It's debatable whether there would be a street named after him around Lambeau Field, or perhaps a huge statue of his likeness erected there instead, but Ray Lewis came literally a few moments away from being a Green Bay Packer, and, we can only imagine, therefore a Packer legend.
Lewis was on the phone with the Packers' front office at the time the Baltimore Ravens were selecting in 1996, one spot ahead of Green Bay. It was about to be the moment the Packers thought would be the culmination of months spent working on the undersized linebacker out of the University of Miami, a charge led in the field by scout John Dorsey. They were fairly certain they had him, and then in a moment, a novice -- and soon to be legendary -- general manager swooped in and made the pick with the Ravens deep into their allotted time, at selection No. 26 of the 1996 draft.
Ozzie Newsome nabbed Lewis, who would become the singular face and identity of the Ravens franchise, leading it to two Super Bowls, including an improbable charge to a Lombardi Trophy in 2012 after returning from a near season-ending injury and announcing his retirement.
We can only wonder how different the AFC and NFC might have been had Ron Wolf gone ahead and traded up a few spots to make sure he got his man. Ray Lewis: Green Bay Packer. Sounds strange to hear, yet how fitting might it have been. As much as he personifies the Ravens -- a franchise trying to emerge from its move to Baltimore from Cleveland at the time -- how great a fit would he have been with one of the league's iconic franchises, roaming sideline to sideline where the likes of Ray Nitschke once did. It was closer to happening than almost anyone would think.
'Not my finest moment'
"We had his agent on the phone as I recall it, and we had Ray Lewis on the phone," Wolf said, still unable to recount the situation all these years later without stopping several times to verbally rebuke himself. "I think there was less than a minute to go. We already had his name in; our guy standing there at the [draft table in New York] was on the phone with his name in.
"And then of course we heard that Baltimore selects Ray Lewis, linebacker from the University of Miami. And that was not my finest moment. There is a period when you're going through the draft process and you're in that draft mode so to speak. There is a real tension there. There's a tightness there. It's all the things that make it so exciting. And you have to keep above board at all times, and kind of like the saying goes, 'You've got to keep your game face on.' "
There is a certain agony in Wolf's voice as he reaches back to the 1996 draft. Missing out on Lewis sent him into a brief spiral. "The air went out of the room," is how Dorsey, now the Chiefs general manager, recalls the aftermath in the Green Bay war room. Wolf is still not at peace with letting Lewis slip away, and at this point, long retired and revered as one of the best evaluators of his time, I guess he never will be.
"With about a minute to go [with the Ravens on the clock], I kind of breathed a sigh of relief," Wolf said, as the Packers war room started to build with excitement that Lewis was going to fall right to them. "It was not my finest hour after that. There were so many things I could have done differently. I've played it back and forth in my mind so many times, what I should have done and didn't do.
"The end result is we win the Super Bowl that year, but it was not my finest time with the Packers. As one gets older you have a chance to review the things you did over the course of your career that were idiotic and stupid, and this is one of those things."
'Ozzie is Ozzie'
You almost feel bad each time a follow-up question arises on the topic, like you are making someone pick at an old wound that won't heal, but the magnitude of what Wolf was so close to achieving -- and what it might have meant to the resurgent Packers franchise (Ray Lewis playing with Reggie White and Brett Favre, for example) -- is impossible to ignore. The Packers, given their unique ownership structure in Green Bay, by design had a large war-room contingent. There were executive committee members assembled, board members, and a large cast of scouts and coaches as well. It was no secret they were locked in on Lewis at this point. Wolf was by no means the only distraught party when Newsome made his prescient selection.
As Wolf and Dorsey recall it, director of pro personnel Ted Thompson -- now the Packers' longtime GM who has won a Super Bowl of his own in that position -- was instructed to get Lewis on the phone early. "At that time the clock is counting down and you say, 'Let's just get him on the phone,'" Dorsey said. "It looks like by all indications he's going be it. And Ron asked Ted to go get Ray Lewis on the phone so we got him on the phone and the room is getting all excited. We're going to get Ray Lewis ..."
This is where, of course, there are regrets all around. This is where so many men wish time could stop for an instant. Wolf, Dorsey, Thompson, another young Packers personnel assistant at the time named John Schneider, who would go on to build Seattle into a Super Bowl-winner, and pro personnel assistant Reggie McKenzie (now Oakland's GM) all were in Green Bay's personnel department at the time. "Reggie and I were on the pro side," Schneider said. "So we weren't really involved at the time. But we were in the room. It's funny, you would hear so many people say, 'He's too small.' But man, what a player."
From time to time, some of them wonder if maybe they could have done something a little different in that room, pushed harder and sooner for Wolf to trade up. Anything.
"I was probably a little bit young to the system, and how to work the system, and how to help orchestrate a trade," Dorsey said. "My job at the time was trying to present the facts of the player to the general manager and do my best to convince him this guy was a pretty good player … And, my God, we had him on the phone and we're all thinking we've got him. No one expected Ozzie to pull the trigger and when you did your research, he wasn't going to take a linebacker. But Ozzie is Ozzie and he's going to pick a good player, and Ozzie saw Ray Lewis."
In the meantime, Newsome, about to orchestrate one of the signature drafts in modern NFL history, was merely taking his time. Lewis was the pick, but patience was the rule.
"I don't recall getting any calls that made us seriously consider trading the pick," Newsome said. "I think we used a lot of the clock because that's just what we did back then -- just waiting to see if something happens. I think Ron and I talked about it years later, but I wasn't aware of how much the Packers loved Ray at the time."
