How Ray Lewis takes the pep talk to new levels

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- His teammates will tell you that Ray Lewis is the greatest living practitioner of that rip-roaring piece of performance art known as the locker room pep talk. But don't take their word for it. Find him on YouTube and see for yourself.

Here is the Baltimore Ravens linebacker appealing to the pride of University of Miami football players: Know what you carry, when you carry that 'U' on your chest.

Here he is riffing on the essence of team with Loyola of Maryland men's lacrosse players: Nothing else matters but the man that's beside me.

And here he is channeling anger with Stanford's men's basketball players: If you ain't pissed off for greatness, you're OK with mediocrity.

Lewis played at Miami. He didn't play for Loyola or Stanford. But he'll talk to most anyone who asks, and even some who don't, such as football players at Elon, where he once showed up unannounced just because he happened to be in the neighborhood.

"Ray is the best motivational speaker anywhere," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo says. "It's not just what he says, but how he says it. He gets inside your soul."

Aristotle called the sort of speech that summons our emotions epideictic. We know the locker room version of the genre better as Win One for the Gipper, a rallying cry that echoes across generations.

The rousing pregame speech is a staple of Americana — and of American cinema. If the climax of most sports movies is the slow-motion moment of triumph, it is typically preceded by a rhetorical call to arms from a gravel-voiced coach offering fire-and-brimstone wisdom to his room full of doe-eyed underdogs.

Some of these great movie moments are made up, such as the speech given by fictional Miami Sharks coach Tony D'Amato in the 1999 film Any Given Sunday. Al Pacino repeats the word inch a dozen times in his stem-winder.

We're in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here, get the (blank) kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell, one inch at a time.

Some of these great movie moments are taken from real life, such as the speech by U.S. men's Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, in the 2004 film Miracle. This one is based on what Brooks told his young Americans the night they upset the mighty Soviet juggernaut in 1980.

If we played them 10 times, they might win nine, but not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.

It's no secret that a pep talk delivered with passion and cadence works theatrically and thematically. Shakespeare had that figured out long ago. Witness King Henry's bravura elocution before the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

Ray Lewis couldn't have said it better himself.

Pep talks overrated
Here's the advice of one coach enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Forget everything you know of pregame speeches from the movies.

"Pep talks are the most overrated item you can think of," Marv Levy says. "There are far, far fewer of them than the public perceives."

When Levy coached the Buffalo Bills from 1986-97, he often salted his oratory with Churchillian exhortations about finest hours and never giving up. But he typically delivered those talks the night before games, not in the locker room.

Levy says he preferred offering perspective to raising adrenaline, which risks revving motors so high that players go out and make mistakes. "I wanted to spur them to thoughtful action," Levy says, "not stupid, over-the-cliff emotion."

Levy, 87, who holds a masters degree in English History from Harvard, was rarely at a loss for words. Some coaches are.

Mike Sellers is an assistant football coach at Huntingdon (Pa.) Area High School. He remembers a night in 2007, before he was an assistant, when he was in the pregame locker room as the Bearcats' webmaster. The coach had nothing to say so he asked his assistants if maybe they did. They didn't. So the coach threw it to Sellers.

"I had nothing," Sellers says. Then a light bulb went off — and now he is proprietor of, which bundles prefab pep talks for coaches in need.

The site gets 800 to 1,000 hits a day but sells only 20 to 45 packages a year, $14.99 for bundles of eight generic speeches. Here's a taste:

The time is now. This is the day. This is the hour. It has been set aside, marked and reserved for you. This is your time to succeed. Your destiny awaits you.
Win one for the Gipper

George Gipp, Notre Dame's first All-America football player, died of pneumonia in 1920. Eight years later, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne delivered a halftime speech that propelled the Fighting Irish to a 12-6 upset of Army. Or so the legend goes.

Murray Sperber, author of Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, believes that Rockne made up the deathbed scene in which Gipp asks Rockne to tell the team some day — "when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys" — to win just one for, well, him.

Two years after that Army game, a Collier's story ghostwritten for Rockne tells the tale pretty much as Hollywood would render it in the 1940 film Knute Rockne All American. Pat O'Brien, playing Rockne, gets a faraway, misty-eyed look, his voice wavering slightly as he gives the locker room speech against which all others are weighed.

"I knew a guy who played for Rockne, that's how old I am," Levy says, "and he told me that wasn't really Rockne talking" — that was Hollywood.

Still, the real-life Rockne could clearly punch-up a speech. Find him on YouTube wearing a jaunty fedora, hands tucked casually in suit coat pockets, except when punctuating a point with his fists .

And don't forget, men: Today is the day we're going to win. They can't lick us. … The first platoon men — go in there and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight! What do you say, men?

Robert N. Sayler, co-author of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion, says coaches must "build up a reservoir of credibility" with their players to make such appeals work.

"The gripping speech that has the feeling of let's go win one for the Gipper will have a memorable theme and great phrasing, sentences that you remember when you walk out of the locker room," Sayler says. "Simplicity is crucial to the epideictic, moving, power-house speech. And, obviously, they have to be well delivered, with cadence and dramatic pauses to set up the theme."

Parody and hilarity
Nothing is over until we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!

John Belushi, as Bluto Blutarsky, utters those immortal if historically inaccurate words in the 1978 film Animal House during a pep talk without the locker room that has become so much a part of American culture that you can get it as a ringtone.

It's a parody of pep talks — and the movies' convention of them — but hardly history's only one to elicit laughs.

Time was drawing short before kickoff of 1964's AFL championship game and referees knocked on Buffalo's locker room door. Paul Maguire, the Bills' punter of that era, recalls running back Cookie Gilchrist yelling at coach Lou Saban to get the team moving. Saban jumped up on a table.

"I only have one thing to say to you," Saban shouted. "Heads down, toes up!"

Gilchrist started to open the door, then stopped, closed it, and looked at Saban.

"What the (blank) does that mean?"

"I don't know," Saban said. "I'm as nervous as you are."

The Bills burst out of the room, laughing uproariously, and beat the San Diego Chargers 20-7.

"I never found out if Lou did it on purpose to get us loose," Maguire says. "I don't think so, but knowing him, maybe he did. Every time I asked, he just got that grin on his face."

Lewis motivates, leads
Lewis declined comment for this story through a Ravens spokesman. The guy who talks to everyone is not talking to anyone from the news media as he rehabs from a triceps injury that has kept him off the field since mid-October.

"Ray has a talent as far as talking and leading," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard says. "The passion he has is crazy, man. The players respect it. We know his life, what he's been through. He puts it all on the line for this team, this organization, this city."

Sometimes Ayanbadejo watches Lewis on YouTube. "It's like a time capsule, takes you back to the moment," he says. "They all make you feel excited. It's his energy, his emotion, his rawness, his words, his delivery, his sincerity."

And it doesn't hurt that Lewis is an all-time great.

"Ray has Greek god status around here," Ayanbadejo says. "He has a special gift. He can have a career in motivational speaking when he retires."

No matter how many times you hear him, "listening to Ray never gets old," Ayanbadejo says. "You always come away with something new."

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