.

Perez, however, never thought twice about playing.

He wants to represent

his country, which hasn't made it past the semifinals during the first two WBCs.

"It's kind of a black eye," Perez said of Team USA's previous performances. "Also, it's an honor to be selected. It's what you've worked your whole life for. When I played in college, I wanted to be one of the best in college. When I played in the minors, I wanted to be one of the best in the minors. And now that I'm a major leaguer, I want to be one of the best in the majors. And this kind of validates that."

In preparation for playing competitive games rather than easy-as-Sunday-morning Cactus League contests, Perez began throwing a couple of weeks early in attempt to round into the guy who has produced 98 saves and two All-Star team selections during the past three years.

"I wanted to make sure I'm closer to midseason form, and I feel stronger because of it," Perez said. "I'm not concerned about wearing down later in the year. I hope I don't. But right now, I'm feeling fine."

He's ready to wear USA across his chest, ready to play for a manager likely to land in the hall of fame and ready to help the United States take back ownership of the game we proudly call our own.

It's big-time baseball in the middle of spring.

Perez is ecstatic to be a part of it.

Given how some of baseball's other guys have reacted to the WBC, that's good news, too.

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PHOTO: Mike James Scores A TD at Senior Bowl and Throws Up "The U"


Future proCane Mike James who was a late addition to the South’s roster in the 2013 Senior Bowl scored the South’s final TD in their 21-16 victory with 2:41 seconds left in the game. Jame had 6 carries for 10 yards and capped his evening of with a 5-yard TD run.

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Reggie Wayne could become 5th all time in receiving yards

Two 1,000 yard seasons and proCane Reggie Wayne is in the top 5. If Wayne somehow gets one more 1k season after that, which might be a stretch at 36 he could finish top 2 all time in rec. yards. He would also be the only wide receiver in NFL history to do it with one team his whole career.

1.Jerry Rice+ 22,895
2.Terrell Owens 15,934
3.Randy Moss (34) 15,292
4.Isaac Bruce 15,208
5.Tim Brown14,934
6.Marvin Harrison14,580
7.Tony Gonzalez (35) 14,268
8.James Lofton+ 14,004
9.Cris Carter 13,899
10.Henry Ellard 13,777
11.Torry Holt13,382
12.Andre Reed 13,198
13.Steve Largent+ 13,089
14.Reggie Wayne (33) 13,063

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Ed Reed could “definitely” see himself as a Patriot

Ravens safety Ed Reed is an impending free agent, and it’s become popular to dot-connect Reed to New England as a match with longtime admirer Bill Belichick.

The speculation was fueled when Peter King of SI.com predicted on last Sunday’s Pro Bowl pregame show that Reed will indeed sign with the Patriots. King likened the hypothetical signing to Rodney Harrison’s with the Pats, back in 2003.

Reed was specifically asked by reporters Wednesday whether he could envision himself playing in Foxboro.

“Yeah, oh yeah man,” said Reed, per the Boston Herald. “I could definitely play for coach Belichick. He is a great coach. I’m sure he can help me to expand my football knowledge even more as a player and as a coach, so if I’m ever able to be around him, just like I was at the Pro Bowl, it’s huge.

“It’s the reason why I wear my sweater cut off a little bit. He’s the first guy I saw like, ‘That’s cool.’ You know, that’s cool. He cuts those sweater sleeves, and he’ll be comfortable.”

Sunday’s Super Bowl game against the 49ers is tentatively expected to be Reed’s last in a Ravens uniform.

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Ray Lewis addresses recent allegations: 'It's a joke'

Ray Lewis had his Super Bowl media availability Wednesday morning, and the first question was about the allegations that he attempted to obtain a banned substance, as reported by Sports Illustrated. The Baltimore Ravens linebacker vehemently denied the report for the second consecutive day.

"Honestly, and I'm going to say it very clearly again, I think it's one of the most embarrassing things we can do on this type of stage," Lewis said. "You give somebody the ability to come into our world, our world is a very secret society and we try to protect our world as much as we can. When you let cowards come in and do things like that, to try to disturb something ... the reason why I'm smiling is because it's so funny of a story because I've never, ever took what he says or whatever I was supposed to do.

"It's just sad, once again, that someone could have so much attention on a stage this big, where the dreams are really real. I don't need it. My teammates don't need it. The (San Francisco) 49ers don't need it. Nobody needs it because it really just shows you how people really plan things and try to attack people from the outside. It's just foolish, very foolish. The guy has no credibility. He's been sued four or five times over the same B.S."

Mitch Ross, owner of S.W.A.T.S., told Sports Illustrated that Lewis requested deer antler spray and other remedies to quickly return from a torn right triceps. The spray contains the banned substance IGF-1 -- a natural, anabolic hormone that stimulates muscle growth and plays an important role in childhood growth and development. Ross claims it's not a steroid.

A reporter asked Lewis if he's angry about dealing with the backlash of this story.

"Never angry," Lewis said. "I'm too blessed to be stressed. ... You can use the word agitated."

Is it a distraction?

"It's not. It's a joke, if you know me," Lewis said with a grin. "I tell them (my teammates) all the time, 'Don't let people from the outside ever come and try to disturb what's inside.'

"That's the trick of the devil. The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That's what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you're trying to do."

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Frank Gore flattered by Gregg Williams' bounty mandate

NEW ORLEANS: Frank Gore unwittingly played a role in the Super Bowl host city's most recent football scandal.

It was Gore's head that former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called for in a pregame speech before a 2011 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Audio of that locker room speech contributed to the league's decision to indefinitely suspend Williams from coaching and ban head coach Sean Payton for a year as punishment for a bounty program.

"Yeah, I heard it," Gore said Wednesday. "Kill the head, the body will die."

The comments didn't particularly bother Gore. If anything, he found Williams' intent flattering.

"He was probably just trying to pump his guys up. That's football," Gore said. "That's respect. He respected me."

Gore's 49ers beat the Saints in that divisional round playoff game but lost in the NFC title game the next week. A year later, Gore was a major reason the 49ers were able to win the conference title to advance here to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. He rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns in San Francisco's two playoff wins.

Despite an eight-year NFL career, six 1,000-yard seasons and four Pro Bowls, Gore might be the most unassuming star of Super Bowl week.

Gore, 29, speaks so softly that one must lean in close to listen to him, a demeanor that belies his brash, physical running style. Gore prides himself nearly as much in his ability to block against linebackers and safeties as he does rushing for touchdowns.

"With me, I feel like a lot of guys don't like doing it. If you want to be a complete player, if you do that, you get recognized," Gore said.

Gore has a fan in Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard, who was on the receiving end of one of Gore's blocks when their teams played on Thanksgiving in 2011. Pollard laughed this week when reminded of Gore's punishing hit.

"I thought he was going to cut me, and he came and got me right under my chin. A lot of my family let me have it, they said he gave me the Sweet Chin Music," Pollard said, referencing the signature pro wrestling move of Shawn Michaels.

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Andre Johnson after Pro Bowl

AIEA, Hawaii -- After the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson spoke about his experiences in the game at Aloha Stadium and in Hawaii for the week.

WR Andre Johnson (on what the experience was like for him overall) “It was great to be around the top guys in the game and just to hang out with them and learn about them football-wise. It was a great experience.”

(on the intensity of the game compared to other Pro Bowls) “It was definitely up there. A lot of guys were playing pretty hard. Guys were into the game. It ranked up there with some of the games I’ve played.”

(on what was it like having J.J. Watt in the offensive huddle) “It was actually funny. It was something they thought about doing earlier during the week and didn’t know if they’d do it in the game or not. They actually did it early in the game. I thought they’d get him a touchdown but it didn’t turn out that way.”

(on what he thought about J.J. Watt’s route-running) “(Laughs) It’s not hard to mess up a fade route.”

(on Green Bay Packers C Jeff Saturday snapping the ball to Peyton Manning) “Well, they spent a lot of time together and Jeff announced today he was retiring. To get his last snap with Peyton in the Pro Bowl, I think it was great moment and great for the fans to see.”

(on getting to pick guys’ brains like Peyton Manning) "Peyton’s very intense, even though it’s just the Pro Bowl, he’s very intense at what he does. It just shows that’s why he’s the best at what he does.”

(on how many snaps he had in the game with Matt Schaub) “It wasn’t too many. I’m not sure, exactly. I was able to catch a pass from him.”

(on what was it like spending a lot of time with his old college teammate, Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne) “It’s a lot of fun. You get to be around guys you played college ball with. It never gets old. Being here never gets old. It was a great experience and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

(on being at the Pro Bowl with eight of his teammates) “It was great. This is probably the best Pro Bowl out of all the ones I’ve been to just because of how many teammates I had come. It was a lot of fun.”

(on his family traveling to the game) “My mom, my brother, my uncle and his family, they all came up. I had a great time.”

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Amani Toomer: Ray Lewis setting wrong tone for Ravens

What we're hearing in New Orleans ...

… a dissenting voice on the Ray Lewis retirement tour.

It's former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer, who lost to Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV and watched former teammate Tiki Barber take over the spotlight when he announced his retirement midway through the 2006 season.

"It's definitely all about him. Once a guy goes to the center of the field, goes into the victory formation on the last play of his last home game …" Toomer told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday in the Super Bowl XLVII Media Center, trailing off before completing that thought. " I just don't think the Giants or any organization I've ever been a part of, even growing up, would allow somebody to single themselves out like that.

"If you single yourself out after you make a play, that's one thing. But to walk out on the field reminds me of the WWE, like The Rock coming out. You're becoming a caricature of yourself. It's exhausting. I don't know why somebody would want that."

Lewis said Wednesday he had an "obligation" to his teammates and the city of Baltimore to "give everybody a fair chance to say their goodbyes."

Toomer said he "loves" Lewis as a player and called him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He also realizes Lewis' retirement has served as a motivating factor for the Ravens. In fact, that's what they told Toomer, now working for NBC Sports Radio Network, during Media Day when he asked the players how Lewis' retirement affected them.

But Toomer still doesn't believe Lewis should make it all about himself and noted Lewis' pleading guilty to obstruction of justice as part of a plea agreement in regard to the double murders in Atlanta in 2000.

"If you want to say you're Mr. Religious and all of that, have a clean record. Don't say all of that stuff if you know there's stuff that might come back," Toomer said. "Those are the things that, when I look at him, I just think hypocrisy."

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Frank Gore Rewards Joe Staley With Rolex

It is clear by now, that San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has transformed the 49ers culture into a team first mind-set. With nine Pro-Bowlers on the roster, it is easy for a team that talented to have egos, not this team. From the coaching staff to the players, everyone is on the same page, and all about the team.

Just ask supplanted 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, as he was interviewed by NFL Network Analyst Deion Sanders, saying:

This is a team game, I wasn’t going to sit and pout and mope around…I love the locker room we have, I love the group of guys we have, and that’s bigger than me, I feel like. I certainly wasn’t going to put myself before any of that, that’s just how I feel.

The team first mind-set has been instilled in the players, and running back Frank Gore is no exception. Gore enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career as he rushed for 1,214 yards and 8 touchdowns. A testament to his offensive line, the man known as “Frankie G” rewarded teammate offensive tackle Joe Staley with a rolex. Talk about ballin.’ The news was first reported when NFL Network Anchor Amber Theoharis made a joke to Gore, saying “I hope you that you bought them some very nice dinners over the years.” Gore responded:

I bought them a nice gift this year. Joe got a ro! Joe got a ro! (referring to Staley’s rolex)

Staley was then obligated to flash the bling in front of the cameras, showing off his nice piece, as Theoharis said:

See, that’s how you take care of your lineman right there. They’re going to block just a little bit harder with that on their wrist.

With the Super Bowl just four days away, it will be interesting to see how “Frankie G” will reward his lineman, considering they win Super Bowl XLVII. And if I had to take a guess, I would bet on “Frankie G” buying them more than just rolex watches after Sunday’s game.

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Ed Reed deserves spotlight, too

NEW ORLEANS | Ten feet away in the hotel ballroom serving as the home for the Baltimore Ravens’ media availability Monday night was Ray Lewis’ mini-podium, complete with 15 cameras and dozens of reporters, some of whom weren’t speaking English.

But Ed Reed didn’t care.

Even if he will someday be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is generally regarded as the finest safety of his generation and is having a homecoming this week — he grew up in the New Orleans area.

Reed, the Ravens’ other 30-something defensive leader (he’s 34) will be in complete soak-up mode entering Sunday’s Super Bowl against San Francisco.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “This is awesome. To come back to Louisiana in front of my home crowd for the Super Bowl, I’m really speechless because of everything I’ve been through to get to this point. I’m just trying to enjoy it and not hold anything in.”

Reed has held nothing back during a career that spans 160 regular-season games, 1,541 tackles, 61 interceptions and six All-Pro selections.

This postseason, he played all 271 Ravens defensive snaps in wins over Indianapolis, Denver and New England. This will be his first Super Bowl.

In the regular season, Reed had 58 tackles, and his four interceptions were tied for the team lead.

Vocally, Reed carried the Ravens defense when Lewis was lost to a torn triceps injury.

Lewis is a popular figure because this will be his last game, but Reed is just as important.

“He’s always been a staple,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Ray gets a lot of the attention, and rightfully so, but Ed’s been here for 11 years, and he’s a fixture in Baltimore.”

That status was in doubt a few years ago because of injuries.

Reed missed four games in 2009 (ankle) and six games in 2010 (hip surgery). This year, he has played through a torn labrum in his shoulder.

And he said he’s played with a nerve injury for the last six to seven years. “I know that’s affected me,” he said.

To fight Football Father Time, Reed said he has employed a physician who visits the Baltimore area weekly — at Reed’s own expense — to help his recovery process.

“I’ve been doing some great things with my doctor to combat the aging that we have,” Reed said. “We age faster than everybody because of what we do. The truth is that football takes a toll on your life and your body.”

Despite the acknowledgement that he has slowed down on the field, Harbaugh lauds Reed’s impact on the secondary from an emotional standpoint. And one of Reed’s biggest fans has been Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“He’s had fabulous production at whatever he’s done,” Belichick said. “His interceptions, his instinctiveness, his play-making ability, how consistent he’s been over time. He just does things that nobody else at that position does, or I don’t know if they’ve ever done it. He’s really special.”

Reed intends to play in 2013, but hopes his trip home ends with a special win.

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Frank Gore perseveres with inspiration from his late mom

SANTA CLARA – In one of his first years coaching varsity football at Coral Gables High School in Miami, Joe Montoya recalls, the team made T-shirts for parents bearing the jersey numbers of their sons.

He saw a lot of the shirt given to Liz Gore, mother of the team's standout running back, Frank Gore.

"Every game she would be out there," Montoya recalled. "She would be right behind us … and she would be wearing his number all the time."

Gore rushed for 2,953 yards his senior season at Coral Gables, a Dade County record. Twelve years later, Gore is the 49ers' all-time rushing leader, having helped lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1995.

The road between has hardly been smooth. There were the two major surgeries while playing at the University of Miami to repair ACL tears in both of Gore's knees. The two shoulder surgeries after his rookie season in 2005 with the 49ers. The fractured hip that ended his 2010 campaign after 11 games.

In Gore's first six seasons, the 49ers went 37-59 and did not make the playoffs. As a bright spot on those teams, the 49ers dialed Gore's number often, and he shouldered much of the offensive load. But amid the losing, he said last week, the lowest point was a call that never came.

Before the 49ers' second game in 2007, Gore's mother died at the age of 46 after a long battle with kidney disease. Liz Gore had raised Frank, his siblings and several cousins in a small apartment in Coconut Grove, Fla., under difficult circumstances. When he reached the NFL, Gore said, she made sure to call him before each game.

"That day, the time came when I didn't get the call, I just burst out," Gore said. "I just cried and cried. But I knew she would've wanted me to play, and I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field, because I made a crazy run."

Gore, a soft-spoken 29-year-old, is a highly respected figure in the 49ers' locker room. It comes in part from his eight seasons in San Francisco and from a work ethic that seemingly has not subsided.

"Everyone knows he's a good football player on Sunday, but his work ethic the other times is what we see," fullback Bruce Miller said. "He pushes everyone to be a better football player."

The determination was evident in Gore's later high school years, said Roger Pollard, a former Coral Gables teammate who now coaches the program.

"He had a broken ankle his junior year going into spring," Pollard recalled by phone. "He kept running on it until later they found out it was broken."

The impetus, Gore said, could be found at home.

"Being with my mom since I was a kid, (her) doing whatever it takes to put food on the table, put clothes on our back, and it was hard," he said. "God blessed me with the talent, and that's why I try my best to do it hard every day."

It may not have always been so. When Montoya arrived at Coral Gables after Gore's sophomore season, he found "a kid that did not have an idea of how to prepare himself physically and mentally" for football. In a pointed sit-down, Gore was told his habits needed to change.

His junior year, Gore broke the school's rushing record. Next season, it was the county mark. In the classroom, having fallen behind while battling a learning disability, Gore scrambled to make up units he needed to qualify for college, Montoya said. Meanwhile, in Gore's junior year, his mother began undergoing dialysis for her ailing kidneys.

"It would be days he would come to the school and he would be in tears," Montoya said. "You could tell certain days at practice that his mind wasn't in it. I just told him, 'Frank, you've got to hang in there.' "

In 2001, Gore signed his letter of intent to attend Miami in Montoya's office, with Liz Gore in attendance.

Gore averaged 9.1 yards per carry as a freshman but redshirted the next year after his first ACL tear. Despite the surgeries, the 49ers made him a third-round pick in 2005. Gore has rewarded them by eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards in six seasons. He was named to his fourth Pro Bowl this season after rushing for 1,214 yards.

And now he is in the Super Bowl, a steadying force on a 49ers team that has gone 24-7-1 over the past two regular seasons. Last week, at his locker, where he represents a link to the darker times of the past decade, Gore was asked whether he will honor his mother during the game. He said he'll probably just do what he has since Week 2 of the 2007 season – if he scores a touchdown, he'll point skyward.

"Tell her it's for her," Gore said. "I miss her, I love her, and I know she's happy just like her son, who went through so much coming up … finally gets an opportunity to play in a big game."

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Ray Lewis emphatically denies alleged PED use

A defiant Ray Lewis again denied using any banned substances and went on the offensive against the man who says that he provided the Ravens linebacker with products to accelerate his return from a torn triceps injury.

Lewis called Mitch Ross — a co-owner of Sports With Alternatives to Steroids who claims that his relationship with the long-time Raven dates back to 2008 — a coward and attacked his credibility. He also described the attention being paid to the situation four days before the Ravens meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII “sad” and “embarrassing.”

“The reason why I’m smiling is because it’s so funny of a story because I’ve never, ever took what he says I am supposed to do,” Lewis said at a news conference at the team’s downtown hotel. “It’s just sad once again that someone can have this much attention on a stage this big where dreams are really real. I don’t need it, my teammates don’t need it, the 49ers don’t need it. Nobody needs it because it just really shows you how people really plan things and try to attack people from the outside. It’s just foolish. It’s very foolish. The guy has no credibility. He’s been sued four or five times over the same BS. Just to entertain it, I can’t, I won’t.”

Lewis’ comments reiterated what he said at media day Tuesday when a Sports Illustrated report surfaced that Ross supplied the linebacker with different products after his injury, which occurred Oct. 14. One of the products was a deer antler velvet spray, which the magazine reported contains IGF-1, a substance that is banned by the NFL. Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Roberto Salvatori, however, told The Sun that even if Lewis did use deer antler velvet spray, his body would not have absorbed IGF-1.

Ross confirmed the details Tuesday in an interview with The Sun, and said that he met Lewis through his relationship with former Ravens assistant Hue Jackson.

Lewis, however, has declined to even mention Ross by name. Retiring after the Super Bowl, Lewis acknowledged that he was “agitated” though not angry that this has become a big storyline this week, but vowed to not let it become a distraction for his teammates.

“It’s a joke if you know me,” Lewis said. “I tell them all the time and this is what I try to teach them: ‘Don’t let people from the outside ever come and try to disturb what’s inside.’ That’s the trick of the devil. The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That’s what he comes to do. He comes to distract people from everything you are trying to do. There’s no man that’s ever trained as hard as our team has trained. There’s no man that’s went through what we’ve went through.

“To give somebody credit that doesn’t deserve it, that would be a slap in the face to everything that we’ve went through. I’ve been in this game for 17-plus good years and I’ve had a heck of a relationship and too much respect for the business and my body to ever violate it like that. So to entertain foolishness like that from cowards who come from the outside and try to destroy what we’ve built, like I said, it’s sad to even entertain it on this type of stage.”

Lewis met with team officials after the story come out and told them that it was untrue. They advised him to issue a strong denial.

“I understand that it’s something that he’s never, ever been involved with,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “I think it’s kind of too bad that someone was given an opportunity to get some free publicity out there, undeserved and unearned, really for no reason. … Ray is honest. Ray is straightforward. He’s told us in the past, he’s told us now that he’s never taken any of that stuff ever and I believe Ray and I trust Ray completely. We have a relationship. I know this man. I know what he’s all about. It’s just too bad it has to be something that gets so much play.”

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ senior vice president for public and community relations, said, “Sports Illustrated, that guy, that company, they won. They picked the NFL’s media day. They got the whole world talking. They won. That’s a shame.”

Meanwhile, several of Lewis’ long-time teammates came to his support. They also vowed that Lewis’ issues wouldn’t become a distraction as they ramp up preparations for Sunday’s game against the 49ers. The Ravens had their first practice of Super Bowl week Wednesday.

“Do we seem distracted? Come on man. We can handle a lot,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. “This team has very broad shoulders. We don’t let too many things bother us. We’re just really good at not paying attention to nonsense. We’re not distracted at all. … Until you show some factual evidence, we don’t really care about it, man. We’re at the Super Bowl. We know what you all are trying to do. We’re just not getting into it. We’re shrugging it off. It’s all feathers in the wind. It’s petty gossip for the simple fact that we saw how hard he worked. He did it at the facility and at no time was he injected with anything.”

Lewis had surgery Oct. 17. At the time, it was believed that he’d be out for the rest of the season. However, Lewis convinced general manager Ozzie Newsome to put him on injured reserve with a designation to return, vowing to play again at some point this season. Less than three months later, Lewis returned in time to face the Indianapolis Colts in the Ravens’ Jan.6 playoff opener. He’s made 44 tackles in three playoff games.

Safety Ed Reed has been a teammate of Lewis’ for 11 years and the two former Miami standouts used to train together. He said that he didn’t know who Ross is and noted that “I don’t associate with people like that” anyway.

“I always talk about Ray's work ethic, what he's achieved and what he did to get to this point,” Reed said. “I know what he goes through physically, what he puts his body through to work out. The naysayers are going to be there. C’mon, the man is out there with a brace on.”

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Ed Reed is star, mentor, figure of controversy

NEW ORLEANS — Super Bowl experience comes in all shapes and sizes, but no player in Sunday's game will be able to match that of the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed.

Not only has Reed already played on Super Bowl Sunday, but he has also done it on this very Superdome turf.

OK, so it was in an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick contest before the Green Bay Packers-New England Patriots game in 1997, and he was 18, but who's counting?

"It was awesome," said Reed, who is from St. Rose, La., about 30 miles west of New Orleans. "I remember everything, really. Going against [eventual NFL journeyman quarterback] Craig Nall and guys like that, guys who played in the league. I was going against quarterbacks. I was a safety/quarterback athlete. I wound up winning the event, and the winner of the event came to media day to see guys just interact with you [reporters].

"I was just standing around, me and my dad. I remember seeing the Superdome field, I remember seeing you guys crowd around guys like this. It was just an awesome day."

The stakes will be much higher when Reed's Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, and safety Reed is the linchpin of Baltimore's defense.
Since entering the NFL in 2002, Reed has had more interceptions (61) and return yards (1,541) than any other player in football.

Reed has scored 13 touchdowns in his career, including the postseason, and he's the only player in league history to score return touchdowns off a punt return, blocked punt, interception and fumble recovery.

Ravens Coach John Harbaugh referred to Reed as a "staple" and "fixture" on the team, and in Baltimore in general.

"He's a mentor for our players, particularly the players in the back in the defense, but really our whole football team," Harbaugh said. "He's a spiritual leader, he's an emotional leader, and he's a big part of who we are."

The All-Pro Reed is also a controversial figure who was levied a one-game suspension this season — later lifted — for continuing his pattern of helmet-to-helmet hits.

He was fined $50,000 then $55,000 this season for striking defenseless players in the head or neck regions. As significant as those fines were, they amounted to about one-quarter of his weekly paycheck of $423,529.

Not surprisingly, Reed thinks that the NFL is too focused on offensive players and that the rules pendulum has swung too far in their direction. He raised eyebrows with his frankness this week when asked about Junior Seau, the former linebacker who committed suicide last spring and was later found to have a concussion-related brain disease.

"Did he sign up for it? Yeah, he signed up to play football…." Reed said Tuesday. "Junior gave everything he had to football. I'm sure he's looking down and has no regrets."

On Wednesday, he clarified his comment: "When I said I know he won't have any regrets, I was talking about football, not the fact that the man passed away and lost his family."

Reed is in an interesting spot, because he might be the greatest player in this Super Bowl — perhaps more dominant at his position than Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and 49ers receiver Randy Moss have been at theirs — and yet the way he plays is precisely what the NFL is trying to change.

Asked whether he approves of the way the league is headed, issuing more and greater fines for helmet-to-helmet offenders, Reed said: "Honestly, there's a Catch-22 with that. You have to police the situation, but at the same time, you have to make sure you're doing the right thing for the players also. Not everybody is making the money that you're taking, and not every offense is deserving of $100,000, $50,000 fines.

"And these are players on that committee, [former safety and now NFL Vice President of Football Operations] Merton Hanks and guys like that, who have been in the game, but also have a boss to answer to. A lot needs to be done with it. I don't think every fine is right. You have to go back and really look at how guys play the game before you judge them, is what I'm trying to say."

Reed conceded he has some memory loss, but he's not sure whether that's attributed to football — he's had three concussions, by his count — or "sometimes I feel like I forget things, but who doesn't go through those things?"

Reed has led a privileged professional life, but also a rough one. He's 34, with patches of gray in his hair, and he has given thought to hanging up his cleats after this season, although he's not ready to make that call now.

"The truth is that football does take its toll," he said. "It does take its toll on our life and our body. So that's why physically, I was assessing myself through the years, and even now, to see how I feel. I've been doing some great things with my doctor, to kind of combat against the [aging] that we have. We age faster than everybody for what we do."

For him, though, Sunday will be frozen in time, just like that other Super Bowl Sunday was so many years ago.

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Michael Irvin salutes Ray Lewis as 'one of the greats'

The staying power of retiring Ravens star inside linebacker Ray Lewis resonates strongly with former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, a fellow Miami football standout.

For Irvin, watching the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year excel for 17 seasons has separated him from the pack of NFL defenders.

Since returning from a torn right triceps, Lewis is the leading tackler in the playoffs with 44 stops. The Ravens have earned victories over the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts to make it to the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Now Lewis is preparing for his final football game Sunday night with the AFC champions.

"When we look at Ray's tenure, one place this long, wow, this is incredible," Irvin, an NFL Network analyst, told The Baltimore Sun. "And he's still going, leading all tacklers in the playoffs. That's really still going. It speaks so much of a game we call physical.

"It's a physical game. And there's the importance of leadership and emotions in the game, and that's where Ray has been a huge example. I consider Ray to be one of the greats, if not the greatest to ever play the game."

Unprompted, Irvin, who overcame off-field issues to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, brought up Lewis' troubled past.

Lewis, 37, was accused of double murder in Atlanta following the 2000 Super Bowl in an incident outside a Buckhead nightclub, but the charges were later dropped and he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

Since that incident, Lewis has significantly repaired his image and avoided trouble with the law.

"For what Ray has been through, honestly, I'm a spiritual man with an understanding of ministry," Irvin said. "Ray is using his life experiences to impact the lives of others. Ray had a horrific situation, a horrific situation where lives were lost, but Ray took that horrific mess and turned it into greatness. What I mean by that is Ray went through something to make sure nobody else from Baltimore had to ever go through anything like that ever again.

"We don't talk about this, but I don't hear problems coming out of Baltimore because Ray used his situation to give everybody an understanding. He's one of the greatest to ever play this game, on and off the field. People point back to the situation he was in and that's fine. But when you talk about the downs he got to, also talk about the highs. He's been incredible."

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Ed Reed says he'll assess his future after the Super Bowl

Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed might play his final game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. Or he might not. If Reed knows his future, he isn't saying. 

For the second day this week, Reed, who is 34 and in the last year of his contract with the Ravens, was asked questions about his future. And for the second day, Reed said only that he planned to come back.

"I’ll assess those things after this game. I’m just soaking all this in right now," he said as the Ravens prepare for the Super Bowl. "I’m not thinking about next year. Usually, I’m thinking about next year right now because I’m not in this game. 

"I’m so far away from tomorrow, honestly. I’m just thinking about right now, today, just soaking all this up."

Players such as Ray Lewis, who have the luxury of choosing their final game, have done that in a variety of ways.

Brett Favre tearfully retired in a press conference and came back only months later. Jonathan Ogden called up Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and simply said he was finished.

Most players don't get that option due to injuries and diminishing skills. 

Reed has expressed concern in the past about the toll the game has taken on his body. He said has played with a nerve impingement for "six or seven years," and tore his labrum this season, among his other injuries over the years.

All Reed really wants is to walk away, literally and figuratively, on his own terms.

"Hopefully," he said. "I pray that I'm walking away, on a positive note. But I know how Father Time goes. Your skills start to diminish a little bit, so I see that."

Ravens center Matt Birk, a 17-year veteran, said he truly believes Reed doesn't know what his future holds because it's so hard to make an accurate assessment until the offseason.

"If you don't know, you don't know," Birk said. "The way I look at it, I'm playing until one day I wake up and I'm not, until I'm convinced that I can't do it or don't want to do it anymore. 

"It's a long season, physically, mentally, spiritually, you get tired. You're not really in a great frame of mind to make that decision."

For now, Reed is content with enjoying the experience of his first, and possibly only, Super Bowl.

“Deion (Sanders) just put it in perspective walking out here," he said. "He won two and he thought he was going to go back, and he didn’t. This is it right here. This is the only Super Bowl that’s going on this year, right now, that matters.”

If Reed does choose to walk away from the game, he'll likely be on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in a few years.

"He’s definitely going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer," said linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. "In my opinion there are only two safeties that come up as the greatest safeties of all time, it’s him and Ronnie Lott. 

"He’s a great player; it’s amazing that he gets to play here at the Super Bowl at home in New Orleans. With all of the tragedy and stuff that he has gone through with his brother passing away, that happened in the playoffs as well, so for him to reflect on how he felt when that happened and to be here now, he’s come strides.”

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Jimmy Graham's recovery from surgery 'going well'

NEW ORLEANS -- Sharing a stage with the Gronkowski brothers and Andrew Luck, Jimmy Graham easily was the most popular man on the stage at Wednesday's Play 60 event at the NFL Experience.

Logical, given Graham's lofty standing as a hometown hero in the Big Easy. After he spoke to a large gathering of children at New Orleans' massive convention center, we caught up with the New Orleans Saints' star tight end.

Graham has started rehab following surgery this month to repair a lingering wrist injury, saying "everything's going well" in the recovery process. He was asked if he's spoken to Saints coach Sean Payton since his bounty-related suspension was lifted.

"I haven't talked to him yet, I was going to go by his office today, been very busy as you can see," he said. "I'm just glad to have him back. He's our leader. I'm just ready to really sit down and speak with him and see what he did with his time off."

Payton wasted no time tending to business after his reinstatement, quickly firing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and defensive backs coach Ken Flajole. Was Graham surprised by the moves?

"For me, I'm not really into hiring and firing, I just play the game," Graham said. "Sean knows what he's doing, obviously he's in my opinion the best coach in the NFL. He's going to do what's right for the rest of us."

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Darryl Sharpton's 2013 base salary increased

Texans ILB Darryl Sharpton's 2013 base salary increased from $575,000 to $630,000 after he hit escalators in his rookie deal. Sharpton battled a hip issue all season long and ended the season on injured reserve after starting five games.

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VIDEO: Jarrett Payton interview on SportsManRadio

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VIDEO: Jimmy Graham visits winning school for Play 60 event

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Bryant McKinnie's 'strange journey' ends in Super Bowl XLVII

NEW ORLEANS -- Bryant McKinnie stood in the middle of the Superdome on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and marveled at the spectacle that surrounded him.

Behind the Baltimore Ravens' giant left tackle, several of the team's most notable stars were seated individually at raised tables. Each space featured huge nameplates and was surrounded by a blockade designed to keep the throng of interviewers at a reasonable distance. It was, after all, media day at the Super Bowl.

McKinnie looked over his shoulder in amusement. His assignment was to simply to stand among the masses and field questions from people who crowded in with microphones held high to catch a few words from the 6-foot-8, 354-pound former Vikings mainstay.

Those who kept their arms raised long enough to hear McKinnie tell the story of his season were rewarded with quite a tale, one that began with a pay cut and ended with a starting role in his first NFL championship game.

"It's been a long, strange journey, but I like the way it's ending so far," McKinnie said. "One step farther, I can complete it with a ring."

Before starting his 11th training camp in the NFL, McKinnie was asked to accept less money because the Ravens needed to clear salary-cap space. After a good bit of grumbling, he was OK with an incentive-laden contract.

But McKinnie's run of 60 straight starts ended in the opener, when coach John Harbaugh opted to start Michael Oher at left tackle and use McKinnie as a backup.

In his unaccustomed role off the bench, McKinnie hurt his hip in a game against Dallas on Oct. 14. When right tackle Kelechi Osemele got hurt the following week in Houston, McKinnie got the chance to steal a starting spot. But he aggravated his hip injury and ended up back on the bench. One week after another went by without the opportunity to start.

Finally, before the season finale against Cincinnati, McKinnie was told by Harbaugh to prove he was healthy.

"The coach was like, 'Show me that you're healed. Show me that you can move,'" McKinnie recalled. "In the Cincinnati game, he said, 'I'm going to let you play, show me you're back healthy.' "

McKinnie, 33, came off the bench and played well. In that game, left guard Jah Reid hurt his toe and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. So in the playoff opener against Indianapolis, the Ravens put McKinnie back at his old left tackle spot, moved Oher to right tackle and plugged Osemele into Reid's spot.
It proved to be a winning combination. Now 3-0 with McKinnie as a starter, the Ravens look to complete their run Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
"This is a great reward," McKinnie said. "I waited for my time and was able to step in there and help the team go to where it wants to be."

Funny how things work in the NFL.

"What Bryant been through can't be overstated," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "All year, to sit and wait and wait. To his credit, he kept himself ready, kept himself in shape. He kept himself mentally ready to go. He didn't play all year, and here's (Indianapolis end) Dwight Freeney. The next week, here's (Denver's) Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The man's done a great job. It's a tribute to his attitude and work ethic."

Maybe it's because of Reid's toe, or perhaps it was just McKinnie's time. Whatever the reason, Baltimore's offensive front is better than it's been all season.

"McKinnie has played well for them, and it had a domino effect," San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "They put Oher at right tackle, who's playing right tackle better than the guy they had in there. They moved (Osemele) to left guard and he's playing that position better than the guy they had in there."

McKinnie, meanwhile, is feeling the benefit of limited playing time from September through December.

"I'm fresher than anybody else," he said.

His task in the Super Bowl will be to help neutralize 49ers right tackle Justin Smith, a 12-year veteran playing with a partially torn left triceps.

"McKinnie has been a good player in this league for a long time," Smith said. "I think the run they've been on, he's out there playing real good football. The mix of their offensive line right now is really working for them. They're playing the best football when they need it."

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The cold truth Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis can't completely escape

NEW ORLEANS — On a glittery stage in a giant football arena, a smiling Ray Lewis is speaking to dozens of journalists about playing this Super Bowl for a higher power.

