Scripting the perfect final chapter
Greg Garber [ARCHIVE]
February 3, 2013
t Facebook t Twitter

NEW ORLEANS -- We spend our whole lives creating a unique narrative. It is human nature to want to carve it in stone, the way we would want history to remember us.

But rarely does it come together like a soaring Disney movie, with a string orchestra underneath and all the storylines tied neatly together.

After 17 seasons in the NFL, Ray Lewis will play his final game Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII. It has been a dozen years since the Ravens defeated the Giants for their only Lombardi trophy. Lewis was the most valuable player. More than anything, he has said again and again (and again), he longs for the sight of confetti in the air.

"You always have these dreams, and you see the Super Bowls, and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, if I can ever be there one day,' " Lewis said during media day on Tuesday. "In my fifth year, I win it. Then, I go, go, go and I get close, I get close, and now, I am back. I'm back on my last ride. To go out with that confetti coming from the top of this building, and hearing those famous words, that the Ravens are Super Bowl champions, there is no greater legacy."

Will he go out on top -- or be left wanting? What if his quest ends in defeat? And even if the Ravens triumph, will that wash away the questions about Lewis that persisted here?

While Lewis was relentlessly crafting his chosen narrative, he was confronted with reports that he had used a banned substance to rejuvenate a torn triceps muscle -- making this "last ride" possible after he missed 10 games. That was the contention of Mitch Ross, co-founder of Sports With Alternatives To Steroids, in a Sports Illustrated article.

"I wouldn't give him credit," Lewis said, "or even mention his name or his antics in my speeches or my moment."

Lewis was similarly protective of his "moment" when asked about his role in a double murder after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in January 2000.

"I don't know anybody that's ever lived a perfect life," Lewis said, declining to go into specifics about the incident in which he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

Is this really the end?

Could Ray Lewis, as Ravens safety Ed Reed mischievously suggested, be playing us? Is he really retiring?

"I wouldn't be so certain about that," Reed said. "Ray might make a comeback. He might play 10 games next year."

Lewis says he has no such plans. "No. I've run my course in football. When I say I'm done, I'm done."

Certainly, Lewis still seems operationally viable. He leads all players in this postseason with 44 tackles.

But on Jan. 2, Lewis marked his rapidly diminishing territory, saying his career would end when the Ravens' season did. At the time, it seemed that would likely come at Denver or, at the very least, New England.

But as Baltimore rallied to upset the Broncos and then the Patriots in breathtaking fashion, the trajectory of the story grew into something approaching a quest -- a Quest, really. Lewis understood that by announcing his intentions, his teammates would rally around him, pushing the Ravens even further.

"I've watched many people on how they retire, and when they retire," Lewis explained. "I had not just an obligation to myself, but I had an obligation to my teammates and I had an obligation to my city -- that I did not want to end the season and then say, 'I'm gone.' I've invested too much time into Baltimore, into my teammates and into the organization to ever just walk out like that. I would have robbed a lot of people of those last goodbyes for me and them. That is why I did it that way."

Lewis is the most recent prominent athlete to delve into this ambitious tradition of exit strategies. After 14 seasons, Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver announced his retirement Thursday. He won a Super Bowl ring two years ago. Perhaps, if he is on the winning side Sunday, the 49ers' Randy Moss will follow him. Ravens center Matt Birk is also said to be debating whether to call it a career. Retirement is an emotional beast; you could hear it in Driver's voice when he talked about it. Psychologically, it's a difficult concept for any athlete to wrap his head around.

Sports history is filled with all kinds of unlikely exit scenarios. For every Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight boxer who finished his career 49-0 with a knockout of Archie Moore, center Bill Russell, whose last game was a Boston Celtics victory in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals in Los Angeles, and Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who went out with a Super Bowl victory to end the 2007 season, there are thousands of athletes who weren't so fortunate. Lance Armstrong, for example, won seven consecutive Tour de France titles before he retired in 2005. How did that work out?

Sometimes, it can get a little awkward planning your own retirement party.

The Bus drives home

If you're into the whole destiny thing, this one in the Big Easy is playing out a lot like the exalted exit of Jerome Bettis after the 2005 season.

Actually, the Bus decided to retire the year before, after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Bettis had completed a dozen seasons, run for more than 13,000 yards and his next destination looked to be Canton, Ohio. Wide receiver Hines Ward, tears in his eyes, announced Bettis' retirement to the media after the Steelers' last team meeting.

But the buoyant running back's teammates eventually talked him into one more run. Their best lobbying ploy: Super Bowl XL was going to be played in Detroit, Bettis' hometown.

It grew into a crusade and, naturally, the Steelers got there. When it was time for the pregame introductions, linebacker Joey Porter held the rest of the team back and Bettis ran onto Ford Field all by himself. It was a superbly cinematic moment.

"That was the best," Bettis said in a recent interview with ESPN. "The guys really appreciated what I had done to that point. There was a sense in the locker room that 'We're going to win this football game.' "

Cue the 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the game ball handed to Bettis by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the fluttering confetti, the hoisting of the Lombardi trophy, the shoutout back to Pittsburgh: "One for the thumb," Bettis declared.

He carried 14 times for 43 yards. It was his 206th and final NFL game; he was the last Steelers player to leave the locker room.

Scaling the mountain

After Pete Sampras won the last match of his career -- the 2002 U.S. Open final against rival Andre Agassi -- he exclaimed, "This one might take the cake."

It was his 14th major singles title, the most ever for a man. Still, he never said anything about retiring. It would be months before he finally realized his career was over.

"Once the aftermath of the Open went away, I wasn't sure...
Next >

t Facebook t Twitter
Back to Top
ESPN Mobile Web Home
En Español
ABC News Headlines
Help and Feedback
Terms of Use
Interest-Based Ads
Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights