The end of Ray Lewis' spectacular career has been a development long feared and debated endlessly in Baltimore, but when it suddenly crystallized Wednesday with Lewis' announcement that this was his "last ride," his timing was just right.
Pretty close to perfect, I would say.
By walking away now, after his 17th season, he avoids the possibility of putting himself and his public through a painful final act, like Johnny Unitas in San Diego or Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards. Although Lewis obviously was on the backside of his career in recent years, he never slipped so far that you wanted to cover your eyes.
In what turned out to be his final regular-season start against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 11, he was in on 14 tackles, still a major factor, before suffering a triceps tear. That's a far cry from Willie Mays stumbling after fly balls he used to pocket, the harrowing sight from the 1973 World Series that stands as the ultimate snapshot of an athlete hanging on too long.
That Lewis never sank to mediocrity or worse was a borderline miracle given that he is 37 and plays a young man's position, but his commitment to conditioning and his unparalleled enthusiasm for the game enabled him to beat* *the odds and endure as a high-quality performer.
As wise as Lewis is, he surely knew that his chances of continuing to beat those odds were narrowing, that if he waited too long, he could end up forcing the Ravens to sit him down, a scenario neither wanted.
Now it will be written that he upheld an estimable standard to the end, an accomplishment that is rare and in keeping with his high place in history as one of the greatest middle linebackers ever, perhaps even the best.
And while one could argue that Lewis upstaged his team's playoff run with his Wednesday announcement, I think the timing actually was pretty perfect there too. The Ravens are entering the postseason on the wrong kind of roll, having lost four of their last five games. They could use an emotional boost, and Lewis just provided it.
"We owe it to Ray and to the fans to keep him out there playing as long as possible," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said.
Until Wednesday it was Sunday's visitors, the Indianapolis Colts, who seemingly had the emotional high ground, as their coach, former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano, is just back on their sideline after battling leukemia, and they obviously want to win for him.
Now the Ravens have a similar motivation, although Lewis would be the first to say his retirement pales next to Pagano's life-threatening battle as an emotional crucible.
Nonetheless, he could have waited until after Sunday's game to announce he likely had strutted through his pregame pump-up dance for the last time, but instead made his plans known beforehand – for a reason, I believe. Ray Rice was already choking up Wednesday at the thought of Lewis' final dance out of the tunnel, a moment sure to pack an emotional wallop the likes of which this city has seldom seen. Why not put it to use?
Lewis' teammates were surprised, to put it mildly, when he announced his news to them in a Wednesday morning meeting, several hours before he told the media; none of the other Ravens saw it coming.
"People were just shocked," defensive tackle Arthur Jones said.
But as Lewis spoke to reporters, it quickly became clear that he was at peace with the decision, that wanting to spend more time with his sons superseded all else now, and that it was especially important because his father wasn't around when he was growing up.
He had made a pledge to his eldest son to be there to cheer if the younger Lewis played major college football, and that time has arrived. Lewis' eyes danced as he spoke on the subject Wednesday; this is what boils his juices now.
To get to fulfill that pledge while also retiring as a starter on a playoff team, after a Hall of Fame career, well, if that doesn't qualify as the perfect time to walk away, what does?