Shannon Sharpe remembers vividly the late-night conversations in his kitchen with a 25-year-old Ray Lewis.
It was 2000, and the young linebacker was staying with his new Ravens teammate in Sharpe's Atlanta home as he endured a murder trial that could have cost him his career and freedom. Even during those most trying times, Sharpe noted, the young man steered conversation to his future, to greatness. Not excellence, which Lewis had already achieved, but lasting, stamp-on-the-game greatness.
"A lot of people talk about wanting to be great," advised Sharpe, then preparing for the 11th season of his own Hall of Fame career. "But you've got to pay the price. You've got to do what other people can't or won't."
When Sharpe, now an NFL analyst for CBS, thinks about why Lewis has endured beyond any reasonable expectation, he thinks of the way Lewis embraced his message.
For Ed Reed, the quest never carried such a grand arc. Oh, the Ravens safety worked like a demon as a young player, going to 6:30 a.m. spring practices at the University of Miami, throwing his body into every game with rare abandon.
"But everything is moment-to-moment with Ed," says his former coach, Brian Billick. "He and Ray share the same passion, but with Ray, there's a calculation. With Ed, it's all on the surface."
Perhaps this explains the ambivalence that has marked the twilight of Reed's career. Where Lewis stated his unequivocal plan to return for a 17th season in the moments after last season's agonizing playoff loss to the New England Patriots, Reed avoided interviews. Instead, he serenaded the locker room with a soul tune by Teddy Pendergrass, emphasizing the portentous line, "I think I better let it go."
He did little to clarify his plans in the offseason, talking one week about playing five more years, then skipping a mandatory minicamp and musing about the comforts of staying home with his young son and watching the NFL season from his couch. Come late July, however, Reed was back to practice, crisscrossing the field to break up passes like a man 10 years his junior.
As Lewis, 37, and Reed, 34, approach the late stages of their all-but-certain Hall of Fame careers, they might appear to be on divergent paths — Lewis' a straight course to Baltimore's sports pantheon, Reed's a more jagged trail of retirement threats and contract gripes. In reality, say teammates and coaches, the most enduring pillars of the Ravens defense are more similar than they are different.
Both begin relentless conditioning regimens just a few weeks after the end of each season. Both bury their heads in game film, looking for any pattern that might set up a miraculous play against next week's opponent. Both see mentoring — Lewis for the world to hear, Reed in more private moments — as essential to their continuing thirst for football.
"If you look up the word 'professional,' it'd be those two guys — the way they prepare, the way they act on the field and in the classroom," says first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "These guys are such high-profile players that you could walk in and expect to see such an ego that nobody can talk to them — but that's the furthest thing from these two guys."
Fourth-year cornerback Lardarius Webb has made a point of studying both men. "Anytime I see Ed walking around the locker room during the season, same as Ray, they always have their playbook in their hands, their film in their hands," Webb says. "I'm like, 'Man, we just got a 10-minute break out of a meeting. Why is he over there at his locker watching film? Why isn't he getting a break like all the rest of us?' It's like they never come off of our opponent."
'He looks younger'
Everyone who cares about the Ravens has already said so, but it's amazing to lay eyes on the trimmer version of Lewis that emerged this summer. It's not just that his body looks more cut; his face is leaner, almost youthful.
"That's the sign of a man who understands the game, that always evolves," says fellow linebacker Jameel McClain. "He came in faster, stronger, slimmer, all of those things. I mean, he looks younger.”
Football analysts have latched on to Lewis' statements about staying relevant in a pass-happy game that demands agility more than brute force. But sitting at his locker after a recent practice, the dean of the Ravens alludes to deeper motivations for his offseason of swimming, biking and sucking down blended concoctions of pure vegetable juice.
"I've had a lot of sick people in my family," he says. "I didn't do it for sports. I did it for lifestyle, just to live longer."
Lewis isn't the first great athlete to be driven by fears of mortality. Mickey Mantle assumed he would die young, like all the other men in his family. So the great New York Yankee drank and caroused, figuring he'd never live to suffer the effects. It's typical of Lewis, say those who know him well, that instead of taking a fatalistic view, he has sought to improve his health.
Even as a young player, Lewis, who has already played longer than any linebacker in the Hall of Fame, demonstrated a rare analytical bent. He watched veteran stars Sharpe and Rod Woodson — their diets, the way they focused on stretching and flexibility as much as strength or speed, their ability to relax completely when a day's work was done.
Sharpe remembers telling Lewis that it wasn't enough to love the games. He had to embrace every practice, every meeting, every bruise and ache. The veteran told Lewis he'd be fooling himself if he didn't train hard enough to wonder, "Why am I doing this? When will it end?"
Billick says he knew Lewis would play at a high level long past the point when most players fade. "He's one of the best-conditioned offseason athletes I've ever been around," the former Ravens coach says. "He has a very specific plan for how to deal with every point of his career."
But Lewis has surprised even Billick, who told his former star two years ago that he had become a liability on passing downs. "When I saw him last year, he looked rejuvenated," says the Fox and NFL Network analyst.
