Down 15 pounds from his playing weight of a year ago, Ray Lewis enters his 14th season with the Baltimore Ravens unequivocally certain he's never been better than he is right now.
Another rigorous offseason training regimen enabled the 34-year-old middle linebacker to breeze through the team's first full training camp practice Friday. Lewis signed a seven-year contract last March, and the 10-time Pro Bowler talks as if he intends to keep playing until the deal expires.
"Anytime I feel as good as I feel, and I can keep leading these men the way I lead these men, life keeps going," Lewis said. "That's why I train the way I train. Only God can tell you when it's over. I'm having too much fun playing this game."
His enthusiasm obviously hasn't waned, and even if Lewis isn't as quick as he was a decade ago, he intends to take full advantage of the knowledge he gained over the course of 13 stellar seasons.
"I think I'm probably better now because I'm just wiser. Talent fades, wisdom never fades. Wisdom grows," he said. "I'm a better player because I can make my team better. I can make guys around me better."
During his first training camp in 1996 _ which was also the Ravens' inaugural season _ Lewis was a 21-year-old out of the University of Miami who took instruction from veterans such as Eric Turner and Rob Burnett. It didn't take long for Lewis to become the leader of the defense, and there's little question he will maintain that title until he finally decides to call it a career.
The Ravens keep changing defensive coordinators _ Greg Mattison is the latest to assume the role _ but the leader on the field and in the locker room wears No. 52.
"Ray is the guy that's been here since the beginning. If it's anybody's defense, it's Ray's defense," coach John Harbaugh said. "Obviously a great tradition has been built here, and you've got to say he's the one it's been built around."
The Ravens feared during the offseason that Lewis, as a free agent, would take his act elsewhere. But after flirting with a few other teams, Lewis returned to the place he's always been the most comfortable.
"I flirt with a beautiful woman I see walking down the street. That doesn't mean I talk to her," Lewis said.
Brett Favre, he is not.
"I'm bred here. I started my career here and I'm going to end my career here," Lewis said. "I will never put on another uniform and play for one year, two years. It's just not worth it."
Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan all became head coaches after directing defenses led by Lewis. So maybe there's something to Lewis' assertion that it's not the guy who draws up the plays, but the guys who run them on the field that win football games.
"The last 10 years, we've seen coordinators come in and out. Congratulations to Rex, go ahead and do your thing with the Jets," Lewis said. "We're Ravens. We're Ravens for life, and that's an honor. The way we play defense is our mentality, it's not the coach's mentality. So whoever comes and goes, it was good playing with you but it's time to go on."
Lewis made the Pro Bowl last season, led the Ravens in tackles, had three interceptions and recovered two fumbles. Yet, soon after Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game, he began working toward the 2009 season.
After consulting with linebackers coach Vic Fagio, Lewis sought to trim his 6-foot-1 frame to be faster from sideline to sideline.
"I think losing the weight has been good for him," Harbaugh said. "He decided he wanted to be a bit lighter and maybe a little more active."
Said Lewis: "First of all, it's just a blessing from God that I can do it year after year _ come back with no injuries, no setbacks, things like that. Anytime you can feel as good as I have this past offseason, you really have fun training. That's what I went back to."
His trainer, Monte Sanders, watched practice from the sideline Friday.
"Last year, he wanted to put on some weight. This year, he wanted to come down, get a little bit quicker and faster," Sanders said of Lewis. "For him, it was six miles a day of interval training, a bunch of ladders, a bunch of weightlifting. He's in incredible shape right now."
Looking at Lewis on the practice field, running hard on every play and yelling encouragement to those around him, a rookie can't help but be impressed. The veterans respect him, too.
"Ray is like the Michael Jordan on this team. His work ethic is totally off the charts," safety Ed Reed said. "His intensity and his character, and what he knows about the game, is what makes you want to get better."