Lewis: All-pro men­tor, scold

USA TODAY US Edition - - NFL PLAY­OFFS -

doesn’t drink soda or eat bread or sugar — ex­cept for scant ex­cep­tions. Like his cheat snacks, Twiz­zlers and Gummy Bears.

Con­ver­sa­tions with Lewis — a pas­sion­ate, spir­i­tual man and maybe the great­est mid­dle line­backer ever — can branch into myr­iad di­rec­tions.

He not only de­tails the lengths he has gone to heal his toe and con­tem­plates his grid­iron mor­tal­ity, but he also re­veals con­cern that gen­er­a­tional curses of poor diet and ex­er­cise habits threaten the health of fam­ily mem­bers.

Lewis is an un­mar­ried fa­ther of six, and his re­la­tion­ships in­clude peo­ple who have fallen on hard times. A boy who was the lone sur­vivor when his mother drove her van into a river last spring. A 76-year-old can­cer pa­tient. A teenager with bone can­cer — for whom he is pay­ing med­i­cal ex­penses.

“It goes back to the idea that, ‘To much is given, much is re­quired,’ ” Lewis says. “With all the things I’ve been through, the No. 1 thing that I’ve learned is that we’re sup­posed to help peo­ple through this world.”

He re­flects on a big in­flu­ence, Hall of Famer Shan­non Sharpe. And a not-so-big in­flu­ence, the fa­ther who sud­denly ap­peared three years ago.

As he sat at his locker, Lewis, who grew up in Lake­land, Fla., mim­icked the grav­elly voice of his late ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Gil­lis Mck­in­ney.

“He used to have this old car, and he’d say,” Lewis said, chang­ing his voice for ef­fect, “‘Y’all kids keep get­ting all these new cars so quick, but I’ll keep a car with 500,000 miles on it. You’ve got to take care of the en­gine.’

“It’s the same thing with your body. If you clean your body out so that it is not fight­ing against you, you rest bet­ter, think bet­ter and you’re al­ways light on your feet. I haven’t had as much as a cold in three years. Bot­tom line, your body is a tem­ple, and you have to treat it that way. That’s how God de­signed it.” Tend­ing to toe in­jury

Yet on the field, some set­backs just hap­pen. Lewis had started 57 con­sec­u­tive games, dat­ing to 2008, when he was side­lined in Novem­ber.

Although the in­jury was widely re­ported as turf toe, which gen­er­ally in­volves the big toe, Lewis said the in­jured area was ac­tu­ally near the small toe on his right foot.

“I tore a piece of my plan­tar plate,” he says.

Says Ravens gen­eral man­ager Ozzie New­some: “A toe took out Jack Lam­bert, Deion San­ders and Jonathan Og­den — two Hall of Famers and an­other who will prob­a­bly be one. You hear about ACLS and how se­ri­ous of an in­jury it can be. Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize how much the toe af­fects the abil­ity to push off, change di­rec­tion and ac­cel­er­ate.”

Did Lewis — who still had a team-high 95 tack­les this sea­son — see the in­jury as a sign that his body is suc­cumb­ing to wear and tear?

“I don’t do that,” he says. “That cheats what war­riors like me re­ally go through on a daily ba­sis to keep our bod­ies go­ing full speed, run­ning into peo­ple.”

In re­hab­bing the toe, with the tis­sue need­ing to scar, Lewis bought a hy­per­baric cham­ber that in­creases oxy­gen flow. He had acupunc­ture treat­ment. He’s us­ing a laser light that ac­cel­er­ates re­gen­er­a­tion of tis­sue.

“If you walked in my house, you’d won­der, ‘What is go­ing on with this?’ ” Lewis says. “It’s like a space lab over there.” Re­tire­ment? Not now

Per­haps this will be the fi­nal shot at an­other cham­pi­onship for the two-time NFL de­fen­sive player of the year (2000, 2003) and Su­per Bowl XXXV MVP. If the Ravens win it all, would Lewis re­tire in a blaze of glory?

“Ask Haloti (Ngata) and Siz­zle,” Lewis says of the all-pro team­mates.

Suggs, aka T-siz­zle, was adamant: “I can’t let him re­tire.”

Suggs re­called a 2009 game in which Lewis showed him his grue­some right hand — the bone of a fin­ger broke through the skin — as the Cincin­nati Ben­gals were driv­ing.

“I said, ‘Let’s get through this se­ries, and you can deal with that on the side­line,’ ” Suggs said. “That’s how valu­able he is. He’s still out­play­ing guys in their 20s. When it’s time to walk away, he’ll know. But it’s still not his time.”

Lewis fig­ures he wouldn’t still be play­ing if not for Sharpe, a cen­tral fig­ure dur­ing a turn­ing point in his life.

When Lewis was on trial in At­lanta in 2000 af­ter the deaths of two men dur­ing a brawl fol­low­ing a post-su­per Bowl party (mur­der charges were dropped; he pleaded guilty to a mis­de­meanor ob­struc­tion of jus­tice charge), he lived in Sharpe’s base­ment. Sharpe, who had signed with the Ravens as a free agent that spring, would pick up Lewis each day af­ter court and work out with him.

The house­guest be­came fas­ci­nated by Sharpe’s strict diet.

“I give him a lot of credit for try­ing some­thing that you’ve never done, which takes you out of your el­e­ment,” Sharpe said this week. “As the years pro­gressed, he got bet­ter at it.”

The diet only scratched the sur­face of Sharpe’s im­pact on Lewis, who formed a bond with the tight end and safety Rod Wood­son, who had joined the team in 1998.