"Rings fade, they tarnish, but the relationship I have with Him will never die," he says. "My ultimate goal is to leave a great name, so that one day when those skies finally spread, I'll hear those famous words, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' "

At the same time Tuesday, at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Akron, Ohio, a somber Greg Wilson visits Jacinth Baker's grave. He says he has done this three times a week for the last 13 years. He trims the grass, waters the flowers, and prays over the remains of a nephew who was one of two men stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub in unsolved murders linked to the Super Bowl preacher.

"Ray Lewis is so cold-hearted, I can't believe he's so cold-hearted," Wilson says in a phone interview later in the day. "I pray that when he and his friends close their eyes, they keep seeing that murder over and over. I hope it beats them up until the day they die. Then once they die, they are going to burn in hell."

This is supposed to be the week that the NFL and its marketing partners, through the narrative of the final game of a future Hall of Fame linebacker, trumpet the power of forgiveness and redemption. This is, instead, a week that reminds us such gifts cannot be conjured or purchased, but must be earned.

The cameras on Sunday's Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will spend much time focusing on the Ravens' Lewis, whose 17-year career will end with him dancing, praying, kissing the turf and hugging everyone in sight, football's great role model completing an astonishing image rehabilitation 13 years after being charged with a double murder.

"There's no greater feeling than to be sitting here right now . . . a surreal feeling," Lewis says from his Superdome perch at media day.

The cameras will not be in the family room of Greg Wilson, whose nephew Baker, along with Richard Lollar, were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub on Jan. 31, 2000, an incident for which Lewis would plead guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor.

"If I see Ray Lewis on TV, I just keep flipping to something better," Wilson says. "I don't want to see him. I don't want to see other people glorifying him. He and his friends took something away from my family."

Lewis' jersey has been the NFL's hottest seller. His recent pregame hug from Commissioner Roger Goodell has been one of the NFL's hottest images. He's become a tear-stained inspirational guru whose journey has grown to such mythical proportions he is even referring to it as if he were a helmeted John Wayne, calling it "my last ride."

"To go out with that confetti coming from the top of this building, to hear those famous words that 'The Ravens are Super Bowl champs,' there's no greater legacy," Lewis says. "When I leave this building tomorrow, I leave this building on my own terms."

Wilson, a mechanic who helped raise his nephew, wonders why Lewis is allowed to define those terms after being involved in a murder case that still contains much ambiguity.

Baker, 21, and Lollar, 24, were stabbed after being involved in an early-morning brawl with Lewis and two companions. Baker's blood was found in Lewis' limousine. Witnesses said Lewis threw a punch and coached his group to be quiet. Murder charges were filed against Lewis and the companions, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting.

The case then fell apart. Witnesses changed their stories. Lewis agreed to the obstruction charge in exchange for testifying against Oakley and Sweeting, but his testimony wasn't enough and they were acquitted.

While Lewis reached a financial settlement with both families to avoid a civil trial, the criminal case remains unsolved. Wilson believes Lewis could solve it if only he were the person he claims to be. "He says he's a changed man, but he hides behind that Bible," Wilson says. "If he was really true to the Bible, he would tell the truth."

For Lewis, his truth has vastly changed in the last 13 years. One year after the murder, he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, but his public image was so tattered that his photo was not put on a Wheaties box with teammates and Disney World wouldn't pay him to shout its name. Since then, he has been a model citizen, community leader and endorser of national products while softening his steely stare enough to become a media favorite.

During his hourlong media day interview session Tuesday, he is asked about the murders only once.

"What you want to report about, honestly, this is not the appropriate time for that," he replies. "The sympathy I have for that family, what me and my family have endured because of all of that . . . nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. I just truly feel this is God's time."

He adds, "I live with that every day. You can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life. I'd rather not speak about that today."

Wilson is read those quotes over the phone. He pauses, then slowly addresses them, his voice rising in anger and pain.

"He might live with it a few minutes of the day; we live with it 24 hours a day," Wilson says. "We go to bed thinking about it, we wake up thinking about it. We look at Jacinth's pictures, we look at videos of Jacinth, we look at his artwork. Maybe Ray Lewis needs to dig deeper in that Bible."

Lewis dug deeper — with his heels — Tuesday when confronted with a Sports Illustrated report that he was given a banned substance contained in deer antler spray while he was recovering from a torn triceps this season.

"I've been I this business 17 years. Nobody has ever got up with me every morning and trained with me," says Lewis, who has never tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. "Every test I've taken in the NFL, there's never been a question if I've ever even thought about using anything. So to even entertain stupidity like that, tell them to try go get a story off on somebody else."

Up in Akron, Greg Wilson hears all the answers and sighs.

"Karma is a beast," he says. "It's gonna come around and tear some people up."

Back at the Superdome, with adoring teammates waiting and fans cheering, a still-smiling Lewis is escorted from the media day stage, the last ride lurching its way into a mottled sunset.

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Robert Hite Signed

The Iowa Energy today announced the signing of two new players, Robert Hite and Gus Gilchrist.

Hite, 6-2, 185, played in 12 games with the Miami Heat during the 2006-2007 season and averaged 4.3 points and 1.3 rebounds. He spent last season in Italy and has played in some of the top international leagues in the world.

Prior to his professional career, Hite played collegiately at Miami, where he holds averages of 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists over 4 seasons. Hite replaces guard Mustapha Farrakhan who was recently waived by the Energy.

Gilchrist, a 6-10 rookie from South Florida, replaces Josh Boone, who is out for the season with a knee injury. He averaged 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game over his 4 year career at South Florida. Gilchrist led the prestigious Portsmouth Invitational Tournament with 16.7 rebounds per game after his senior season.

Hite and Gilchrist will be in uniform as the Energy host the Springfield Armor for a double-header this Friday and Saturday. Both games tip at 7pm. Friday, Feb. 1st is Girls Night Out and Saturday, Feb. 2nd is 70's Night, featuring the Sandou Trio Russian Bar acrobats at halftime. For ticket information, please visit www.IowaNBA.com or call (515) 564-8550.

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Ray Lewis forgives Welker's wife

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Monday he has forgiven the wife of Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker for recent comments she made via Facebook.

Anna Burns Welker posted a message to her Facebook page following the Ravens' win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, saying, "Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay! What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"

She deleted the comments shortly thereafter and then released a statement the following day apologizing for her remarks.

Lewis, addressing the media upon his team's arrival to New Orleans, where the Ravens will play the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, was asked about Burns Welker's comments.

"I've always been a firm believer of the Good Book, and the Good Book always confirms, even a fool is counted wise until he opens he or she mouth," he told reporters. "And sometimes people just say silly stuff. And they say it out of emotion. And sometimes you need to let the game take care of the game. We lost up there last year, and I didn't hear one teammate say anything about nobody there because we have respect for that team, that they won it fair and square.

"So for her to come out and say what she said, listen, I truly forgive her, and I have no hard feelings against her at all, but I believe people just make mistakes and say foolish things sometimes."

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Frank Gore's hot hands lead calm, cool 49ers

NEW ORLEANS -- When the San Francisco 49ers fell behind Atlanta 17-0 early in the NFC Championship Game, they did the opposite of panic. They handed the ball to Frank Gore four times in a row.

Two first downs and 20 yards later, they had found their rhythm. Gore's kick-start spurred the 49ers to touchdowns on four of their next six full possessions, and a fifth ended with a fumble inside the Falcons' 1.

“Everyone said let's not panic," offensive guard Alex Boone said. “Let's not freak out and just be who we are and let's get back to football. That's the one thing about this team. We've grown to have a confidence about it. We can put points up. We just have to be calm. Things aren't going to always go our way, but the key is not worrying about it. Our team did a great job of that.”

By returning to the basics instead of bombing away, the 49ers showed impressive self-assurance. Look for another heavy dose of Gore against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in Super Bowl XVLII because that's what San Francisco does.

Gore is tough. He's reliable. He gets the job done.

His stat line against Atlanta was typical -- 21 carries for 90 yards with a long run of 11. After starting the 49ers' first touchdown drive, he finished the last two, scoring as they cut their deficit to 24-21 at the start of the second half and providing the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“We always credit Frank with the tough yards,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “He doesn't get the easy runs. He gets downhill, up the middle, 3, 4 yards a carry. That's what Frank does for us. He just continues to move the chains and keep the ball in our possession, which is why we're here.”

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has dazzled with his feet (Green Bay) and his arm (Atlanta) in San Francisco's run to the Super Bowl, but at their core, the 49ers are about Gore. Before his effort at Atlanta, he rushed 23 times for 119 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, adding a 45-yard reception.

He finished the regular season with 258 carries for 1,214 yards, the second-highest total of his eight-year career. His average per-carry (4.7) was his best since 2009, even though it was not padded by long runs. His biggest gain on the ground was 37 yards, his worst season-best.

“[We are] physical and tough,” Gore said. “It's hard to break us. We're going to fight to the end. We have a great team.”

When the 49ers keep pounding him, they almost always get good results.

Only three opponents held San Francisco to fewer than 100 rushing yards, and none of those efforts was Gore's fault. The 49ers abandoned the run in losses to Minnesota (Gore had 12 carries for 63 yards), the New York Giants (eight carries for 36 yards) and Seattle (six carries for 28 yards).

They did not make that mistake against Atlanta, improving to 12-1 when he runs 15 or more times.

“His work ethic is inspirational,” Miller said. “When you see him in the facility, the weight room and the practice field -- everyone knows he's a good football player on Sunday -- but his work ethic, the other times, is what we see. He pushes everyone to be a better football player.”

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Warren Sapp can't believe people still talk about Ray Lewis' murder charges

Warren Sapp doesn't have much use for rehashing old stories that don't involve the time he played in a Super Bowl or was so-and-so's teammate at The U.

The NFL Network analyst dropped his microphone in exaggerated disgust during Tuesday's media day coverage when Rich Eisen had the audacity to mention that Ray Lewis once faced murder charges. (You may have heard that story before.)

Sapp seemed stunned that Eisen would dredge up a story that's been dredged up by almost every major media outlet over the past 10 days. Surely there's a statute of limitations on this, right?

I mean, the Harbaughs have been brothers for 49 years. GET A NEW STORY, Y'ALL!

Here's the transcript of the exchange:

EISEN: Moments ago, Ray Lewis was also asked about the two murders that took place in Atlanta. [Sapp drops his microphone in exaggerated disgust.] That can't surprise you, Warren.

SAPP: Twelve years after the fact?

EISEN: Well, I mean, everybody's talking about that right now because Ray is back at the Super Bowl.

SAPP: Once you've been tried and the trial is over? Come on.

EISEN: He was convicted of a charge of obstruction of justice back in the day and originally charged with two murders. That's a case that still has not been solved.

Sapp testified as a character witness for his former Miami teammate. "He wouldn't hurt a flea," he said on the NFLN set while giving exasperated stares to people off-camera. "He'd dance you to death."

It's been 13 years since the charges, but whatever. Sapp made that mistake an hour ago. It's now in the past and there's no need to ever bring it up again.

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Ray Lewis' first NFL sack was on 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh

NEW ORLEANS -- Seventeen years ago, Ravens star inside linebacker Ray Lewis was an exuberant rookie competing against Indianapolis Colts veteran quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Rushing on an inside blitz, Lewis decked Harbaugh for the first sack of his NFL career in the Ravens' inaugural season.

"Absolutely, I remember it," said Lewis, who has 41 1/2 sacks for his career. "How could I forget it? It is one of those things that when you are playing the game when you first come in as a rookie, you are just running around. And I was just running around making plays. When I sacked him, I remember getting up and doing this dance with my shoulders, and shaking my shoulders, or whatever. And later, I became teammates with him as well. Been a long time, but the ride, I would never complain about one moment of it.”

The Colts got the victory that day, a 26-21 win despite Harbaugh being sacked four times.

Flash forward and Lewis is still racking up tackles for the Ravens as the AFC champions have reached Super Bowl XLVII.

This marks Lewis' final game before retirement. And ultra-competitive as ever, Jim Harbaugh is coaching the 49ers

"My legend grows," Jim Harbaugh quipped recently when his father, Jack, reminded him of being sacked by the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Ray Lewis' first sack."

Lewis and Harbaugh, once known as "Captain Comeback," were later teammates in Baltimore.

“I think he was exactly how he is as a coach," Lewis said. "He is kind of straightforward. He is a hard worker. He understands what he wants to get done. And when he comes in to get it done, he is going to do everything he has in his power to get it done. He is a very passionate person, but he always has purpose in what he is doing. That is what I remember most about Jim.”

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Jimmy Graham to Fifth Ward Junior High

Super Bowl 2013 has come to St. Tammany. Fifth Ward Junior High took center stage Jan. 29 when NFL Play 60 Super Bowl Challenge found its way to the tiny community of Bush in northeast St. Tammany Parish. 

New Orleans Saints players Jimmy Graham and Akiem Hicks, as well as current Team Ambassador and former Saints wide receiver Michael Lewis, visited Fifth Ward as part of the event. The school was selected as the grand prize winner in the Play 60 contest and was one of only a handful of area schools that had 100-percent participation in the program.

Play 60 was launched in 2007 and is designed to tackle childhood obesity by encouraging young people to enjoy at least 60 minute of daily physical activity.

Graham arrived at 9:30 a.m. and was greeted by a packed house of students, teachers, parents, school system administrators and more. The Saints standout tight end walked the halls of the school where he gave "High Fives" to each student, stopping briefly to sign a few autographs in the school’s office. Once inside the Fifth Ward gymnasium, Graham spoke to the crowd about fitness, health and nutrition and took time to answer a few of the students’ questions.

When Graham was told that the school won its first football game in 12 years this season, he pledged to buy cleats for the entire squad next season.

“What an amazing blessing that was,” said Fifth Ward Principal Christopher Oufnac.

The opportunity to have Graham speak to his students was equally special, Oufnac said.

"To hear his story, how our school and our community looked so familiar to him, that meant a lot to me and to the kids," Christopher Oufnac said.

Graham grew up in a rural area before finding his way to the University of Miami and, eventually, stardom in the Crescent City.

“When I found out he was coming, it brought goosebumps,” Oufnac said. “To hear his story, how our school and our community looked so familiar to him, that meant a lot to me and to the kids.”

Not even a hiccup in scheduling could affect the school’s excitement. Oufnac said Hicks and Lewis were delayed in reaching Fifth Ward when they accidently wound up at Fifth Ward Elementary in Reserve, La. The fact that the duo still made their way from the River Parishes to rural St. Tammany was not lost on Oufnac.

“How great is that?,” he said. “They wind up at the wrong school, but still came to Bush to see us. What is that, a two-hour drive? My hat’s off to the Saints, the NFL, and the players.”

Hicks and Lewis joined Graham in an interactive session of physical activities with the kids later in the morning. Students rotated through five different stations, where they enjoyed jumping rope, a football relay, a lightweight lifting station, a shuttle run, and a chance to play a Microsoft Xbox hurdling game.

“Watching (Hicks and Lewis) compete in that (Xbox) race, they both wanted to win,” Oufnac said. “They were like the kids. It was intense.”

The excitement doesn’t die down just yet for the Fifth Ward community. On Jan. 30, approximately 160 students will travel to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans where they will participate in the NFL Play 60 Kids Experience. Fifth Ward also received $2,500 in athletic equipment and physical education gear by winning the Play 60 grand prize.

Parish students at Abita Springs Middle, Lancaster Elementary in Madisonville, Pine View Middle in Covington, and Brock Elementary, Mayfield Elementary and Carolyn Park Middle, all in or near Slidell, will also take part in the Play 60 Kids Experience in New Orleans.

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Frank Gore finally gets a showcase

NEW ORLEANS - Seems like everybody asking questions of the 49ers at Super Bowl XLVII wants to focus on Colin Kaepernick and the read option, or maybe on coach Jim Harbaugh matching up against his brother.

But the story that maybe best embodies San Francisco's struggle to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 is that of running back Frank Gore.
Gore arrived as a third-round pick from Miami in 2005 (the 49ers could have taken Ryan Moats, but unbelievably they left him for the Eagles to grab a dozen slots later). Gore's selection was derided at the time because he'd torn both ACLs playing for the Hurricanes. The 49ers went 4-12 his first season. He finally experienced a winning record and a playoff game in his seventh season.

En route to becoming San Francisco's all-time leading rusher (8,839 yards on 1,911 carries), Gore has endured serious injuries to both shoulders and one hip. Yet in 2012, Gore ran 258 times for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns. He has started every game Harbaugh has coached for the 49ers.

Monday, someone asked Gore about the identity of his team.

"Physical and tough," he said. "It's hard to break us."

That's also pretty much the way his teammates describe Gore.

"We always credit Frank with the tough yards," fullback Bruce Miller said Monday. "He doesn't get the easy runs. He gets downhill, up the middle, 3, 4 yards a carry - that's what Frank does for us. He just continues to move the chains and keep the football in our possession, which is why we're here."

Miller said Gore's work ethic, which has allowed him to come back from so many setbacks, "is inspirational . . . He pushes everyone to be a better football player."

Miller knows what this opportunity means to Gore, who turns 30 in May.

"I'll tell you, it means a lot to him. You can see it on his face, when he's in meetings and when we practice . . . he's worked hard for it," Miller said.

Offensive tackle Alex Boone said Gore's appetite for contact endears the o-line to him.

"Have you ever seen Frank's pass protection?" Boone asked a reporter Monday. The reporter replied that he had, and that it was pretty good.

"Pretty good?" Boone scoffed. "I've see him knock how many guys out? Just unbelievable. And he does that because he's a selfless player. And that's what I love about him.

"He's like a fine wine. He gets better with age. It's crazy . . . I think Frank has the most passion I've ever seen anybody have in football. He's so intense."
Boone recalled accidentally getting in Gore's way on a run.

"It was not my fault - he cut into me - but he yelled at me so loud," Boone said. "You know Frank is always out there giving it 110 percent . . . I think Frank deserves this ring more than anybody."

Gore, like so many NFL players, grew up in poverty, raised by a single mother, Lizzie, in Coral Gables, Fla. A learning disability meant he had to take the SAT orally to pass it, the San Jose Mercury News reported in a recent profile.

The story recalled then-49ers general manager Scot McCloughan defending the draft pick by talking about how much Gore loved the game.

