The clear-cut top player on ESPN.com's Any Era team is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has defined toughness for this generation of football.
Lewis' career has spanned over three decades and has featured him delivering bone-breaking hits, playing through pain and carrying a team to a Super Bowl. He has become the most feared and most respected player in the NFL.
This is why Lewis was the overwhelming top pick on ESPN's Any Era team in a poll of 20 Pro Football Hall of Famers and John Clayton, ESPN.com's senior writer who has covered the league for nearly four decades. The Any Era team is comprised of current players whose play, attitude and grit stand the test of time. When it comes to this test, Lewis stands alone. (Here's a full explanation of the project).
In my Q&A with Lewis, he was humbled by being named No. 1 on the Any Era team. "Because those are guys that I had a dream one day, to say, 'I want to be in the NFL. I want to be that, and leave a mark on it,'" Lewis said. "When you watch Jim Brown, he left a mark on the game by the way he played. And the difference of Jim Brown and all the others -- the Lynn Swanns and all the other people, it's pure effort -- that's it."
Here are explanations from three Hall of Fame players on why Lewis made the cut:
Jim Brown: “Ray Lewis embodies everything that a player should have and more because not only does he fulfill his role, but he helps everybody else on the team. He has a great heart, and his mental toughness is as good as it gets. You don’t want to have a physical tough guy without him being mentally tough and having heart, which means he can hang in there and give up a certain part of himself that other people are afraid to give up.”
Marcus Allen: “The passion Ray Lewis plays with is -- you’d have to search the dictionary for something really adequate. Words like extreme don’t measure how a guy like him loves the game of football and is willing to lay it on the line every day to be great.”
James Lofton: "There is an awareness when you play against Ray Lewis. When you are coming out of the huddle, if you are a QB or a ballcarrier, you try not to make eye contact with him. But you have to look at him, so you can figure out how the defense is aligned and looking at him is like looking into the face of fear -- you just have to look at it."