~ 011612 The All-Consuming Passion of Ray Lewis

~ 011612 The All-Consuming Passion of Ray Lewis
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

Ray Lewis reaches into the black leather briefcase on the floor in front of his locker and pulls out a clear plastic bag.

It is show-and-tell time.

Stamped "P.M.," the bag is filled with multicolored vitamin supplements. Before noon, the iconic Baltimore Ravens linebacker already had consumed a protein shake, egg whites, an apple, 2 gallons of water and a similar bag of "A.M." supplements.

Lewis, 36, is explaining why he believes he has survived 16 NFL seasons -- and still is playing at a Pro Bowl level as the Ravens prepare for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans -- in such a physically demanding sport.

In addition to a relentless year-round conditioning regimen and aggressive therapy for the toe injury that sidelined him for four games this season, Lewis estimates he swallows 50 pills a day.

Then the veteran, hardly ready to declare this playoff run a prelude to retirement, reaches into the briefcase to show off his afternoon snack -- another apple.

"I'm watching these guys, with their cheeseburgers and stuff," he says. "And you're going to compete against me? Even if you're younger and faster, your fuel won't let you beat me."

His obsession for healthy eating is notorious in the locker room.

"His diet is so ridiculous, even the people around him have to adjust," linebacker Terrell Suggs says. "It's crazy. Last week, I'm eating a bag of chips, and he throws 'em away."

Lewis is a fish-and-vegetable man who hasn't touched pork in 12 years and has eaten beef twice during that span. He also 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. "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 built on exchanges about life issues. Says Rice, "He's one of the few guys I can keep it real with, no matter what."

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 six-hour 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 full-fledged 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."

(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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