"If you take football away from him, you take his life away," McCloughan said. (Note to the Eagles: Those are the guys who make it big in the NFL, providing they have adequate talent. Not necessarily the smartest guys, not the ones who have the most well-rounded off-the-field lives, or the ones who are the most eloquent.)

Gore recalled Monday that when he suffered his second ACL tear at Miami, "I thought football wasn't for me," but a Miami coach encouraged him not to give up, told him he would play in the NFL.

Then, when Gore got to San Francisco, "it was tough coming to work . . . I used to take it hard.

"Some guys who aren't here anymore were just like, 'Whatever.' I wasn't used to that," he said. "If we lost a game at Miami, it was like our season was over. Our coaching style that we have now has changed everything . . . I knew we had players. We just didn't have the right people to lead us, and now we do."

This game is a showcase for Gore, who spent a lot of years watching other teams and other backs take the spotlight.

"I think I'm one of the top guys at my position," he said. "I think I play the game the way it's supposed to be played."

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Ray Lewis denies using banned deer antler spray

NEW ORLEANS — Ray Lewis returned to Super Bowl media day with another controversy: allegations of cheating.

According to Sports Illustrated, the iconic Baltimore Ravens linebacker tried to obtain deer-antler velvet extract in an attempt to speed the healing for a torn triceps that sidelined him for more than half the season.

Lewis approached the makers of the deer-antler velvet extract — Sports with Alternative to Steroids — the company's owner Mitch Ross told SI. Deer-antler spray contains IGF-1, which is on the NFL's list of banned substances. Using the spray would be a violation of the NFL's steroids policy.

During a podium session packed with news media, Lewis dismissed the story.

"Two years ago, that was the same report," he said. "It's not worthy of the press."

When asked directly whether he had used the spray during his recovery this season, Lewis said, "Nah, never."

The last time Lewis was at a Super Bowl, questions swirled about his involvement in the murders of two men after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2000. Murder charges were dropped against Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

Interest in the case has been renewed in recent weeks as Lewis announced his intent to retire after Super Bowl XLVII and family members of the victims have spoken out about whether he revealed everything that he knew about the murders.

Before the SI story, it was expected that Lewis would be asked to revisit the murder case. Instead, Lewis was pressed to address the fresh controversy.
Asked a second time if he could respond to the report, Lewis said, "Not really. Why would I give that any press."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he isn't concerned about the story or its implications, noting that Lewis has never failed a drug test.

"Ray has passed every test for substance abuse that he's taken throughout his entire career," Harbaugh said.

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Ed Reed on health risks: Every player signed up for it

NEW ORLEANS -- Player safety has been one of the league's primary talking points in recent years, and while everyone agrees that fewer injuries are better, there is no consensus on how to get there. Last week, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard told CBSSports.com's Clark Judge that the NFL won't be around in 30 years, and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis predicted a spectacle resembling flag football two decades from now.

During Tuesday's Super Bowl media day, Baltimore safety Ed Reed admitted that he already feels the effects of concussions he's suffered during his 11-year NFL career.

"Sometimes I wake up and I think, where did my memory go? But at the same time, I signed up for it," Reed said. "Football has been like that for a long time, for ages. Football has always been a contact sport, and it's always going to be a violent sport, and there are going to be repercussions from that. But every player that ever played this game and will play this game, they're signing up for it."

A reporter asked Reed if former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May and was later found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also signed up for the physical toll the NFL metes out.

"Did he sign up for it?'' Reed said. "Yeah, he signed up to play football. Things are going to happen. Do I want it to happen? No. When I was on a golf course, did I want to hear about Junior Seau? No, I didn't want to hear that. I grew up watching him play. That was a sad day. A sad day, and there have been many other guys that have been down that road that you didn't want to hear about because of football."

Reed also spoke about the league's approach to making the game safer. Specifically, sanctioning players for illegal hits.

"Not every guy can afford it," Reed said. "But teams can, and the league can. It's a billion-dollar business. You've got guys upstairs making $10 to 12 million just to sign papers and to fine people. We're talking about the wrong things sometimes."

Reed has been fined more than $100,000 this season for hits deemed illegal by the league.

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Drake: 'Frustrated' Hester needs to be more involved

Former Chicago Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake always took time to stick up for his players. As he prepares to leave town, Drake continues to stand behind Devin Hester as a receiver.

Hester ended the season with an emotional rant during which he indicated he might consider retirement. The most dangerous return man in league history was upset with his offensive role all season and then broken up about the team’s decision to fire head coach Lovie Smith.

"Devin and I talked a little bit because I always want him to make the decisions that are best for him," Drake, who is headed to the Arizona Cardinals to fill the same position, said in a phone interview Monday. "I do understand that he was talking emotionally. But I think Devin’s going to sit back and reassess where he’s at. I think he has a lot left in him.

"He has to decide if he wants to continue to play, whether it’s here in Chicago or somewhere else."

Hester, a three-time Pro Bowler who established his reputation with 12 kick return touchdowns and five punt return touchdowns, has experienced a steady decline as a receiver. He caught a career-high 57 passes for 757 yards and three touchdowns in 2009. His reception total dipped to 40 the next season, then to 26 in ’11 on down to 23 this past season while playing alongside Brandon Marshall (118 receptions).

"The thing about Devin is, the stars need to align right," Drake said. "What I mean by that is, things have to be in order for him to excel. That’s just how he’s made. If things are right, then he’ll excel. If not, then he may struggle here and there."

Drake doesn’t believe learning the receiver position while continuing to be the team’s top kick returner complicated matters for Hester.

"That wasn’t a lot for him to shoulder," Drake said. "Devin just needs to be involved. When you have a guy of his caliber, you’ve got to get him involved. Guys like him feed off success. When he wasn’t involved, then he was frustrated. It’s hard to play this game frustrated. That’s the bottom line."

It was obvious that Hester wasn’t always on the same page with quarterback Jay Cutler. Hester even felt he was getting overlooked despite being open, at times, this past season. And Cutler certainly felt he delivered some catchable balls that Hester dropped.

If the 30-year-old Hester remains in Chicago – he has another year left on his contract and is due a base salary of $1.86 million – he’ll obviously need to get on the same page with Cutler in 2013.

"They need to sit down and get to know each other better, which I don’t know if that will ever happen," Drake said. "I think it’s both of them just being able to understand each other.

"Jay is a tough, tough-minded guy. He looks at things a lot differently. Devin is more of a compassionate-type of guy. They’re total opposites. At times, that probably made things a little bit tougher. But could they co-exist? Sure, if they both work at it. But it takes both of them to do it."

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Olivier Vernon Participates In Souper Bowl Of Caring

Richard Marshall, Kheeston Randall and Olivier Vernon along with Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders and T.D. visited an art class at Nova Blanche Forman Elementary in Davie. The Dolphins players joined a group of 5th grade students making bowls out of clay to support the Empty Bowls program. The students were selected to make the bowls with the players because they have been performing well in school.

The bowls will be auctioned off as a part of the Empty Bowls program, which helps to raise money for Souper Bowl of Caring. The Souper Bowl of Caring is a youth-focused, national effort working to see Super Bowl weekend become the largest weekend of giving and serving in the life of our country. Participation includes youth representing a variety of faith groups, schools, civic organizations and businesses in all 50 states and several other countries. 100% of all funds raised from the school auctions will be directly donated to Feeding South Florida.

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Frank Gore Determined to Win

NEW ORLEANS – What does Bourbon Street look like during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII?

Don’t ask Frank Gore.

San Francisco’s all-time leader in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns hasn’t left his room for sightseeing this week in New Orleans. Excuse Gore, he’s too busy focused on the biggest game of his eight-year career, Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Gore’s story is quite unique. To know San Francisco’s feared running back is to know how much the game of football means to him. Being in the Super Bowl isn’t good enough; it’s an opportunity to represent for his friends and family. Most importantly, it’s a chance for Gore to pay another tribute to his late mother, Liz.

“My mother means everything to me,” Gore explained on Monday at the 49ers second media obligation of Super Bowl week. “She was a tough woman. She raised me and my brother and my sister. That was a lot of weight. I love her. She means everything. (This game is) for her.”

Gore enters Super Bowl XLVII with plenty of hardships under his belt. Asked about the injuries he’s suffered in both college and professionally, Gore said he’s had surgeries on both knees, both shoulders and his hip.

Still, the 29-year-old runner shows no signs of slowing down.

In Gore’s mind, the toughness of the 49ers running attack bodes well for the franchise bringing home a sixth Super Bowl title. It’s hard to know if the 49ers would have advanced to the big game if not for Gore’s 91 yards and pair of touchdown runs in the NFC Championship.

“It’s hard to break us,” Gore said. “We’re going to fight to the end. We have a great team.”

The 17-point comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was a strong indication of how the 49ers have bounced-back from adversity all season long. Gore’s been that way, a fighter, throughout his football career.

After a productive collegiate career at the University of Miami, Gore’s made the postseason only twice in eight NFL seasons. As a young runner selected in the third-round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Gore dealt with coaching turnover and losing seasons with the 49ers. Through it all, his passion for the game never wavered.

“It was real tough,” Gore explained. “It was tough coming to work, especially for me, coming from a winning program in college. I wasn’t ever used to losing. I used to take it hard. I’m glad that Coach Harbaugh and his coaching staff came at the right time and we’ve done good things.”

“I’m just happy with our coaching style and who we have now,” Gore added. “It’s changed everything.”

With Greg Roman’s never-ending playbook of running plays, Gore rushed for his team-record sixth, 1,000-yard season in 2012. The production carried into the postseason where Gore (209) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (202) stand as the NFC’s top two postseason rushers.

Gore’s certainly enjoying the offensive production as the team heads into Sunday’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that features well-known linebacker Ray Lewis, a Miami alum like Gore.

“Ray is a great player,” Gore said. “He’s been doing it for a long time. He’s the best at the business. I love him. He’s like a brother (to me). We come from the same school.”

Gore even noticed how Lewis’ first career sack being televised this week. It just so happened to be against Jim Harbaugh, the man responsible for reshaping San Francisco’s professional football team.

Meanwhile, Gore, the 49ers rushing king, who reached the NFC title game last year under Harbaugh, sees an even more determined team in 2012. Based on how last season ended for the 49ers, it was tough for Gore to bounce-back, but he did it.

Gore said he sat out of the 2012 Pro Bowl because he was so disappointed in not reaching the Super Bowl. Looking to come back with a vengeance, Gore and teammates set new goals, mainly repeat as NFC West division champs and reach the Super Bowl.

"Once we got in the Super Bowl it was different, real different,” Gore said. “Last year we were kind of happy about beating New Orleans. This year, we beat Green Bay, but we were like, ‘Cool, let’s go get the next one.’ It’s just different. Our mindset was totally different this year than last year.”

The 49ers, like Gore, want it that much more this time around.

That will-to-win is fresh on everyone’s minds as they meet the press this week in New Orleans.

“This year everyone knew that we had a good team,” Gore said. “So we knew it was going to be tough and it was tough. We knew, in the locker room, that we have to be ready every week.”

The 49ers will need to be at their best to bring home the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl. Gore doesn’t see any pressure in keeping San Francisco’s perfect Super Bowl record intact either.

In his mind, it’s all about playing the team’s hard-nosed brand of football.

“We’re going to do our best as a team to win,” Gore said. “We want to win. We just have to go out there and do what we did all year, being the 49ers.”

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Ray Lewis says his career is almost complete

Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis met the media for the first of several times this week and he said his "hunger" to win another Super Bowl is "probably off the charts."

"I was 25 when I won my first Super Bowl. To be 37 and back here and have a chance to win another one in my last year, there’s no greater hunger that I have," Lewis said. "I’m going to give my teammates everything I have and not just on Sunday. Starting today, I’m not going nowhere. I’m sitting in my room and I’m studying and studying and studying. I owe them something as a leader and that is to have myself totally prepared. My hunger is probably off the charts right now.”

Lewis said that when the Ravens were in the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, he followed veterans like Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson. Now, he said teammates are approaching him to ask him questions about how to handle the week.

"All week I’ve heard guys talking like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’re here. We made it, we made it.’ Today, I think it actually confirmed for a lot of people that it’s really real," Lewis said. "Now, you have to really realize that there’s only two teams left. There’s no next week. Whoever wins this game will feel that confetti drop. It’s one of the most ultimate feelings I’ve ever felt in my life and I would love to really experience that with these guys."

Lewis spoke of how special it is that all his family members, including his father who he's had a very complicated relationship with in the past, are planning to be in New Orleans this week. Lewis said that the one exception is his grandmother who he said is not doing good.

“Everything is complete now," he said. "My entire family will be here actually watching this game outside my grandmother who is very ill. Any time you can finish your career with your whole family by your side, I think that’s the way you always should do it.”

Lewis also was asked a couple of questions about his past, including one about his reaction to Facebook comments made by the wife of New England Patriots' wide receiver Wes Welker following the Ravens 28-13 victory in the AFC championship game.

Anna Burns Welker questioned why Lewis is looked at as a role model.

"I don’t really get into that. Listen, I’ve always been a firm believer of the good book and the good book always confirms, even a fool is counted wise until he opens he or she mouth. Sometimes people just say silly stuff and they say it out of emotion," he said. "Sometimes, you need to let the game take care of the game. We lost last year up there and I didn’t hear one teammate say anything about anybody there because we have respect for that team, that they won it fair and square. For her to come out and say what she said, look, I truly forgive her. I don’t have no hard feelings against her at all but I believe that people just make mistakes and say stupid things at times.”

Asked why he feels the public has forgiven him after his legal problems in Atlanta earlier in his career, Lewis said, “Honestly, I don’t know nobody that has ever lived a perfect life. I have saw people that went through things before and realistically, most of the time what happens, when somebody goes through adversity, you really find out what their true character is. I think for me, people really now have taken time to find out who I am. They are really learning what my character is. My characcter is simply to make this world a better place, to encourage people that no matter what you’re going through, it ain’t really what you’re going through, it’s your mindset when you’re going through it. SO when you see all the support that I’m getting right now, I’m in total awe of the respect that some people have of someone who has been through adversity but found his way out and really just shown what my true character is and who I am as a person.”

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Ed Reed: RG3 prepared Ravens for Colin Kaepernick

NEW ORLEANS -- San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick won't be the first mobile quarterback who uses the read option to face Ed Reed and the Baltimore Ravens this season.

In Week 14 of the season, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III threw for 242 yards and one touchdown on just 26 throws in a 31-28 victory over the Ravens. Griffin was injured late in the game, but the Ravens' defense struggled against RG3.

At Tuesday's Super Bowl Media Day, Reed talked about the big difference between that December game against the Redskins and Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII matchup against the 49ers.

"We're on a better field. For all that money down in D.C. man, you'd think that field would be better. That field sucks," Reed said of the Redskins' home turf at FedExField. "That field was all mud. It was like that guy was running on water."

Reed noted that facing Kaepernick still would be a huge adjustment compared to facing Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Kaepernick will be faster than ever on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome's field turf, but the safety said the field should help out the aging Ravens defense.

The 49ers are an extremely difficult offense to prepare for. They have so many different weapons and play variations that can hurt you. The Ravens are happy that they faced the 49ers last year and a team like the Redskins this season.

"It definitely helped us out," Reed said of facing the Redskins.

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Duane Starks joins Athletes for Loanlook

ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill., Jan. 29, 2013 -- /PRNewswire/ -- Loanlook, Inc. today announced that former NFL cornerback Duane Starks has joined the Athletes for Loanlook program. Starks will join fellow athletes Wes Welker of the New England Patriots; Israel Idonije of the Chicago Bears; Fred Taylor, former running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Eric Winston of the Kansas City Chiefs in support of loanlook.com.

Through events at their alma maters, partnerships with the athletes' charitable foundations, and scholarship funds, Loanlook builds awareness among students regarding the importance of proper financial and credit management, particularly surrounding student loans.

"I'm excited to partner with Loanlook and the other athletes to help students get the most out of their education," said Starks.

Duane Starks played in the NFL from 1998-2007. After winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, who drafted him 10th overall in the 1998 draft, Starks spent time with the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots, and Oakland Raiders.  Starks had his best season in 2000 as part of the Super Bowl champion Ravens. He was a consistent contributor on one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen (they allowed only 10.3 points/game).  During his career he maintained a reputation for making big plays totaling four interceptions in just six playoff games including one returned for a touchdown during the Super Bowl against the NY Giants.

With mobile apps for Apple and Android users, loanlook.com combines federal and private student loans (as well as grant information) in one convenient, refreshable dashboard that delivers up-to-date loan information to current and former college students. Users have access to payment optimization, income-based repayment, and consolidation calculators. The site also offers a monthly budgeting tool, customizable loan alerts (via email, text, and mobile app), and cloud storage for important documentation such as master promissory note and lender/servicer correspondence. For borrowers requiring additional support, the site provides access to loan counselors via its LIVE HELP chat feature and a toll-free number. Unlike other loan management sites, users receive information about both their federal and private student loans.

Loanlook™ uses bank-level security to safeguard student information. The site actively monitors compliance with, and conducts annual security assessments against, all applicable information security standards including the: Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA);

National Institute of Standards and Technology SP 800-53 (NIST); Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS); Statement on Standards for Attestation Engagements No. 16 (SSAE 16); and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

About Loanlook™ Loanlook.com is used by college and college-bound students, borrowers in repayment, and parents with loan obligations to track, understand and manage their federal and private/alternative education loans from pre-enrollment into repayment. Based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, Loanlook, Inc. is a subsidiary of CEANNATE Corp., a leading education finance organization employing over 500 employees with expertise that spans the entire student loan lifecycle.

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Calais Campbell Doing His Part to Help Special Olympians

Arizona Cardinals DE Calais Campbell is a gigantic man with an even bigger heart. He joined teammates Jay Feely and Lyle Sendlein on Tuesday morning at the CBS Outdoor Special Olympics Putting Event. The event proceeded this weekends Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Campbell is not the greatest golfer in the world, but he did enjoy what the event represented. This should put a smile on any fan’s face. Even though the Cardinals did not have a great or even average 2012 season they are still able to go out and help their community in any way possible.

Feely is an avid golfer, but you can pretty expect that from any kicker. He says putting is not his strong suit, but was satisfied with what the effort of his group. Also, he says, “any time you’re around Special Olympians, it gives you an appreciation for athletics and what it can do.”