Sharpe and Billick both say Lewis will benefit from his offseason weight loss (he's below 240 pounds, down from about 260 last year).
In his musical, preacher's voice, Lewis says he finds it easier, not harder, to gear up for a season as he gets older. This year, he began two weeks after the season-ending loss in New England, filling his days with five or even seven short, hard workouts. The pounds slid off.
Typical of Lewis, he has preached his methods to teammates. Hulking tackle Bryant McKinnie even tweeted a picture of the vegetable juicer the linebacker recommended.
Lewis has brushed aside all questions of whether this will be his last season. But unlike many athletes, he talks openly about the importance of leaving a legacy. One thing that keeps him going, he says, is meeting new generations of players who grew up watching him. "Hearing that you helped them change their lives," he says, "it's like, 'My God, son, you don't know what that means to me.'"
Some have wondered whether Lewis' pride will ever allow him to walk away from the game willingly. "I believe you always know," he says. "When you go at life as hard as I go at this game, you know when it's over."
'I knew I could still play'
Those who've been around the Ravens a long time talk about two Ed Reeds — one who wraps himself in a hoodie to avoid conversation, another who speaks with rare candor and emotion about the peaks and valleys of a football life.
The unguarded version stops to talk in the hallway of the team's training facility before a recent practice. Reed played in all 16 games last season but intercepted just three passes and at times looked reluctant to throw his injured neck and shoulder into tackles. Two weeks from the 2012 opener, he says he feels better than he has in a few years.
Unlike Lewis, Reed did not spend his first seasons in the league studying older stars for the secrets to longevity. He built his career more by feel, working out with college roommate Reggie Wayne in the early years, then doing it all by himself in future offseasons.
This year, he began workouts almost immediately after the Patriots loss, not wanting his hip, shoulder and neck injuries to worsen with inactivity. He dived into his work with the expectation of returning to the Ravens for an 11th season.
"If I was going to retire, it would have happened right after the season," Reed says, his voice low and slow like the soul singers he's been known to imitate.
But in the next breath, the story of his offseason becomes more complicated. Many mornings, he awoke to an internal debate, weighing the pros and cons of continuing his life's work.
"This is a gift that's been given to you, and if you can do it, and you're in the right mindset to do it, then go do it," Reed says. "If you're not in the right mindset, you tend to question things. And I didn't feel like my mind was here at the time. I didn't feel like I was in a place where football, where I was even thinking about it. I mean, I was thinking about it, but not with that same mentality I was in the past few years of 'I have to do this, I want to do this.' I wasn't there."
He was comfortable at home with his son, with a body that hasn't fully betrayed him, with a career that will surely send him to the Hall of Fame.
Pulling in the other direction were thoughts of chasing an elusive Super Bowl ring and of young teammates such as Webb and McClain, who lean on him for advice.
Reed talked with his father and a few close friends about the fleeting nature of football careers, about honoring the talent he still possesses. "I know there's a fight in me and a love that I have for this game," he says. "And also for a bunch of young guys that I mentor, where I knew I could still play, and I knew I could still help them."
Then there was the matter of his contract, which ends after this season. Did he skip minicamp and make some of his cryptic comments because he was angry about money?
"Was it about me getting a new contract?" he says. "Maybe a little bit. Maybe a little bit. If I want to get a contract, I know how to get a contract. Trust me."
Holding out is a player's only leverage, says Reed, who will make $7.2 million this year, and he finds it hurtful that fans react by dismissing their former heroes as bitter or out of touch.
"I've been nothing but loyal to this city and to this organization when it comes to doing my job," he says. "I've been nothing but loyal to this organization in trying to help my teammates better themselves. So when I chose to put the business in the streets, so to say, it was a problem for some people. And I knew that. I knew you can't please everybody. What I did was not for everybody. It was actually just for me, doing the interview — a question asked of me, and I'm a person who's going to tell it like it is."
Teammates seemed less concerned than anyone, saying they never doubted Reed's commitment. In fact, though Lewis is perceived as the leader of the defense from outside, younger players often describe Reed as the one they seek out for wisdom.
"Ed has been real instrumental in my career, because Ed is actually someone that I really go to," McClain says. "Whatever it is — if it's a coverage aspect, if it's 'What do you think I could have done different in this situation?' Or if it's a home situation, if it's something that's happening with my brother. I have a lot of respect for him."
Billick says he learned to accept Reed's shifting moods and unexpected statements as the price for the safety's equally wild brilliance on the field. It's the same tack the entire organization has taken with him over the years.
Reed replies adamantly when asked if the contract situation or retirement thoughts will nag at him during the season: "No, I'm already in the mindset. I would never have come if I wasn't in the mindset. I would never have reported to camp."
It's hard to get a handle on where Reed stands regarding his future because, as he acknowledges, he answers questions based on the emotions or the physical pain he's feeling at a given moment. Like Lewis, he says he'll know inside when he's finished and that the moment will likely come when he's still good enough to play at a high level.
"I know it ain't far-fetched for me," he says of the end.