Rejuvenated Lewis is man with a plan

BALTIMORE -- Enjoy Ray Lewis while you can.

Because in a few years, the future Hall of Fame linebacker plans to separate himself from the NFL completely -- with no second-guessing and no regrets.

"When it's time for me to hang up those cleats, there is no coming back,'' Lewis said. "There is no 'Yeah, I feel good again and I'm in better shape.' Because I know what I give every day of my life, and that is complete focus on my task at hand.''

That current task is bringing Baltimore back to prominence. Just two years ago the Ravens were Super Bowl contenders after a 13-3 season, but injuries and inconsistent play resulted in last season's 5-11 finish.

Despite nine Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé, Lewis says he is training harder than ever. Increasing his workout regimen with age is a trick he learned from former teammates Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe, who played 17 and 14 years, respectively.

Lewis, who turns 33 Thursday, is in his 13th season and believes his intense training will help him play "another three or four years, easily.'' He arrived at minicamp in midseason form last weekend, weighing 255 pounds with 6 percent body fat and biceps large enough to make running backs cringe.

In addition, there is a newfound energy about Lewis. He was running around the practice field last week like a 23-year-old and was playful in the locker room with actual 23-year-olds, such as rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

"You appreciate it more,'' said Lewis. "You appreciate why you play the game, why you mentor these young kids, and why you go through the ups and downs of this business. So my energy is more incredible now than I think it's probably ever been, probably because of the excitement of everything that's going on."

Much of the optimism in Baltimore revolves around the hire of rookie head coach John Harbaugh, who replaced Brian Billick after nine seasons.

Harbaugh spent the past few months with both hands over his ears, blocking out any public perception about his new team and particularly as it pertains to Lewis.

There is speculation in Baltimore that Lewis' strong personality could make it difficult for a first-time head coach to put his imprint on the team. Harbaugh is in the process of running a much tighter ship than Billick, and the theory was that if Lewis wasn't on board,
the locker room would be tough to win over.

Harbaugh said his relationship with his star player is the "complete opposite" of what outsiders expected.

"I didn't know if it was going to be a problem or a solution, and Ray has been beyond a solution,'' Harbaugh said. "Ray is every bit the leader than probably anybody in the history of the NFL. That is a big statement. But I've been in the league 10 years now, and I can't imagine there being a better leader in this league than Ray Lewis.''

This season marks a contract year for Lewis.

Baltimore is in a tough spot because all three starting linebackers potentially could hit the open market after the 2008 season. Bart Scott is at the end of a three-year deal he signed before the 2006 season, and Terrell Suggs was given a one-year franchise tag in February.

The Ravens currently are negotiating extensions with both Suggs and Lewis, but there are no guarantees either will reach an agreement by the start of the regular season.

"I've never got caught up in that,'' Lewis said. "If anybody has ever bothered to check with my career, everybody knows there has never been a camp where I've held out.

"There's never been a contract problem with me -- and it will never be that with me -- bottom line."

According to Lewis' timeline, his next contract likely will be his last.

Before long he will join the recently retired Brett Favre and Steve McNair as three throwback players of this generation who could transcend any era. Whether it's linebackers Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary, you can envision Lewis lining up next to those players and fitting in perfectly.

But Lewis says he will be prepared when the next phase of his life arrives. That phase will include business ventures and, most importantly, family time.

Lewis' children tug at his heart every day. Most recently he mentioned a track meet that he regrettably missed because of his obligations at Ravens camp.

It's a delicate balance of family and football that Lewis finds increasingly difficult to manage. That is part of the reason Lewis plans to remove himself from the spotlight once he retires, because it will open another door to become the ever-present father he wants to be.

"It's a push-pull [situation],'' Lewis said candidly. "My kids are young enough now. But when they start getting to that age where they are in high school, I want to be there to say, 'I got this. I'll go shopping for everything,' and things like that.

"So that part of life, man, that is exciting once you actually put everything into it that I want to put into it."

James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.