The event mattered so much to Lyle Sendlein that he even played a round of golf to warm up for the event. I would have probably done the same thing, I mean who wouldn’t want to play golf, but it’s still great to see players care so much about people with struggles around them.

The NFL does so much for their communities and sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you are a fan of a losing team. However, next time you are yelling at your favorite team imagine them reading to a child or visiting kids in the hospital and you may find yourself a happier person.

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Yasmani Grandal, Cesar Carillo linked to Miami PED clinic

According to a report by the Miami New Times, the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, Washington Nationals' Gio Gonzalez and Texas Rangers' Nelson Cruz have all been linked to an anti-aging clinic in Miami that allegedly distributed performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), including HGH. Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and Yasmani Grandal, who have all already been suspended by MLB for PED use, were also linked to the clinic.

Records obtained by the Miami New Times suggest that Rodriguez received HGH as recently as a year ago, though he denies the allegations. This news comes about three years after Rodriguez’s emotional confession to steroid use during his tenure with the Texas Rangers.

From a fantasy perspective, Rodriguez was already a declining and damaged asset, projected to be sidelined for the next six months following hip surgery. Now, the threat of a suspension is very real as MLB begins its investigation into this report. The possibility of losing an additional 50 games is an important development for the New York Yankees and fantasy baseball owners.

If A-Rod does get hit with a suspension, then his 2013 fantasy value falls close to zero. He would be virtually undraftable, and it wouldn't be worth carrying his dead weight throughout a suspension. If a 50-game ban is looming, fantasy owners could probably look at a mid-August return as the best-case scenario. Even then, nobody knows how effective he would be. Expect to see much more of Kevin Youkilis at the hot corner for the Yankees.

Of more immediate consequence to fantasy owners are the fates of Gonzalez and Cruz.

Gonzalez, the biggest name from a fantasy standpoint, posted career bests in wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP and opponents' batting average during his first season with the Washington Nationals. That led to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young award voting. Normally, he would head into the 2013 season as a fantasy ace, but a possible suspension hurts that status. He would still be worthy of a draft-and-stash in most leagues, but a suspension would mean missing roughly two months or 10-12 starts. For what it's worth, Gonzalez has also denied any relationship with the Miami clinic or ever using PEDs.

Cruz has seen his production decline the past couple seasons, but fantasy owners are always hoping for that power/speed talent to break out. Now with the threat of a suspension on top of spotty production and annual injury concerns, Cruz is close to becoming no more than a late-round flier.

Meanwhile, fantasy owners will be looking to see how Jurickson Profar profits from a potential Cruz suspension, but the player who may stand to gain the most could be fellow prospect Leonys Martin. The raw-but-talented Martin is unlikely to make a big power impact, but he has 20-steal potential given everyday playing time.

Fantasy owners will need to keep a close eye on this developing story and make the necessary adjustments to their preseason rankings. We're not adjusting projections for Rodriguez, Gonzalez and Cruz just yet until we hear more about potential punishments. However, it's not a good sign that this trio is being associated with already suspended players such as Cabrera, Colon and Grandal. Stay tuned.

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Ed Reed floats possibility of Ray Lewis returning next season

Ravens safety Ed Reed had a warning for reporters Monday: Don't be so sure Ray Lewis will retire after Super Bowl XLVII.

That's the word from NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.

“Maybe he'll play 10 games next year,” Reed said, according to Wesseling.

Lewis told his teammates before the playoffs, "This will be my last ride.” And the 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker reportedly has a multi-year deal in place to join ESPN as a commentator next season.

Lewis, 37, suffered a torn triceps in mid-October that many considered a season-ending injury. He returned for the playoffs, however, and has made 44 tackles in three games. Whether he's been his old self is up for debate.

While Reed, 34, plans to play next season, Lewis has given no indication he might change his mind. Reed has played alongside Lewis for 11 seasons and might have been engaging in wishful thinking.

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VIDEO: SNL skit that made fun of Ray Lewis crying literally made him cry

The most recent edition of Saturday Night Live featured a squirrel-dancing Kenan Thompson at the Weekend Update desk with Seth Meyers.  Thompson, with painted face and purple No. 52 jersey, was playing the role of Ray Lewis.

Among other things, the segment made fun of Lewis and his over-the-top shows of emotions, like his National Anthem crying spell before the AFC title game.  And pretty much every moment after the Ravens won.

Fittingly, Lewis said at his first Super Bowl media session that he found the skit so funny that, yes, he was in tears.

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Dolphins reportedly believe Lamar Miller will be better than Reggie Bush

According to Armando Sagluero of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins like running back Lamar Miller better than Reggie Bush because they believe he can be better.  And of course it helps that Miller is six years younger than Bush while also being faster and bigger.

Bush is turning 28 years-old in March, which means he probably only has another few good years in him.  NFL running backs fall off a cliff very quickly when it comes to their production.

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Ed Reed could be targeted by the Patriots

Last week on PFT Live, a former hard-hitting safety from the Patriots (Rodney Harrison) said that one of the things the Patriots need is a hard-hitting safety.

Enter Ed Reed?

Peter King of SI.com said during Sunday night’s Pro Bowl pregame on NBC that the Ravens safety most likely will hit the market in March, and that Patriots coach Bill Belichick (described by King as the president of the Ed Reed Fan Club) will swoop in and sign him.

That would be a far cry from the last time the Ravens let a high-profile defender test the waters of the open market.  Four years ago, linebacker Ray Lewis found no takers, and he eventually re-signed with the Ravens.

As King and I were discussing off camera, it was in hindsight a colossal blunder for the Cowboys (who were believed to be interested in Lewis) to not sign him.  The team desperately needs vocal leadership on defense, and his presence could have provided the spark that may have taken the Cowboys much farther than they have gone in recent years.

But for the Patriots’ possible interest in Reed, it’s less about intangibles and more about the need for someone who can make the secondary significantly better.  Reed can do that.  And Belichick surely knows it.

Of course, Reed will have to get past the Tom Brady kick slide from last Sunday night.  A pile of money often is helpful, however, when trying to turn the page.

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Panthers officially make Ken Dorsey QBs coach

The Carolina Panthers just announced three moves to their coaching staff.

They’ve hired Ken Dorsey as quarterbacks coach, Jim Skipper as running backs coach and Al Holcomb as linebackers coach. Skipper previously spent nine seasons (2002 through 2010) with the Panthers and was with the Tennessee Titans the last two seasons. Holcomb spent the last four seasons with the New York Giants.

But the most significant hire might be Dorsey. He’ll be Cam Newton’s position coach.

Mike Shula was in that role the past two seasons. Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator after Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland.

This will be Dorsey’s first job as an NFL assistant. He spent the last two seasons as a pro scout for the Panthers. Dorsey played quarterback for Cleveland and San Francisco for seven seasons and also played for Toronto in the Canadian Football League.

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Jonathan Vilma saw Frank Gore’s ability up close in high school

New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma goes way back with 49ers running back Frank Gore – back to their days at Coral Gables (Fla.) High even before they were teammates at the University of Miami.

So Vilma knows Gore’s frustration over wandering in the NFL netherworld for the first six years of his pro career. As Vilma and Giants safety Antrel Rolle and onetime Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey – all Miami alums – won Super Bowl rings, Gore didn’t even sniff the playoffs.

That makes this week’s trip to the Super Bowl even sweeter, in some ways.

“It was really tough for him, with all his compadres from UM having team success in the NFL,” Vilma said in a phone interview today. “Frank had been to the Pro Bowl a few times, but he was tired of hearing how good he was and how terrible the team was.

“These last two years have been great for him – he finally got a taste of what it’s like to be a contender. I’m happy for him. He’s truly enjoyed the last two seasons. It’s invigorated him a little bit.”

Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl selection perhaps best known for his involvement in the Saints bounty scandal (and his subsequent lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell), helped New Orleans win the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. That almost highlighted San Francisco’s struggles for Gore; the 49ers were 37-59 in his first six seasons, from 2005 through ’10.

“He was happy for me, of course, but it’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘When is it my turn?’ ” Vilma said. “Now he finally has a chance.”

It didn’t take long for Vilma, who was one year ahead of Gore in school, to learn about the running back’s ambition. Soon after they met, before Gore’s sophomore season at Coral Gables, a soon-to-be-senior running back began spouting off about his anticipated turn as the starter.

“The guy was bragging about how he couldn’t wait to run the ball,” Vilma said. “Frank didn’t talk a lot, but I remember him looking at the guy, like, ‘You don’t really know what’s coming.’ I could tell Frank’s fiery, competitive nature.

“He didn’t say much until we got in pads – and then he lit it up. He was legit from the start. Needless to say, he took the guy’s starting spot. No one knew who Frank was, but he just had that look.”

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VIDEO: Reggie Wayne 2012-13 Highlights

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Jimmy Graham on the mend following wrist

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is on the mend after undergoing wrist surgery earlier this month.

The surgery prevented Graham from making a trip to the Pro Bowl as he was a first alternate and Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings got the nod instead after Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons backed out of the game earlier this week.

Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Graham battled through the wrist injury for the majority of the season but never missed a game or a practice because of it. He caught 85 passes for 982 yards with nine touchdowns but Graham led the NFL with 14 dropped passes, perhaps a result of the injury.

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Back in Louisiana for Super Bowl, Ed Reed is all smiles, says, 'It was awesome, I'm speechless'

Veteran free safety Ed Reed wore a gray suit Monday night along with a wide grin as he embraced his first hours back in Louisiana after touching down in New Orleans.

From chowing down on charbroiled oysters with his teammates at the popular New Orleans restaurant, Dragos, to playfully tapping reporters on the arm as he worked the crowd, the Louisiana native soaked up every moment upon arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.

"I can't explain it, man," said Reed, who plans to visit his family Tuesday in St. Rose, La., for some Cajun cooking. "This is awesome, man. To come home to be in Louisiana in front of the home crowd playing here for the Super Bowl, I'm really speechless. 

"Everything I've been through to get to this point, everything we've been through as a team, it's just awesome. I'm just trying to enjoy it and not hold anything in, any emotions. To be playing in my first Super Bowl in New Orleans, it's special."

Reed's intense focus is on Sunday's matchup against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, not on his future plans.

Reed reiterated that he has no plans to retire after stating late last week that he has more football left in him.

"That question was asked a couple of days back about this being my last ride," Reed said. "I'm not focused on that right now."

Although this would seem like a perfect ending to an accomplished career, Reed has never embraced a conventional approach.

"There can’t be no talk about us both because he’s trying to get me to come back," said Ravens  inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who is retiring following the Super Bowl. "Ed is going to do what Ed is going to do. I think both of our paths are totally different. 

"Our courses are totally different. Same mindset, but totally different paths. He’ll make his decision whenever he makes his decision. Like I told him, if he was going to go out, what better way to go out than feeling that confetti as world champions."

As Lewis, 37, prepares to walk away from the game, Reed, 34, wants to send his friend and mentor out as a victor Sunday night hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy.

"Of course, we want to send him off the right way," Reed said. "I'm not about to say this is my last game and have everybody join in with that. If that's what it takes to get the guys pumped, though. Nah, man, it's not about me."

This isn't Reed's first Super Bowl experience in New Orleans.

Back in 1997 as a high school football standout at nearby Destrehan High School in St. Rose, La., outside of New Orleans, Reed won a regional Punt, Pass and Kick competition. That earned him the right to attend Super Bowl Media Day as the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots prepared for a game ultimately won by the Packers.

"It was awesome," said Reed, who ran the Wing-T offense as a high school quarterback before signing with the University of Miami to play safety. "I still have those visions."

Reed acknowledged that the game of football has taken a grueling toll on his body.

He's been dealing with a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder for several seasons, affecting his durability and tackling. This season, he played through a torn shoulder labrum.

"When I said before I'm thinking about retiring, that's me assessing my body physically," Reed said. "I've been playing with the nerve impingement for the past six, seven years.  I know that's affecting me. I tore my shoulder labrum early in the year. That's still affecting me ergonomically. The game takes a toll on your body."

In January of 2011 prior to the Ravens' playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Reed's brother, Brian Reed, died after jumping into the Mississippi River while trying to elude police following a car chase. Brian Reed had a history of mental illness, according to his family.

"He's already proud of me," Reed said when asked about his late brother. "He's looking down on me right now. He's here with me."

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Frank Gore’s work ethic impresses 49ers teammates

SAN FRANCISCO — Long before he burrowed his way into the Super Bowl, darting through small holes and dancing through slender creases, the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore carved out his persona as a workingman’s running back.

Not even his mom could stop him.

She tried, in the final game of his career at Coral Gables High outside Miami. Gore rambled for nearly 300 yards, by his recollection, and played defensive back for much of his team’s playoff duel with Miami Southridge.

Finally, there went Lizzie Gore bounding out of the bleachers and onto the sideline.

“Get my baby out of there!” she shouted. “Y’all are going to kill him! He’s tired!”

Gore smiled as he told the story Friday in Santa Clara, outside the 49ers’ locker room.

So did she succeed in getting her baby some rest? Fat chance.

“Aw, I wanted to play,” Gore said.

This makes perfect sense, given his relentlessness and persistence in eight seasons with the 49ers. That’s how he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and how he wore down the Packers in the divisional round (23 carries, 119 yards, one touchdown) and the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game (21 carries, 90 yards, two TDs).

The roots of this relentlessness and persistence start with Lizzie Gore and the way she raised three kids with little money. As many as 12 people stayed in their one-bedroom apartment at times, including nieces and nephews.

Lizzie got sick during Frank’s junior year in high school, nearly dying then of what became a debilitating kidney ailment. She endured thrice-weekly dialysis for several years and died in 2007, at 46, early during Gore’s third NFL season.

“She did whatever it took to put food on the table and clothes on our back,” he said Friday, speaking to a group of reporters. “It was hard. All the hard work she did for us — that’s why God blessed me with a talent. That’s why I try my best to do it hard every day.”

Even in high school, in the image-conscious years of his youth, Gore had no use for flamboyance.

Humble origins
He wore no gloves, no wristbands, nothing at all on his arms while playing at Coral Gables. Gore had found his niche — training diligently, squeezing through any hole he could find, steadily chewing up chunks of yardage.

Gore set all sorts of Dade County records as a high school player, but one-time teammate Roger Pollard does not recall a back with striking speed or overwhelming power. More than 12 years later, ask Pollard about Gore’s running style back then, and he offers one word.

“He sees you even when he’s not looking at you,” Pollard said.

Gore traced his vision to haphazard pickup games in the rough Coconut Grove neighborhood where he grew up, playing tackle football in the park or two-hand touch games in the street. Either way, he learned — quickly — the value of spotting defenders coming at him from various angles.

“When you get the ball in those games, everybody tries to tackle you,” he said. “I think that kind of helped.”

Inspirational leader
Gore weathered one broken ankle in high school, two torn ACLs in college and six maddening, non-winning seasons with the 49ers before coach Jim Harbaugh arrived. And now Gore prepares to play in the Super Bowl, not ready to retire but San Francisco’s inspirational answer to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

Much as Ravens players want to win for Lewis, so do 49ers players speak of their fervent desire to reward Gore, 29, with a Super Bowl ring. And their respect for him stretches deeper than his production.

Offensive tackle Joe Staley brought up a scene at practice last week.

“The offensive line was running gassers, and Frank just jumped in with us and ran gassers with us,” Staley said. “He’s always working. You go in the weight room, and he’s always busting his (butt) on the treadmill or the Stairmaster.”

Fullback Bruce Miller mentioned Gore’s blocks.

“He pass protects better than a lot of offensive linemen,” Miller said. “It’s unreal to watch. He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays with great leverage and explosion. His timing is second to none, the way he sizes up guys and just explodes through them.”

Running back Anthony Dixon talked about the time, in a previous season, when he returned to the practice facility for a late-night workout. Dixon figured he needed to put in extra work as a young running back fighting for his spot on the team — and then he came across the starter, now a four-time Pro Bowler.

Leads by example
“Frank was walking through the halls, sweating,” Dixon said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I felt like I was going to get my edge — little did I know Frank was in here thinking the same thing.”

The work ethic and pass blocking say plenty about Gore, because they are not the glamorous aspects of playing running back in the NFL.

“My mom would love to be here right now,” he said. “She knows how much I love playing this sport and how hard I work at it.”

And Lizzie Gore really would savor this part: Her baby doesn’t need to play both ways anymore.

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Ray Lewis acknowledges his controversial history

NEW ORLEANS — The most controversial, charismatic and complicated man in the city wore a three-piece suit and a smile.

Ray Lewis’ Last Ride has been an emotional month-long retirement lap filled with animated squirrel dances and biblical allusions.

His teammates call him “Mufasa,” the king of “The Lion King.” His detractors can’t see past a murky sequence of events that left two men dead 13 years ago.
Shortly after the Ravens arrived for Super Bowl XLVII on Monday, Lewis reiterated that his decision is final. He won’t be waffling. He’s retiring after the biggest game on the biggest stage.

“The guys ask me, ‘Are you really going to walk away?’ ” Lewis said. “I have so much to do. I really do. I have to go home and be a father to my kids. I ran my course in the game. My ultimate (goal) was always for this core of men that I’ve had to get back to the Super Bowl. And we’re here.”

Lewis, 37, is the Super Bowl’s captivating figure, a leader to some, a liar to others.

Long before Lewis was wrapping up a Hall of Fame career, he was caught up in a double killing outside a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2000. Lewis and two friends were charged with murder before the linebacker ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. The NFL fined him $250,000. He paid millions to the victims’ families as part of civil lawsuits.

Much of the football world has forgiven – or has chosen to forget – the events from that night in Atlanta.

“I don’t know nobody that’s ever lived a perfect life,” Lewis said. “I have (seen) people that have been through things before. Realistically, most of the time when you find somebody that goes through adversity, you really find out what their true character is. For me, people really now have taken time to find out who I am … and (what) my character is.”

“For someone who has been through adversity and found his way out and really just showing what my true character is and who I am as a person.”

Some people will likely never forgive Lewis. Last week, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker’s wife, Anna, brought up his past on her Facebook page after the Ravens’ win over New England in the AFC Championship Game: “If anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis’ Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!!”