'I should have traded up'
What Newsome was focused on was filling out a depleted roster and trying to reinvent the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore. Truth be told, he had his eye on another inside linebacker the Ravens had rated higher than Lewis -- Reggie Brown from Texas A&M. But he went off the board at pick No. 17 to the Detroit Lions. Even back then, Newsome adopted his now tried-and-true edict of taking the best player regardless of position, unless there was a tie of sorts in the grade, so as pick No. 26 approached and Lewis lingered, the decision was coming into focus.
"Ray was the next-highest graded player on our board," Newsome said, "and it was a position of need for us. We needed young inside linebackers who could play now. We were in salary-cap hell, and we were going to have to depend on young players."
Wolf is still angry for not moving up a few spots, for not assuming Newsome would see all of the same traits in Lewis -- athleticism, superb football intellect, innate playmaking ability, the willingness to play much bigger and stronger than his frame would dictate -- that the Packers fell in love with. "I should've traded up," Wolf said. He wasn't one to go crazy with mock drafts, and didn't recall having a particular sense on what the Ravens might do one pick before him. "I was not a guy who spent a lot of time on the phone wondering what everybody else was doing," Wolf said. "I had enough problems figuring out what I was going to do."
Once Baltimore snatched up Lewis, Wolf concedes, he was reeling. Even if only for a spell, he was off his game. He had an opportunity to trade out of the first round entirely, as well, and wishes he had. Instead Green Bay selected the only other player left that they had graded as a first-rounder, offensive lineman John Michels from USC. Michels was out of the NFL by 1999 after a series of knee issues.
"I had a chance to trade that pick, and I should have done that," Wolf said, bubbling up into another self-inflicted verbal flogging. "It was not my finest hour. I kind of fell apart, because that edge that you have, in that particular moment, I let it get away, because I thought we had Ray Lewis, and I ended up not having Ray Lewis." Maybe it wouldn't sting quite as much had he dealt out of the round -- the Redskins had an intriguing package on the table. "I should have just traded out entirely," Wolf said.
There was a real sting for Dorsey as well, who had spent more time with Lewis than probably anyone else in the Packers organization. Lewis became a prized assignment for him, and while some in the scouting community thought Lewis might amount to more bluster than greatness at the next level, and were blinded by what their stopwatches showed them (Lewis was hardly a blazer), and what the scale presented (he was undersized for sure), Dorsey was convinced he would be an impact player in the NFL.
Serendipity turns sour
As Green Bay became increasingly smitten with Lewis, Wolf dispatched Dorsey to head down to the University of Miami to work Lewis out, and try to gather as much as he could about what made the young man tick, how driven he was, any intangible information he could cull to supplement the numbers and measurements.
"I went down to work him out, and he's like 238 pounds and he runs like a 4.71 [40-yard dash]," Dorsey said, telling the story only a few hours after his mentor, Wolf, had left his two-day visit to Chiefs camp to catch up with his old pupil. "But it was the way he carried himself. He walked on the field and you see this statuesque guy and he had a very good workout. My god, a wonderful workout, and then we sat and talked for a half hour and he tells me a little about his family, his upbringing and why he came to Miami, and I walked away impressed like, 'My God, this guy could be a really good pick.'"
What transpired next, in hindsight, looks like a thunderbolt from the football gods that went unheeded. It still seemed like a sign from above that Dorsey needed to land Ray Lewis if at all possible.
Dorsey headed to the Florida Turnpike after his visit with Lewis and stopped at a roadside area to eat. As he walked through the doors, he saw three young men walk in. Guess who? "I'm going like, 'Hey, Ray, how are you doin'?'" Dorsey said. " 'What a small world meeting you here.'" So they spent another 25 minutes or so together, eating lunch, chatting, and Dorsey is thinking, "I mean, this is divine intervention, baby, striking right down here."
After Lewis left, Dorsey ran to the nearest pay phone (again, this was 1996) to give Wolf an update and share his impromptu, serendipitous lunch date. He was fully on board the Lewis bandwagon by this point, but alas, it wasn't to be. "I'm like, this is awesome, this possibly could happen," Dorsey said, "and then all of a sudden on draft day you watch it unfold and it's, 'My God, this is going to happen,' and then all of a sudden the Wizard of Oz strikes and takes him from us."
Lewis was the second first-ballot Hall of Famer Newsome grabbed in that first round of his first draft in charge of the Ravens, taking hulking left tackle Jonathan Ogden fourth overall, in what will always figure to be the most influential round in that franchise's history. It may never be topped. But had Wolf followed his instinct more closely and been a bit more decisive, it may never have been. That summer, when the Ravens hosted Green Bay for a preseason game at old Memorial Stadium, watching Lewis closely from the pressbox, Dorsey truly knew greatness had slipped away. "You could see as a rookie how those guys already gravitated to him," he said.
Wolf may never allow himself to fully live it down, and Dorsey knows it still pains the mastermind, no matter how many excellent rosters he built. Newsome -- now the dean of NFL general managers -- has been on all sides of it, recalling in 2007 how the Ravens thought they had future All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley all lined up as their pick, only to have the 49ers move up with the Patriots to grab him. It happens. It's part of the business. But some near-misses sting more than others. Some, you never forget.
"You look back at the magnitude of that player," Dorsey said. "I'm sure it still leaves a pit in his stomach."