“When he was go­ing though his or­deal, it was very tough on him,” Sharpe said. “But he had al­ways been around peo­ple who told him what he wanted to hear. Rod and I, we would tell him what he needed to hear. That’s why he re­spected us.”

Sharpe said he un­der­stood how Lewis, who grew up poor, was tempted to in­dulge in a lav­ish life­style af­ter strik­ing it rich as a pro ath­lete.

“You can do all these things be­cause you’ve got the money, but it might not be the best thing to max­i­mize your tal­ent,” Sharpe says. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to be at ev­ery party com­ing to a city near you.’ ” Nfl-wide men­tor

Now Lewis is the sage vet­eran pass­ing along ad­vice — and not just to team­mates. They call him “The God­fa­ther,” given re­la­tion­ships he has de­vel­oped with dozens of play­ers around the league, in­clud­ing Larry Fitzger­ald, Nnamdi Aso­mugha and Michael Vick.

Tex­ans run­ning back Arian Foster, a third-year pro and key to Sun­day’s game as the trig­ger for the NFL’S No. 2 rush­ing at­tack, re­mem­bers his first en­counter with Lewis dur­ing a game in Hous­ton last sea­son. While en route to win­ning the NFL rush­ing crown, Foster was stunned when Lewis told him af­ter a play, “I like your style. Keep bring­ing it.”

They have talked reg­u­larly since.

Closer to home, fourth-year run­ning back Ray Rice gets much at­ten­tion. Rice moved across the room, to a stall ad­ja­cent to Lewis’ cor­ner locker. The vet­eran fre­quently rides Rice about be­ing con­sumed by his smart­phone, check­ing text mes­sages too of­ten.

Rice, the old­est of four, sees Lewis as the sib­ling he never had.

“I need a big brother,” he says. Con­cern for fam­ily

For all of his in­flu­ence on team­mates, it frus­trates Lewis that some fam­ily mem­bers haven’t fully in­cor­po­rated healthy habits he urges. This has res­onated with him more af­ter the Au­gust death of his aunt, Sherry Tay­lor, 52, who bat­tled can­cer.

He also is con­cerned about the con­di­tion of his grand­mother, Elease Mck­in­ney, and says he is try­ing to fa­cil­i­tate a liver trans­plant.

“He’s got such a big heart,” says Lewis’ mother, Sun­se­ria Smith. “He thinks he can do any­thing to change the world.”

Lewis spoke at Tay­lor’s fu­neral. His theme: “Why do we wait so long to take care of our tem­ples?”

“I stay mad at my mom be­cause she spends so much time with God but doesn’t trust God with her body,” he says. “I don’t want to see her body de­te­ri­o­rate.”

Smith, 51, has a dif­fer­ent ver­sion. She main­tains that she does work out — Lewis has mapped out ex­er­cise and diet plans, signed her up at a gym and gets reg­u­lar re­ports from her doc­tor — but typ­i­cally not to her son’s stan­dard.

“This boy is work­ing my nerves,” Smith says. “He’s been on me for years. Then ev­ery time some­body in our fam­ily passes, he re­ally goes berserk.

“I know he’s dis­ci­plined, and he does it out of love, but some­times I have to ask, ‘Who’s the mama and who’s the child?’ ”

Lewis, the old­est of five, cred­its his mother for in­still­ing the faith he so openly shares. They are so close that, shortly af­ter he was drafted by the Ravens, he moved her to Mary­land. She lives min­utes from him.

It is a re­la­tion­ship that is the po­lar op­po­site of the con­nec­tion with his fa­ther, El­bert Ray Jack­son, who has been non-ex­is­tent for the bulk of Lewis’ life. Lewis didn’t meet his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther un­til he was 33, af­ter he rode with Jack­son dur­ing a six­hour drive through North Carolina — the first sub­stan­tial con­tact he had with his fa­ther.

Lewis had mixed emo­tions about the en­counter but saw the end re­sult of for­give­ness as a nec­es­sary life ex­pe­ri­ence. He says he pri­mar­ily lis­tened.

“The first thing you wanted to do was choke the hell out of him and say, ‘You could have called. Could have of­fered any type of ad­vice about how to go through this world,’ ” Lewis says. “‘Now you want to give ad­vice? No, now you’re deal­ing with a fullfledged man.’ I’m no longer the child who wished he would just show up to one of my games.”

There are but so many games left. Lewis, re­cently se­lected to his 13th Pro Bowl, re­al­izes his place in his­tory as an NFL player is se­cure. He says his legacy as a man will con­tinue to de­velop long af­ter he fin­ishes play­ing.

“When it’s over, ain’t no com­ing back,” he says. “When God tells me or my peers don’t re­spect me or if I get to the point where I can’t feel my body in the morn­ings or I’m walk­ing with a limp, it’s time to go.”

For now, the man nick­named Su­gar is em­brac­ing the sweet chase for an­other ring.

“I al­ways tell them,” he says of team­mates, “‘Boy, if we see that con­fetti drop, y’all go­ing to see Sug cry real hard.’ It might be my last chance.”

Close with mom: Ray Lewis and his mother, Sun­se­ria Smith, give out turkeys at a Bal­ti­more high school be­fore Thanks­giv­ing. He has urged her to adopt health­ier habits.

By Eric P. Mull, US Press­wire Older brother: Ravens run­ning back Ray Rice, left, says of Lewis, “He’s one of the few guys I can keep it real with, no mat­ter what.”

Fol­low Ray Lewis’ ca­reer in pho­tos at nfl.us­ato­day.com “All these years, and I’ve never had any­body to bother like that. If I get on his nerves, I don’t care. And I can be an­noy­ing when I want to be.” The sub­stance of the re­la­tion­ship, Rice says, is...

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