Lewis said on Monday that he didn’t harbor any ill will toward Anna Burns Welker, who apologized hours after she went public.

“I’ve always been a firm believer of the Good Book,” Lewis said. “The Good Book always confirms even a fool is counted wise until he opens he or she mouth. I truly forgive her. I believe people just make mistakes and say foolish things.”

Lewis, who missed more than two months with a torn triceps, retraced his career in 15 short minutes. He talked about everything from getting his first career sack, on Jim Harbaugh, to going through personal adversity to wanting his teammates to feel the way he did when he won a Super Bowl 12 years ago.

“The ride,” Lewis said. “I would never complain about one moment of it.”

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Ed Reed agrees with President Obama's concerns about dangers of playing football

The concerns raised by President Barack Obama about the potential dangers of football are shared by Ravens free safety Ed Reed.

Reed agrees with Obama, who said he would have reservations about allowing a son to play the game due to safety issues.

"I am with Obama," Reed said. "I have a son. I am not forcing football on my son. If he wants to play it, I can't make decisions for him. All I can do is say, 'Son, I played it, so you don't have to.'

"We've got some leaks in it that need to be worked out. Every medical training room should be upgraded. Training rooms can be a lot better. When you've got the president talking about it, you got something."

Reed has dealt with several serious injuries, including undergoing surgery on his hip and gutting it out through a torn shoulder labrum and a nerve impingement in his neck.

In an interview with The New Republic, Obama indicated that he regards football as a violent game.

"I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence," Obama said. "In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."

Not everyone shared Reed's opinion, though.

That included Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who doesn't like the idea of kids being urged to not play a game he loves.

"I don’t agree with that," Harbaugh said. "Football is a great game. Anybody that’s played the game knows what a great game it is. What it provides for young people, what it provides for people like me is an opportunity to grow as a  person. It’s challenging, it’s tough, it’s hard. There’s no game like football. It’s the type of sport that brings out the best in you. It kind of shows you who you are.

"You have an opportunity to make your first tackle or make your first block or do something in football, because it’s such a tough thing. It’s a little bit of a manhood test a little bit. When you get done you say, ‘You know  what, I’m a football player. I play the game of football and that makes me special a little bit.’ I think it’s a huge part of our educational system in this country and it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco shared Harbaugh's sentiment, noting that it's not like players are forced to play the game. They take risks of their own volition.
“I think we all understand that it’s probably not a safe sport, but it’s something that we choose to do,’’ Flacco said. “When you talk about little kids doing it, they’re not having the collisions we’re having at the NFL level. I mean, they are a bunch of 50-pound to 140-pound kids. I don’t know how much damage they’re doing to each other.”

A married father of six, six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk acknowledged that Obama had certainly raised some legitimate concerns.

"I have three sons and I think anyone who is a parent can relate to that," Birk said. "Certainly it is a dangerous game and we’re finding out more and more,  every day, the long-term effects that this game can have.  I think it’s a joint  effort with the commissioner, with coaches, with players, with everybody, everybody that wants to watch and make this game as safe as it can be.  I think we’re making strides in that. Football’s a great game. 

"Obviously it’s a great game for NFL players, it’s how we make a living, but most kids who play football  aren’t going to make it to the NFL.  It’s such a great game because it teaches  you about life and lessons and there’s so much to be gained by participating in football.  It’s served us all well and just to continue to have this  conversation and continue to talk about it and just do whatever we can to make it safer  whether it be through rule change or research.”

Despite the precautions he's taken, Reed knows he'll never be the same from his grueling experiences playing the game.

"I felt like I played the game as safe as possible," Reed said. "I even tell the guys that they have to take care of their bodies, take care of themselves. If you take care of that, it will take care of you."

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Frank Gore is 49ers' spiritual center

The Baltimore Ravens are making noise about winning Super Bowl XLVII for retiring linebacker Ray Lewis. But the 49ers have their own favorite -- and spiritual center -- in veteran running back Frank Gore.

Ask any 49ers player, offense or defense, how they feel about him and it's like tapping into a wellspring of resolve for Gore as he approaches the most important football game of his life.

The 29-year-old has persevered through a life of pain and hardship, both on the football field and off. But at long last, he can finally see the mountaintop. Win the Super Bowl next Sunday and he can stand on it for a while. He can look up and tell his beloved mother, Lizzie, who died in 2007 of kidney disease, that he has something really special for her this time.

"Since she passed, every time I score a touchdown I always point up and tell her it's for her," Gore said this week. "I mention that I love her. I know she's happy. I'm her son. We went through so much in high school, college and the NFL. Finally, I'm getting the opportunity to play in the big game."
Few thought Gore ever would.

He was born and raised in a poor, drug-infested area of Coral Gables, Fla., where many of his own relatives abused drugs. Lizzie was a single mother of three who often took in nieces and nephews, and Gore noted there were often as many as 11 or 12 people living in a one-bedroom apartment.

"I didn't know if I was going to get a bed," he said. "I didn't know if the lights were going to be on. It was tough."

Gore's escape was athletics, particularly football, but despite a legendary career at Coral Gables High, he struggled academically because of a learning disability. He entered high school at a third-grade reading level, had to attend summer and night classes and undergo extensive tutoring just to qualify for college.

Even though he worked diligently to get to a 10th-grade reading level, he still had trouble with written material. He failed to achieve the NCAA's required minimum score on the SAT a few times. Finally, he was given the test orally and passed.

He got a scholarship to nearby University of Miami, but more hardship ensued. After a promising freshman season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. After working his way back the next year, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Even though he returned to rush for 948 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior, pro scouts were wary of Gore when he applied for the NFL draft in 2005.

Then general manager Scot McCloughan had to fight to convince the 49ers to draft Gore in the third round. But he saw both special talent and determination in Gore.

"He's going to do everything in his power to make himself a great player," McCloughan said at the time. "If you take football away from him, you take his life away. He's overcome a lot. He's God-given as a runner. He has balance and vision. He's a very unique back."

Gore proved that in his rookie season, rushing for 608 yards despite making just one start. But he also sustained more injuries, undergoing major surgery on both shoulders after the season.

Then there was the losing. The 49ers were 4-12 in 2005, and after one particularly hard loss to Dallas, Gore walked out of the locker room and saw several players dancing and laughing in the players' parking lot. He couldn't believe it. He broke down crying.

Gore had a number of crying bouts over his first six seasons, all outside of the playoffs. And there were more nagging injuries -- abdominal strains, ankle sprains, hip issues, bruised ribs and, in 2007, a broken hand. That '07 season was his hardest year, because his mother died in September, just before the 49ers were supposed to play a game at St. Louis.

Gore used to talk to his mother by phone before every game at a specific time.

"That day, the time came and I didn't get the call, I just burst out and cried, cried, cried," he said. "But I knew she'd want me to play. I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field."

Things have been better for Gore the past two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. He became the 49ers' all-time career rushing leader. He's played in every game. In a 2012 season when many thought he might start slowing down, he had one of his best years -- 1,214 yards rushing, eight touchdowns. He has 209 yards and three scores in two playoff games.

In short, he seems to be getting better. Gore credited former 49ers receiver Isaac Bruce with teaching him valuable secrets to career longevity.

"He always told me, 'Don't ever go by what people say around the league or the statistics about running backs or you can't play after you reach this age,' " Gore said. "I took that in big. I just train. I feel if you just keep training, you have a chance to be in this league for a long time."

Gore's teammates attest to his relentless work regimen.

"He's the all-time leading rusher in 49ers history, but he comes to work every day like he's trying to win a job," said tackle Anthony Davis. "And he makes us take that attitude to our own work."

Many players said Gore is also generous with sage advice. Rookie tailback LaMichael James credits him with vastly improving his blocking. And how good of a blocking back is Gore?

"He's the best in the NFL ... ever," James said.

Even 49ers old-timers are carrying a torch. Former 49ers great Roger Craig said he had tears in his eyes for Gore when the 49ers won the NFC Championship.
"He's been carrying the team on his shoulders for a long time, and he's had to do it during some tough times," Craig said. "Now he's getting a chance to see what it's like to be a winner. After seeing what he's gone through to get to the Super Bowl, I'm overwhelmed for him. He deserves to see what it's like."

Gore himself was taken aback when told so many players past and present had said they want him to win the Super Bowl more than anyone.

"That makes me feel great, knowing that all the guys have a lot of respect for me," he said. "They know how much I love the game of football. And I'll do whatever it takes to win for them."

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Ray Lewis To Be Honored With The Lifetime Of Inspiration Award At The Super Bowl Gospel Celebration

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 28, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Thirteen-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XXXV MVP Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, will be honored with the prestigious Lifetime of Inspiration Award at the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration concert on February 1, 2013 at 7:30 PM, at the University of New Orleans: Lake Front Arena. The Lifetime of Inspiration Award has only been presented once in the history of the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration event to Former NFL Head Coach Tony Dungy in 2009, as it is reserved to celebrate extraordinary individuals who have impacted the sport and community.

This year's Super Bowl Gospel Celebration will pay tribute to Ray Lewis for his faith-filled determination to overcome trials and tribulations on and off the field, while recognizing him for his remarkable football career. "His accomplishments and triumphs have inspired football fans, teammates and colleagues – a true representation of what the essence of the convergence of faith and football is all about," says Melanie Few-Harrison , Creator & Producer of Super Bowl Gospel Celebration. "As a big supporter of the event, Ray Lewis has attended many Super Bowl Gospel Celebrations and sang in the NFL Players Choir, so we are beyond thrilled to honor him in what is sure to be a memorable year."

The Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, currently in its 14th year, joins together NFL players, Grammy Award-winning artists, and special guests, on one stage to kick off Super Bowl Weekend. Emmy Award-winning co-host of ABC's "The View," Sherri Shepherd and seven-time Grammy Award-winning gospel musician, Kirk Franklin , will host the musical celebration. Grammy Award-winning, platinum-selling artist and American Idol winner Fantasia will headline the show, which will include performances by top gospel and contemporary Christian artists Donnie McClurkin , Marvin Winans , Bishop Paul S. Morton , and this year's NFL "Players' Choice" hip-hop Christian artist Lecrae.

The highlight of the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration is the NFL Players Choir. Composed exclusively of current and former players, the choir has become one of the most anticipated performances during Super Bowl Weekend. Celebrating its six-year anniversary, the NFL Players Choir includes more than 40 members, including Hall Of Famers and Pro Bowlers. Several Christian NFL players who wanted to share their faith through their musical talents in song formed the Choir. The group offers fans an opportunity to see a very personal side of the players off the field, as they make joyful noise.

Ray Lewis has played with the Baltimore Ravens since the team's inception, and for his entire 17-year career. This year, he has decided to hang up his jersey and retire after he plays in his last game against the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, February 3, 2013.

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Ryan Braun relishing a calm off-season this year

A year ago, Ryan Braun was in limbo.

In the midst of appealing his 50-game drug suspension, the Milwaukee Brewers' leftfielder basically dropped out of sight until the start of spring training.

That meant no media exposure in the weeks and months following his 2011 National League most valuable player award and no appearance at the "Brewers On Deck" event in downtown Milwaukee.

But with all that and a productive 2012 season behind him, Braun returned to the team's annual event Sunday at the Delta Center.

Relaxed and all smiles, Braun not surprisingly said he has been enjoying this off-season much more than his last.

"This is nice," he said during a break. "It's definitely a lot different for me. It's just nice to be able to relax, to have a regular schedule, a regular routine, know exactly what I'm getting myself into. More than anything else, it's far more relaxing."

Braun will head into spring training a little bit ahead of the curve having begun long-tossing in November and hitting in earnest in December, a month earlier than usual.

Much of this early work is to help him get prepared for the World Baseball Classic. Braun, along with Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, is a member of Team USA, which will begin training in Phoenix on March 1. Team USA's first game is March 8 at Chase Field against Mexico, which will have a pair of Brewers starting pitchers in Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada.

Unlike some of the other big American stars who passed on the opportunity to play for Team USA, Braun said he relishes the opportunity.

"First and foremost, it's an honor," he said. "It's a tremendous honor to represent your country. You don't know how many opportunities you'll get to do that - this tournament only happens once every four years, and four years from now who knows - for all of us - what our health situation will be, where we'll be in the game, whether we'll even get an opportunity to be invited.

"For me, I think it was a no-brainer. As long as I was healthy, it was something I was definitely going to do."

Braun was asked about playing alongside Lucroy for Team USA, and got in the zinger of the day.

"It's amazing - I didn't even know Team USA had a bullpen catcher," he said with a grin. "It's really cool to have a teammate. It's going to be really fun for both of us. We've talked about it and we're pretty excited. It's definitely a cool opportunity, and we'll get a chance to play against some of our teammates, too."

As far as the Brewers' chances this year, Braun, like everyone else, is interested in seeing how the team's rotation shakes out. Aside from Gallardo and Estrada, Chris Narveson is attempting to return from rotator-cuff surgery, and youngsters Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta will also be trying to win spots.

"I think the talent is there; it's about going out there and doing it over the course of the season," he said. "We have some guys that are relatively inexperienced (in the rotation) - we don't know exactly what they're going to be able to do. But aside from that, I think we're certainly going to be competitive again.

"And as long as you're competitive, that's all you can ask for."

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Matt Bosher Makes All Sophomore Team

ProFootballFocus.com's analysis of each play of every game in the NFL is respected around the league, so when they release their season-ending lists of the best players in football, everyone reads it. The Falcons didn't have any players on the year's All-Pro list or All-Rookie team, but PFF's All-Sophomoreteam featured two second-year Falcons.

Joining Julio Jones on the All-Sophomore team is a Falcon who hasn't yet started getting many accolades, but put together a solid season for the Falcons. Punter Matt Bosher, drafted in the sixth round, helped the Falcons finish ninth in the NFL in average yards per punt and only 26 of his 60 punts were returned. Bosher also serves as the team's kickoff specialist.

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Santana Moss might need to restructure

Washington Redskins WR Santana Moss will count $6.3 million against the cap, which might be too much for the team considering the veteran will soon be 34 years old. Moss is still considered a player that can help, but he might need to restructure his contract to return.

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He's no Ray Lewis, but Frank Gore inspires Niners

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Retiring linebacker Ray Lewis, in all his pulsating, gyrating, preaching glory, clearly serves as the Baltimore Ravens' inspirational leader.

His opposite number on the San Francisco 49ers? A low-key veteran who can barely be heard above a whisper.

Running back Frank Gore inspires not with his dances or speeches but rather with the devotion and hard work that have characterized his eight seasons in the NFL.

A four-time Pro Bowler and the franchise's all-time leading rusher, Gore didn't enjoy a winning season until coach Jim Harbaugh arrived on the scene in 2011. His teammates say he's a motivating force.

"It makes me feel great knowing that all of the guys have a lot of respect for me,'' Gore said, surrounded by reporters who strained to hear his soft voice. "They know how much I love the game of football and know that I'd do whatever it takes to win for them. We've been through hard times. I've been here since '05 and it took me seven years to get to the playoffs.''

Gore, 29, had another banner year in 2012, rushing for 1,214 yards – his second-highest total ever – and scoring eight touchdowns.

He was not as productive once the 49ers started relying more on the read-option in the second half of the season after Colin Kaepernick took over as the starting quarterback, but Gore delivered two touchdowns and 90 rushing yards as San Francisco reached its sixth Super Bowl by beating the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship Game.

In the second-round game against the Green Bay Packers, Gore set a career playoff high with 119 yards on the ground and also scored twice.

"I can tell you this means a lot to everybody,'' right guard Alex Boone said of getting to the title game, "but those older guys like Frank, Justin (Smith), Dave (Akers) and Randy (Moss), it's big for them and it would be big for us to get them that ring.''

That would be a crowning achievement for Gore, one he only wishes he could share with his mother, Liz, who died in September 2007 of kidney disease. She was a big fan, tried to coach him a little and used to ride a bus to watch him play while he was in high school.

Through all the trials he endured -- including knee surgeries that threatened his career -- Gore said her death was definitely the biggest test.

"She used to call me at a certain time before the game, and that day the time came and I didn't get the call, I just burst out and I cried, cried, cried,'' Gore recalled. "I know she would have wanted me to play. I had a pretty good game that day. I think she came on the field because I made a crazy run, I don't know how I broke all the tackles and got the touchdown.''

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Tavares Gooden Faces Former Franchise

Tavares Gooden is paying respect where it’s due. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to take it easy on the Ravens.

When he steps on the turf at the Superdome in New Orleans on Feb. 3, the 49ers special teams ace will be trying to take down the very franchise that helped make him who he is today. From 2008-10, Gooden was a backup to Ray Lewis, developing the skillset that makes him one of the most entertaining players on the 49ers today.

“It’s great. Just an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl and compete against my old team is going to be fun,” Gooden said. “This is one of those things that kids dream about. Especially coming from one spot and not knowing where you’re going to be at and going to the other side of the country. Now being able to face the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl is a blessing. I can’t wait to get out there and compete with them.”

When San Francisco clinched its second straight playoff berth under Jim Harbaugh this year, it wasn’t anything new to Gooden. In his five-year career, the energetic linebacker has never missed the playoffs.

That’s because he was a part of three Baltimore teams that have made the playoffs in each of the five seasons since John Harbaugh was named head coach before the 2008 season. While a lot has changed since Gooden made the change of scenery from East Coast to West Coast right before the 2011 season started, he isn’t forgetting his professional roots.

“They’re a reason why I’m still in the NFL,” Gooden said. “John Harbaugh and (special teams coordinator) Jerry Rosburg took me in and showed me how important special teams is to the game, especially as far as being on a team and being part of a team. I took that in and it’s helped me out my whole career. I’ve been gracious to play on a lot of teams just because I’m able to play a lot of special teams and I’m thankful for that. If not for them, I probably wouldn’t have this opportunity.”

As the Harbaugh brothers take center stage in the media spotlight, Gooden holds the distinction of being the only player on either active roster to have played for Jim and John as head coaches in the NFL.

There may be nearly 2,300 miles separating San Francisco and New Orleans, but Gooden and the Tony Montana Squad will be trying to show the world some of their Bay Area swagger. Whenever the kickoff team takes the field for the 49ers, the high-energy group makes sure to pump up the crowd and put on a show before streaking down the field to make the tackle.

