Ray Lewis is more than the best defensive player of his generation. The Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker is the toughest and the meanest. He is both the most feared and the most respected.
Lewis' passion for pain -- to inflict it as well as absorb it -- has defined his unrelenting will. He's exuded this with every tackle, sack and forced fumble on game days that have spanned three decades. And in the eyes of the game's previous greats, Lewis would dominate running backs and harass quarterbacks in any period of football.
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.
"He embodies everything that a player should have," Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown said.
There is no better student of football history than Lewis. He has competed against John Elway and Tom Brady. He has tackled Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson.
Lewis' quest has always been to be the best linebacker ever to play the game. He has studied films of Nitschke and Butkus, of Lanier and Taylor and Singletary to understand their greatness.
"He'd be viewed the same way in my era," Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann said. "He'd be at middle linebacker and he'd be an absolute terror like a Butkus. He'd be all over the place, like Willie Lanier, making hits and inspiring people on every play and every time he stepped onto that field."
Lewis has the explosion of Nitschke. He has the instincts of Butkus.
But there is something that puts Lewis in a class by himself.
"The passion in which he plays is -- you'd have to search the dictionary for something really adequate," Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen said. "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. To leave not only a mark, the mark, and that is what separates great players from good players."
Here's what Lewis had to say about toughness, the state of the game, retirement and his selection to the Any Era team:
On what toughness means to him:
"With toughness, you block out things. No matter if something is broke, no matter if something is bleeding. Whatever it is, you just make up your mind, mentally, to say, 'I can get through whatever it is.' And that's what I believe the state of toughness is, is just making your mind say, 'No matter what the issue is, I'll deal with it.'"
On playing in two eras of football and how he has adapted:
"I grew up watching a certain era -- that era was, 'By any means necessary, you get your job done.' It didn't matter how you got your job done. That's why I think I became such a fan of the game. You see Jack Lambert, you see Ronnie Lott, you see Walter Payton. That's why you enjoy the game. The era has kind of changed. Now everything is going toward defensive -- don't hit as hard, don't be so aggressive. It takes a little sting out of old-school mentality football, which is, when you put on your pants, when you put on your helmet, when you put on your cleats, you realize, 'I got to get my job done by any means necessary.' I don't really adapt to it. I just keep going full speed. Whatever happens, happens. I know they're trying to be very safe and really protect people. I think the best way to be safe is let the game take care of itself. That's the way this game has been in existence since 1919."
On his friendship with another Any Era member, Ben Roethlisberger:
"Every time we see each other, you're going to always see -- nobody [has] never noticed it -- but any time we play each other, I put my hand over my heart and he puts his hand over his heart, and we give each other the nod -- warriors going at it -- whatever it takes. And that's the ultimate respect, because when you see guys back in the day, they gave that respect. That's what the game was always built upon. That's what makes the [rivalry] so fierce, because back then, when you looked at the old-school Dallas Cowboys and the old-school San Francisco 49ers, you knew what you were getting, but they respected each other so much. Today, when you think about a Ben Roethlisberger and me, you think about old-school mentalities, no matter what it is. That's why, every time -- win, lose or draw -- we're going to always be friends."
On doing pushups on the sideline in a 2002 game in Cleveland to show he could play with a dislocated shoulder:
"As soon as I popped it, I remember falling on the ground, and I knew something was wrong. And I came to the sideline, [the trainer] started moving it. I was like, 'Just let me see if I can do some pushups.' If I can do pushups, I can play, you know? And so, when I jumped on the ground, I just -- I did like 12 or 15 pushups. I was like, 'I'm good. I'm good.' You know? And I went back in the game. Because, like I said, I knew something was wrong, but I also know it's just one part of my body. I got a whole part of me left that I'm willing to sacrifice for the men that are out there fighting with me. So my pain is put in the afterthought. I don't have time to think about that right now. And when I went back out there, I played, I think, like, eight, nine plays. And then, I got on the goal line, I ran into this guy -- pow -- and I knew it was done. I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do more damage, you know, if I stay in here.' But that's kind of the thing we're talking about, when we're talking about toughness, you know? I don't call myself tough; I call me dealing with that injury tough, you know, just because I made up my mind to say, 'No pain lasts always.' That's always my philosophy with pain: No pain lasts always."
On being selected to the Any Era team by Hall of Famers:
"Humbling. 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.' 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. He was gifted with great talent, but everything else was effort. And when you hear men like that speak about you, you humble yourself, to say, 'Wow,' you know, to know that when you do strap up your cleats and you buckle up your chin strap, that somebody is always watching, and they're paying you a lot of respect by the way you go at the game. It's the ultimate respect in this game, that when you leave this game, you'll mainly be remembered by what your peers and what people watching you say."
On whether he thinks he could play in any era:
"Yeah, I do. I do. And the only reason is because I remember this one play, Butkus -- when I started watching these tapes -- he's just running through the line, and he's just clotheslined somebody. This guy tries to grab his arm, and he throws this guy's arm off and throws a couple of F-bombs at him. That's football. That's the way the game should be played. And that's why, when I look back on those eras, I say a lot, 'I wish I could have played back in that day.' That was old-school football. Whatever was going on, bandage it up and let's get at it. And that's why I think, still to today, I appreciate the game the way I appreciate it. Because of old-school."
On the secret to playing 16 years given that Lambert walked away after 11 seasons and Butkus retired after nine:
"Technology nowadays has really picked up on how we take care of our bodies. Back in the day, they didn't have that. And so now, me playing 16 years, I get the phone calls from those old-schoolers. And all they keep saying, keep doing, you know, because we're living through you. And that's the way you carry it. That's the way you carry the torch until you pass it on."
On if he has thought about retirement:
"I can't. While I'm in it, I could never think about that, you know? If I do that, I cheat not just myself, I cheat my teammates. I cheat my city. I cheat the game itself. And you can never cheat those things, because those things are created from you. And that's why, when we talk about being over, whatever, it's going to end when it's going to end. And I promise you, when it ends, people appreciate the day I walk off."
On the toughest player Lewis ever saw:
"I was a die-hard fan of Ronnie Lott. Just the way he played the game, coming off that hash, he didn't care how he hit you. It's like, who sacrifices their body like that? And I started to pick up that model, saying, 'Just go. Don't think -- react.' You know I also played tailback and carried the ball a little bit [while growing up]. So I kind of love Walter Payton because he was a bruiser, playing running back. His mentality was: It's you against me, deal with me. So a lot of those old-schoolers like that in 1985, when I was 10 years old and that was my first year ever playing football. So I appreciated a lot of guys, coming up, you know, just by the way they attacked the game."
On being selected the top player on the Any Era team:
"I'm tough in a lot of areas of my life. But I'm telling you, when you hear that, that's more humbling than anything because you know there's guys who did it -- this ain't no game. You respect these Hall of Famers. I bump into Franco Harris, and I know that every time I'm playing on the Pittsburgh field, he's watching. I bump into him at events, and I'm like, 'I grew up watching you.' And for them to give you that respect back, I'm like a kid all over again. But when you're voted No. 1 in anything, the only thing I can ever [give] credit to is, first of all, it's just my ability to always trust God, and then the second thing is my ability to never stop working. That's it. And so, when they talk about voting me old-school, one of the reasons I would say I probably agree with them is because, sometimes, I wish I was playing in the old school. Because, that's football."