In the middle of the madness will be Gooden, who still carries valuable lessons from his days with John Harbaugh as a young NFL player.

“Just an attitude – letting your personality shine, building a bully, everything,” Gooden said. “I learned how to play in the National Football League. How to be physical, and at the same time, not be a dirty player.”

For more than a decade, Baltimore has built an identity as one of the league’s most bruising outfits. Since Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took over, the 49ers have also become one of the hardest-hitting groups in the NFL.

“I know it’s going to be a physical game,” Gooden said. “I know what they try to build their reputation on; they’re trying to bang, bang, nail people. … This is going to be a game that you can talk about afterwards for a long time."

Not only will Gooden be facing his former franchise, but he’ll also be playing alongside and against fellow alumni from the University of Miami. The proud football tradition of the school will be boasted on both sides, as Gooden and Frank Gore will square off against Lewis, Ed Reed and Bryant McKinnie.

“It’s great. It really shows what we have,” Gooden said. “I’m proud of all the ‘Canes that are in this game.”

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Ray Lewis' open expression of faith unifies Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The voice is a thunderclap in a room of loud men. It rises high then rolls low, fueled by tears and agony and joy. The voice spills stories from a book – a good book – the speaker believes and the men listen and nod and agree because many of the Baltimore Ravens read this very same book. And because they trust the voice and they trust the Bible from which the voice reads, they believe the voice gives them strength. They believe it gives them unity. They believe it is helping them win.

This is the Ray Lewis the Ravens know.

But this is not how much of America sees Lewis. Even though the Ravens linebacker has been a great star and one of football's most dominant defensive players for much of the past 17 years, his name is forever frozen in a single event that occurred right after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in 2000. The lingering images are of an NFL player standing trial for the murder of two men.

And while he was never convicted of the murders and the case against him didn't seem strong, enough questions still exist. The public conviction will never go away. So as these playoffs have extended and the celebrations of Lewis boomed, his boisterous declarations of faith have crashed against old perceptions.

For every Peyton Manning waiting to embrace him after Baltimore's AFC division round win in the Denver, there is an Anna Burns Welker, wife of Patriots receiver Wes, who wrote: "Please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids, 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"

At Super Bowl week, the clash will be bigger than ever. Lewis will rant and quote scripture in the final media sessions of his career. The skeptics will shout louder than they have before. And much of America won't know exactly what to think.

Faith is a tricky thing in sports. It bathes some players in a luminous light of good while making others look like cheap opportunists. Many of those same fans who hang on the every word of Tim Tebow express disgust at the very idea of Ray Lewis. This despite the fact that Tebow's expressions of Christianity have had far less impact in the Broncos' and Jets' locker rooms than Lewis's have had in Baltimore's. To the teammates of both men, Ray Lewis is a far bigger hero than Tim Tebow.

He turned a ragged life into a good life. Isn't that something to celebrate?

"According to the Bible his sins are forgiven," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, who has spoken and written about his own faith. "He's come from a totally different background than someone like Tim Tebow. He has come to Christ later in life but isn't that true of so many? The Bible teaches us that not only are our sins forgiven but they are forgotten."

Everything in Ray Lewis' recent existence says he is the man he claims to be. His rambling speeches may sound tiresome after awhile. A few teammates might grow bored or find his declarations of faith to be irritating, but few doubt his sincerity. Nobody sniffs out a fake in sports faster than another athlete. If Lewis didn't live his words, the Ravens would have long stopped listening.

More than most teams, the Baltimore players' faith is close to the surface, especially in the weeks since Lewis returned from a triceps injury at the start of the playoffs and declared he was playing the last games of his career. Throughout the Ravens' double overtime win over Denver he kept yelling "No weapon formed against you shall prosper!" Afterward, coach John Harbaugh spoke of a "spirituality" that was taking over the locker room. He said people are probably uncomfortable with him saying that. But it was an honest appraisal of where his team is. And a lot of the Ravens' emotions are driven by Lewis – no matter how perplexing that might be for people outside the team.

"To have such a big personality be so passionate about his faith it certainly helps us all bring it out," Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox said.

Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones says Lewis doesn't even swear at practice. And while plenty of Ravens do, his power is so extreme that many follow his lead. In fact his influence around teammates is so immense it's almost impossible to find a comparison in football. Rare is a defensive player also the leader of a locker room. The next closest thing might be Reggie White whose presence dominated the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Many around the Packers felt his impact was larger than even that of Brett Favre.

Brett Fuller, the pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Northern Virginia and the Redskins' team pastor, was a good friend of White, who died in 2004. He's the godfather to one of White's children. Though he doesn't know Lewis personally, he sees White's larger-than-life affirmations in the Ravens' star. He can see a team congealing around Lewis the way Green Bay did around White in the Super Bowl years of 1996 and 1997.

"Very few guys can say the team is my team and have it not affect the locker room," Fuller says.

The next week is going to say a lot about the final legacy of Ray Lewis. The man from the murder scene in 2000 has a chance to convert doubters with his words and actions in preparation of the Ravens' showdown against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. If the Ravens win and the players continue to talk about the inspiration he has been to them, opinions will have to change.

"There's no way we can escape our public reputation," Fuller says. "I can't fault people who listen to Ray's past and question his credibility. But I will say: 'Can't we get people to see the redemption?' No we aren't all perfect. At some point in life we are accused of something and everybody wants to write a new chapter."

And if Ray Lewis' newest chapter has truly been good, pulling together the Baltimore Ravens for this run to the Super Bowl, it might be worth wondering if maybe Lewis's complicated legacy isn't so complex after all.

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Better with age: Andre Johnson at 6th Pro Bowl

HONOLULU -- The first time Andre Johnson made the Pro Bowl, he was the only Texans player invited to play in the game. The second time, too.

Those were the 2004 and 2006 seasons, much leaner years for the franchise. This time around, at Johnson’s sixth Pro Bowl in 10 seasons, he’s one of nine Texans players on the AFC squad.

Johnson said Friday that he’s enjoying being in Hawaii with so many of his teammates. The relaxed smile on his face said that he’s clearly enjoying being at the Pro Bowl, period. It’s an experience that never gets old for the Texans’ all-time leading receiver.

“It’s always an honor,” Johnson said. “You get a chance to be around great players, the best of the best. It’s a lot of fun. You get a chance to pick their brains a little bit about football and get to learn a lot about those guys, the way they work and just being around them and their families and stuff like that. So it’s always a lot of fun to be over here.”

One of the players Johnson has spent a lot of time with this week is former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, his former teammate at the University of Miami. They watched Miami’s basketball team upset No. 1-ranked Duke together earlier in the week.

Johnson also has been hanging out a lot with Texans teammates like quarterback Matt Schaub, who marveled on Friday at Johnson’s 2012 season.

“Midway through, he really got hot, and he was just the Andre that we know,” Schaub said. “He was just playing at such a high level, making huge plays for us. It’s just special to see what he’s doing as he gets through his career.”

Johnson had the best season of his career this year at age 31, leading the AFC with a career-high 1,598 receiving yards. He did it in the face of nagging, rampant media speculation in the offseason about whether his age and injuries – he missed nine games with hamstring issues in 2011 – had taken a toll on his ability.

“You keep it in the back of your mind when people doubt you,” Johnson said. “I knew that I could still go out and put up big numbers and play well as a player. That’s why I’m here.”

Now that he’s here, Johnson is getting a chance to reflect on the Texans’ season. It ended in disappointment, but it also featured more victories than any season in franchise history.

“I think we took a step in the right direction as a football team,” Johnson said. “Things didn’t turn out the way we wanted ‘em to in the end, but I think we’re building a very solid foundation as an organization, as a team. Hopefully, we can just keep heading in the right direction.”

Added Johnson, addressing Texans fans: “Appreciate you guys’ support. Best fans in the NFL. Can’t wait ‘til next season.”

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Jimmy Graham had to turn down Pro Bowl after wrist surgery

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had surgery to repair his lingering wrist injury earlier this month, a league source confirmed. As a result, Graham had to turn down the opportunity to play in the Pro Bowl when starter Tony Gonzalez also pulled out of the game with an injury this week.

Graham was the first alternate for the NFC all-star squad. Instead, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph went to Hawaii in place of Gonzalez and Graham.

The exact nature of Graham's surgery is unknown. But he will likely have plenty of time to recover before summer camps and training camp. The Saints revealed late in the 2012 season that Graham had been fighting through the nagging injury for the entire season - though he never missed a game or practice because of the wrist injury.

Graham still had a productive season, with 85 catches for 982 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games played (he missed one game with an ankle injury).
However, he struggled with dropped passes throughout the year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Graham led the NFL in 2012 with 14 drops.

The wrist surgery, combined with the return of Saints coach Sean Payton, should help inspire a "bounce-back" season for Graham. And if 982 yards and nine touchdowns is a "down" year, then Graham and the Saints should be in awfully good shape. 

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VIDEO: Ed Reed's Future With Ravens

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'Two camps' on Ravens' Ray Lewis in Florida hometown

LAKELAND, Fla. – No street is named after Ray Lewis in his hometown.

City fathers have yet to erect a statue or post a plaque bearing the name of their local football hero, one of the NFL's most popular and decorated players. No "Welcome to the home of Ray Lewis'' sign can be found in a region dominated by citrus groves, cattle farming and phosphate mining.

But in Baltimore, there is Ray Lewis Way.

The Ravens middle linebacker is worshipped for his on-field exploits during 17 seasons and community activism in Charm City, which includes his Ray Lewis 52 Foundation to aid disadvantaged youth. In October, the Maryland chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame honored Lewis with the organization's "Outstanding American'' award for commendable deeds beyond the sport.

Back home in central Florida, and nationally, the view is more polarized. Perceived past slights, questions about Lewis' involvement in a double-homicide 13 years ago in Atlanta, and his fathering six children with four women, none of whom he married, seem to haunt Lewis.

Anna Burns Welker, wife of New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, dredged up Lewis' past with a Facebook rant last Sunday after the AFC title game, writing in part: "A true role model!" She apologized after a dust-up ensued.

But even in Lakeland, "You have two camps'' of thought, says Stephen Poole, who coached Lewis when he was a state champion prep wrestler.

"Some people love him to death – 'Ray's this and Ray's that.' Then there are others who do not like Ray. They feel he should be doing more for (his alma mater) Kathleen High and Lakeland. He has done well for himself but some are jealous,'' Poole told USA TODAY Sports.

Ernest Joe is a former head coach of the Kathleen High Red Devils football team. A large man with a friendly yet commanding presence, he is – like Lewis – a man of faith. The Baptist church deacon and Sunday school teacher shakes his head when he ponders one of Christianity's most important tenets in relation to a man he considers his son.

"I read something online with folks bringing up old stuff about Ray; it made me angry,'' Joe said. "We want people to forgive us, but we don't want to forgive anyone else.

"Ray has to rise above it. He's been movin' on. As far as I know, he's been leading a good life by not getting in trouble. People just can't hone in on the bad thing. What about the good things?''

On the field, no doubters remain. Lewis, 37, plans to play his final game Feb. 3 in New Orleans. The 13-time Pro Bowler will give his last inspirational pre-game speech to his Ravens as they meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Lakeland 'always home'
Lewis is the only current Raven with a championship ring after he was named Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001 in Tampa, 35 miles from where he was raised.

In the days leading up to that game, Lewis was asked about his hometown.

"He was being flip and said it was a one-light town,'' recalled Lakeland mayor Gow Fields. "Many people were offended ... One reason the community is as sensitive as it is, is that Polk County is looked down upon as being rural and poorly educated. People with that chip on their shoulder expected Ray to say something positive.''

Asked Thursday in Baltimore about how he is viewed in Lakeland, Lewis warmly said, "That's always home. That's where everything (is) that I'm connected to."
He was born in Bartow, about 12 miles from Lakeland, located between Tampa and Orlando along the I-4 corridor. A city of nearly 100,000, Lakeland also is known as the longtime spring training base for the Detroit Tigers and for 38 (named) lakes.

With an African-American population of about 20%, the city also has a history of racial divisiveness. At one time, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan had a Polk County address, which Fields paints as "part of the historical image of the community.''

During the Ravens' 34-7 wipeout of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Lewis was unstoppable. But afterward, he was not permitted to appear on camera to give the customary "I'm going to Disneyland!'' exclamation reserved for Super Bowl MVPs. His likeness did not grace the cover of a Wheaties box.
For many, Lewis had become a leper.

A year earlier, Lewis, then 26, and two friends were charged with murder in the deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21. In a plea-bargain agreement, Lewis pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for lying to police. He received a year's probation, and the NFL fined him $250,000.

Co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were acquitted. Lewis later reached financial settlements with parties related to the slain men.

Lewis had just completed his fourth NFL season in 2000. He led the league in tackles and was headed to his third consecutive Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Instead of a relaxing offseason, he found himself in a jail cell.

"He called me from Fulton County Jail,'' Joe recalled. "I said, 'Look, you gotta tell me ... tell me the truth.' He said, 'Coach, I had nothing to do with this. I was there but I didn't do what they say.'

"That was good enough. We prayed. But I wanted to see him; I wanted him to look me in the eyes and talk like a man. It was tough seeing him behind bars. ... Here's a kid you groomed. (At trial), it was like my own child going through that ordeal.''

Lewis has declined to comment on the Atlanta incident.

Friends see changed man
Today, family and friends back home say that "Baby Ray'' is a changed man, a better man.

Yet, redemption seems to have come slowly.

A lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lewis was not inducted into his high school's Hall of Fame until 2009, long after he starred for the Miami Hurricanes and Ravens. That night, an emotional Lewis asked the audience: "What will your legacy be when your eyes are closed?''

Lewis is "perceived a far different way here than in Baltimore,'' says Earl Brown, a college professor, life coach and pastor who has known Lewis since childhood. "He has his naysayers (here). But he hasn't forgotten his roots.''

Lewis' father, Elbert Jackson, abandoned the family when Lewis was 6. Lewis was born to a 16-year-old mother, Sunseria "Buffy'' Smith, and the family lived in the projects until she eventually moved to Tennessee with her other children. Lewis remained in Lakeland and was raised by his supportive maternal grandparents, Gil and Elease McKinney, a school teacher.

"I think he longed for his father,'' Joe says.

"At one time, I thought (Lewis) would settle down ... We've never had a conversation about it. But I know he provides for his children. If he didn't, I would be on him.”

In recent years, Lewis has formed a relationship with his dad, who also was a stellar athlete at Kathleen but later struggled with drug addiction. The father and son exchanged a warm embrace in Lewis' final Ravens home game during the player's end-zone celebration with family. Lewis has said he wants to spend more time with his children, including watch Ray Lewis III play for the Hurricanes.

When he was young, Lewis received encouragement from mentors and positive role models, including his coaches and people such as Clinton Wright.

Kathleen's principal made sure that Lewis was admitted into college after he struggled to post acceptable standardized test scores.

"Ray is standing on the shoulders of a lot of people,'' said Deborah Wright, who tutored Lewis at the behest of her late husband. "We're still behind him today. He is not only a wealth (of good) in our community, he is a prime example of that old African tale that it takes an entire (village) to raise a child.''

"The only reason I'm here now is because of my hometown . . . because of the way we are,'' Lewis said Thursday. "We're way more country than you would think, and we have a certain love and togetherness there.''

At Kathleen, Lewis played linebacker and running back. He wrestled as a 189-pounder, but Poole said "he wasn't that strong – really.''

Poole recalled Lewis as an upbeat young man who proudly wore his ROTC uniform, a "good kid who never got written up.''

Poole mentioned the film Remember the Titans and said, "Ray was like one of those kids: 'We've got work to do!' Always laughing and smiling, always positive. I always was a Ray Lewis fan ... even in the dark days.''

Coach Joe said Lewis "had to learn the hard way'' from a deadly lesson that nearly cost him everything.

"In the community where I grew up, old folks had a saying: 'If you hang around dogs, you're going to pick up fleas,'" said Joe, now a senior director for the county school district. "He was just like any other young person – everybody's their friend (and) it's OK to have a posse. He hadn't learned (about life).''
In recent years, Lewis' frosty relationship with his hometown has displayed signs of thawing.

In 2011, during the same week he opened his foundation's Lakeland office, Lewis spoke at the city's CommUnity Celebration. Last spring, the foundation hosted Ray's Spring Fest, a fundraiser that included youth fitness clinics and a celebrity bowling tournament.

"Even though some folks still have some confusion over the (legal) challenges he had, the bottom line is this: Ray Lewis is a tough guy who has shown a compassionate heart for his community,'' said city Commissioner R. Howard Wiggs.

Mayor Fields told USA TODAY Sports, "I think today there are a lot of people who believe that Ray is, spiritually and emotionally, in a different place then when that (Atlanta) incident occurred.''

Joe accepts that people are entitled to their opinions. But when he thinks of Ray Anthony Lewis, he recalls an "extraordinary kid'' who always overcame adversity.

"Just like he fires up the Ravens now, he was the same way then,'' he said. "There were times I had to slow him down. He was like a magnet; kids just got excited about him. (After his triceps injury this season), he texted me, 'No weapon formed against me is gonna prosper.' He took it as a (challenge). I knew he would come back with a vengeance. He is a natural.''

The retired coach looked up and smiled.

"Like God blew a little extra talent on him,'' he said.

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Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome offers Ed Reed a job -- as coach

Coach Ed Reed?

It's a possibility, maybe even next season with the Baltimore Ravens if the safety is open to the invitation extended by general manager Ozzie Newsome on Friday.

Newsome revealed that Reed, who turns 35 in September, wants to be a coach one day, and that day might be coming sooner than later, considering how Reed's body has broken down the past two seasons with a nagging hip injury last season and a painful shoulder labrum problem during this season.

Reed was insistent Thursday in saying he intends to play next year and that Super Bowl XLVII -- 30 miles from his hometown of St. Rose, La. -- won't be his last ride.

Reed's view could change, however, depending on the outcome of the game against the San Francisco 49ers and the fact that Reed's contract is expiring. The Ravens will have to decide whether they want Reed back at his age and advanced salary.

There may be other teams interested, especially considering Reed's former Ravens defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano, is head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Pagano recruited Reed at the University of Miami.

No matter what, Reed will likely have plenty of options.

"Ed wants to be a coach, so he sees this as an opportunity to start his coaching career by helping those young players come along,'' Newsome said. "The thing about Ed is, he doesn't just talk about it. He goes out and works the way you have to work to get it done.''

Does Reed have an open invitation to coach with the Ravens?

"That'll be up to Ed Reed,'' Newsome said. "That will be something that (Ravens owner) Steve (Bisciotti) and I can talk about. But Ed still has a lot of football left to play. So we'll cross that hurdle. If Ed decides he wants to do that, I think we can find a way.''

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Inside tale of Ray Lewis' parking-lot brawl homicide case

When Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis takes the field at next Sunday’s Super Bowl — his last game ever — much will be made of his storied career. Lewis, now 37, had his breakout season four years after being drafted by the Ravens in 1996: Leading tackler in the NFL, he led the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV and was named the game’s MVP.

Just one year before, Lewis had been arrested and tried in connection with a double homicide in Atlanta. It’s perhaps the most dramatic bookend that a professional athlete — a legend, at that — could have to his career: His first Super Bowl, played in the shadow of two slayings, made Ray Lewis a superstar. He now leaves his second Super Bowl an iconic all-American hero, beloved by small children and major corporations alike.

As much as the NFL loves a redemption narrative, the story of Ray Lewis is one that you probably won’t be hearing anything about next Sunday night. Lewis himself has made it clear that he will never address it again: “Really,” he told a reporter this month. “Really. Why would I talk about that?”

On the evening of Jan. 30, 2000, Ray Lewis was looking to party. He had flown to Atlanta to watch Super Bowl XXXIV and booked himself into the luxury Georgian hotel. He’d also brought along his personal driver, Duane Fassett, to chauffeur a stretch Lincoln Navigator: 37 feet long, 14 seats, $3,000 a day.

On this night, Lewis turned himself out: white-and-black suit, full-length black mink coat and what would later be described as “enough rock to break the bank.” A few nights earlier, he had met a gorgeous woman named Jessica Robertson at a party thrown by Magic Johnson, and it was she — not Lewis’ pregnant fiancée — who was his date for the evening.

What Lewis and his crew were doing before they arrived at around 1 a.m. at the Cobalt Club, in Atlanta’s party-centric Buckhead district, remains unclear. The Cobalt had a blue neon glow and a V.V.I.P room. Baseball star David Justice had been there earlier, as had Tony Gonzalez, then of the Kansas City Chiefs, but Lewis held court on the first floor, near the door, so everyone would notice.

With him were Joseph Sweeting, a strip-club promoter who’d been friends with Lewis since college, and Reginald Oakley, who’d recently worked his way into Lewis’ circle through friends of friends. They were getting to know each other better, though; the day before, the three men had gone shopping at a Sports Authority store, where Sweeting and Oakley bought folding knives.

“Smooth” was how Lewis would later describe his mood at Cobalt; he’d had four Rémy Martin cognacs while luxuriating in the attention of half-dressed women and an ever-expanding entourage. He was 24 years old and had a four-year contract worth $26 million. He had just dropped more than $100,000 shopping, and the necklace he was wearing — a gold door-stopper studded with diamonds — was one of his recent acquisitions.

At around 3:30 in the morning, Lewis and his crew of about 10 headed outside, where Oakley began to get aggressive with two other clubgoers — themselves part of a group of about 10. Oakley kept at it and got whacked on the side of the head with a champagne bottle. Then, Lewis would later testify, “all hell broke loose at that point. Everybody was throwing fists. Everybody was punching.”

Everyone, that is, except Ray Lewis, who testified that while all this was going on, he calmly rested against his limo, watching as his friend Sweeting was dragged and assaulted by two huge men.

“I don’t fight,” Lewis testified. “Period.”

Lewis wasn’t so calm, though, when two young men collapsed in the street, covered in blood. Lewis yelled at Robertson and his crew to get in the limo, and they scrambled and sped away as guns were fired at their tires. Minutes later, when the car came to a stop in a parking lot, Lewis took control of the situation.

“Everybody just shut the f--k up!” he yelled. “This ain’t going to come back on nobody but me.”

Meanwhile, those two young men lay dying in street: Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21. Both had records — Lollar for possession of marijuana, while Baker was wanted for violating probation on gun possession — and had recently moved to Atlanta from Akron, Ohio. Baker wanted to be an artist; Lollar, whose fiancée was pregnant, was a barber.

“These guys were slaughtered,” said Cindy Lollar-Owens, Richard’s aunt. “Like someone was getting a kick out of it.”

Lollar suffered five stab wounds: two to the heart, one to the chest and two to the abdomen. Baker, too, was stabbed directly in the heart and in the liver. Both died before they made it to the hospital. Baker’s face was beaten so badly that, he had a closed casket at his wake. Both men were buried in Akron, 24 miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

After racing from the scene, Lewis’ limo didn’t return to his hotel, the Georgian, but instead to the Holiday Inn Express where Sweeting was staying. Lewis then took a cab back to the Georgian.

It didn’t take long for police to find the limo, shot through with bullet holes, blood in the interior. It sat just a mile from the crime scene, and when cops walked into the lobby, they found Lewis’ driver, Fassett, trembling and chain-smoking.

Fassett told the police he’d seen Sweeting, Oakley and Lewis all fighting and provided details that only an eyewitness could know. He said he’d heard Oakley boast, “I stabbed mine,” and Sweeting reply, “I stabbed mine, too.” When police got to Lewis’ room, they found blood there, too — but not Lewis, who had fled to his fiancée’s family home.

When cops arrived to question Lewis, he was, they felt, not helpful. It took less than a day to obtain an arrest warrant, and when police came to take Lewis in, he cried.

He cried some more in jail.

“I wept,” Lewis wrote on ESPNmag.com that December. “I wept when my 5-year-old son asked me why Daddy was always on TV wearing chains. I wept myself to sleep some nights on that nasty bed in that nasty cell.” It took 15 days for his lawyer to get him out.

Sweeting and Oakley were advised to turn themselves in, which they did.

While Ravens owner Art Modell called around for defense attorneys, cops were learning more about Lewis’ activities that night.

For example, his cellphone was unusually active right after Baker and Lollar were killed. Several eyewitnesses saw people exiting that limo with a laundry bag, which they threw in a Dumpster. Cops would never find the clothes Lewis wore that night, not even the mink. Nor would they find the photo taken of Lewis’ entourage that night, which Robertson had already burned.

A few hours after the murders, at about 6 a.m., Lewis had called Robertson and asked her to go to the Georgian and pack up everything he’d left behind. A jailhouse informant, meanwhile, told cops that Lewis was using one of his sisters to relay messages to Sweeting, telling him not to worry, that Lewis would never betray him.

Lewis himself felt he had little to worry about. The Ravens were standing firmly behind him. Lewis’ own private investigators beat the cops to just about every witness in the limo; they all got lawyers. His driver, Fassett, became increasingly unsure of what went down that night.

The trial began on May 15, 2000, and quickly fell apart. The state’s star witness, Fassett, recanted much of what he had told police. He swore he’d never seen Lewis strike anyone.

By the trial’s second week, Lewis wasn’t even attempting to appear respectful. He sat at the defense table and scrawled his autograph over and over. Finally, on June 4, Lewis’ attorney and the prosecution cut a deal. Lewis would testify against Sweeting and Oakley in exchange for one year’s probation on obstruction of justice. Lewis testified he saw Oakley fighting in the melee and that Sweeting had told Lewis he’d been punching with the same hand that cupped a knife.

Here, too, the prosecution miscalculated. On June 13, 2000, the jury acquitted both men on charges of murder and assault. They spent just five hours deliberating.

Ray Lewis’ career never took a hit, even as he spent years alternately playing victim — “Jesus Christ couldn’t please everybody . . . that’s my attitude” — and remaining defiant. “The real truth is, this was never about those two kids that were dead in the street,” he said in 2001. “It’s about Ray Lewis. Don’t be mad at me because I was on center stage.”

The victims’ families saw it differently, bringing civil suits against Lewis. He settled them out of court, with confidentiality agreements attached to both.

“The family didn’t get no money,” Priscilla Lollar, Richard’s mother, told The Post. Priscilla says Richard’s fiancée, who gave birth to his daughter one month after the slayings, received $4 million from Lewis — far more than the $1 million estimated. Lollar didn’t have the energy to fight herself; she was too grief-stricken, she says, to even attend his funeral.

“I didn’t even acknowledge my son was gone until last year,” she says. “I was numb.”

As far as Lewis is concerned, she believes he bears guilt for what happened that night but that “the answer to why — you’ll never get that. Because nothing is going to stop his career.”

She’s right.

Lewis will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in five years and is considered a lock. It’s widely rumored that ESPN wants to hire him as a color commentator, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said he wants to hire Lewis as a special adviser, citing him as a “tremendous voice of reason.”

And all these years later, Ray Lewis holds no regrets about what happened that night in Atlanta. “If I had to go through all of that over again . . . I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said recently. “Couldn’t. The end result is who I am now.”

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James Jones and Pat Riley at Battioke 2013 sing Cee Lo's Forget You

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VIDEO: 2013 Key West: Zach Railey Interview

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Jemile Weeks to battle Sizemore for second base job

The Athletics' second base job "will be an open competition" between Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore.

Weeks dealt with health issues and struggled with effectiveness in 2012, but he'll enter spring training as the slight favorite for a starting role. After missing all of last season due to injury, Sizemore is also a candidate for playing time at third base with Josh Donaldson, and could be a potential fantasy sleeper if he can find his way into an everyday job.

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Ryan Braun Favors Wauwatosa Artist's Work for Malibu Home

A Wauwatosa artist whose work has been gaining attention for a couple of years now has one really big-league admirer – Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun.

Last year, Braun bought four large-format paintings from Anderson to decorate his California home.

On Saturday, he and girlfriend Larisa Fraser stopped in at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee to pay a visit to his favorite painter as she worked with artist in residence Timothy Westbrook in the hotel's art studio.

Braun and Fraser even cast their votes for Anderson to be the next full-time artist in residence at the Pfister.

Anderson's bold style of abstract painting features riots of color on large canvases. She also paints at the Plaid Tuba art studio in Milwaukee's Third Ward.

Anderson said her introduction to Braun, and his to her, began when she was contacted by the interior design firm decorating Braun's original restaurant downtown. They wanted her to curate displays of original artwork for the restaurant, which she did for a year.

When the restaurant changed management and theme, Anderson said, the new managers discontinued the rotating art gallery concept. But in the meantime, Braun had taken notice.

"I met Ryan through that," Anderson said, "and then his manager contacted me said he wanted to arrange a private showing."
Paintings 'pop' in Malibu sunlight

Braun, after signing an eight-year contract extension with the Brewers, bought an oceanfront house in Malibu, Calif., and had been looking for the right artist to set the tone in his new home.

"He said that the California sun is pretty intense, especially coming right off the ocean," Anderson said. "He told me my large, bright, colorful paintings really pop on the wall."

On Saturday, Anderson said, both Braun and Fraser again complimented her on how good her work looks in the home – "which thrilled me," she said.

Anderson is a longtime Wauwatosa resident and former business owner. She opened and ran the Underwood Gallery at 1430 Underwood Ave. for 10 years, selling jewelry, ceramics and fine art pieces from artists near and far and painting at home as a hobby.

Only a few years ago, Anderson decided to take the plunge and make painting her focus. She sold Underwood Gallery and began exhibiting her own work.

It didn't take long, obviously, for her to make her mark. Her paintings soon were selling for thousands of dollars.

Becoming artist to one of baseball's biggest and most charismatic stars will likely elevate Anderson's reputation even more.

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proCanes Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso remember coach Fraser

MIAMI -- The passing of Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Earl Weaver saddened baseball fans across the world last week.

In Miami, baseball fans also mourned the death of legendary University of Miami head coach Ron Fraser. The "Wizard of College Baseball" passed away last Sunday at the age of 79 due to complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Fraser, who won two national championships at Miami, revolutionized college baseball and had a huge impact on the lives of young men growing up in Miami who dreamed of one day becoming Hurricanes.

"I have pictures of myself at Ron Fraser Baseball Camp on the old turf field," said Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay. "That's really where I started to fall in love with UM. Ever since then, I always wore my UM cap everywhere I went."

Jay is one of several Miami natives in the big leagues who grew up watching Fraser's Canes dominate college baseball. The 27-year-old remembers meeting Fraser as a child and spending time with him in his three years playing at Miami.

"Ron Fraser reinvented the college game," Jay said. "He's somebody that really made his mark and changed college baseball forever. It's a big loss."

Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso, who was a teammate with Jay at Miami, remembers the moments he spent with Fraser fondly.

"I got to hear a lot of stories," Alonso said. "He would come around and talk to us. Obviously, it's a sad moment for us as Hurricanes and for baseball in general. He was a great coach, one of the greatest ever in the NCAA. As a player and a fan, you feel very sorry for his passing. He was such a great inspiration for the Hurricanes, and he's in a better place now."

Alonso was one of several big leaguers who attended the second annual Jon Jay Celebrity Bowling Challenge at Lucky Strike Lanes in Miami Beach on Saturday. Cardinals infielders David Freese and Daniel Descalso, Astros infielder Tyler Greene, Phillies outfielder John Mayberry, White Sox outfielder Blake Tekotte, Orioles catcher Luis Exposito and Nationals first baseman Chris Marrero were just some of the nearly 30 baseball players who came out to support Jay as he raised more than $30,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Miami-Dade.

"All those people are good people," Jay said. "I try to surround myself with good people. I can't thank them enough because without them, this event wouldn't be possible."

Jay often takes the opportunity to give back in his hometown. Last year, Jay's Bowling Challenge raised more than $25,000 for Chapman Partnership, a local group that helps Miami's homeless. This year, Jay decided to give back to a place that is very special to him.

"The Boys' Club is really where I grew up," Jay said. "It's where I played ball and went after school. That's a place that had a big impact on me, and I just want to provide the same opportunity for other kids."

Jay, who hit .305 and played stellar defense for the Cardinals last season, is pleased with how the Celebrity Bowling Challenge has grown and hopes to continue his charitable efforts for years to come.

"We're excited about it," Jay said. "Last year, it was kind of put together quickly, but this year, we were able to plan it with a little more time and it's been successful. I'm so happy for the support the community has given me. This is where I was born and raised. I wouldn't be where I am without a lot of people that are here today. It's nice to get everyone together and have a good time for a good cause."

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Ryan Braun makes his return to Brewers On Deck

A year ago at this time, Ryan Braun was in limbo.

In the midst of appealing his 50-game suspension for a drug suspension, the Milwaukee Brewers' leftfielder basically dropped out of sight until the open of spring training.

That meant no media junkets in the weeks and months following his 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award, and no appearance at the Brewers On Deck event in downtown Milwaukee.

But with all that behind him, and an even better 2012 season under his belt, Braun made his return to the team's annual event on Sunday at the Delta Center.
Relaxed and all smiles, Braun not surprisingly said he's been enjoying this off-season much more than his last.

"This is nice," he said during a break. "It’s definitely a lot different for me. It’s just nice to be able to relax, to have a regular schedule, a regular routine, know exactly what I’m getting myself into. More than anything else, it’s far more relaxing."

Basically the entire Brewers' 25-man roster (save for a few exceptions) is on hand to meet fans, sign autographs and take part in team-sanctioned events.

In the few moments the players actually have downtime at these things, they use them to reconnect with teammates they haven't seen since the end of last season and meet players who have since joined the Brewers.

"That’s one of the most enjoyable parts of this experience for us, is just getting to see each other again, meeting some of the new guys," said Braun. "I think you start to build that camaraderie, start to make fun of each other again and it starts to feel like spring training is right around the corner – which it is.

"So it’s fun."

Braun wi'll head into spring training a little bit ahead of the curve this year having begun long-tossing in November and hitting in earnest in December. In the past, Braun typically wouldn't start hitting until sometime in January.

Much of this advance prep work is to help him get prepared for the World Baseball Classic. Braun, along with Jonathan Lucroy, is a member of Team USA, which will begin training in Phoenix on March 1. Team USA's first game is March 8 at Chase Field against Mexico (which will have a pair of Brewers starters in Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada).

Unlike some of the other big American stars who passed on the opportunity to play for Team USA, Braun said he relished the opportunity.

"First and foremost, it’s an honor," he said. "It’s a tremendous honor to represent your country. You don’t know how many opportunities you’ll get to do that – this tournament only happens once every four years, and four years from now who knows – for all of us – what our health situation will be, where we’ll be in the game, whether we’ll even get an opportunity to be invited.

"For me, I think it was a no-brainer. As long as I was healthy, it was something I was definitely going to do."

Braun was then asked about playing alongside Lucroy for Team USA, and got in the zinger of the day.

"It’s amazing – I didn’t even know Team USA had a bullpen catcher," he said with a grin. "It’s really cool to have a teammate. It’s going to be really fun for both of us. We’ve talked about it and we’re pretty excited. It’s definitely a cool opportunity, and we’ll get a chance to play against some of our teammates, too."

As far as the Brewers' chances this year, Braun, like everyone else, is interested in seeing how the team's rotation shakes out. Aside from Gallardo and Estrada, Chris Narveson is attempting to return from rotator-cuff surgery, and youngsters Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta will also be trying to win spots.

"I think the talent is there; it’s about going out there and doing it over the course of the season," he said. "We have some guys that are relatively inexperienced (in the rotation) – we don’t know exactly what they’re going to be able to do. But aside from that, I think we’re certainly going to be competitive again.

"And as long as you’re competitive, that’s all you can ask for."

As far as individual goals for the upcoming season, Braun said he's looking for continued improvement. Of course, bettering his 2012 season in which he hit .319 with a career-high 41 home runs, 112 runs batted in, 30 stolen bases and a .987 OPS, isn't going to be easy.

"I think the challenge is just always longevity and consistency, so hopefully I continue to have success," he said. "There’s always room for improvement. I think defense is something I’ve always prioritized and tried to get better at. I think I’m headed in the right direction. Hopefully continue to get better defensively.

"It’d be really cool if I could walk more than I strike out. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but if I could do that, it’d be really cool."

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