By Matt Palmer
Lewis, a star in the mid-1990s at the nearby University of Miami, was re-defining the position of linebacker during Gooden's formative football years. Lewis, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, had become one of the NFL's most dominant forces by claiming Super Bowl most valuable player honors, two NFL Defensive Players of the Year awards and Pro Bowl selections by the handful.
When Gooden joined Miami's team in 2003, he sought out Lewis' number 52 much like aspiring basketball stars snapped-up No. 23 in the 1980s and 1990s.
In July of 2008, Lewis went looking for Gooden.
The Ravens had selected Gooden, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker, in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. As Gooden's first NFL training camp approached, Lewis requested one thing from team officials: that he share a room in the team's Westminster, Md. hotel with Gooden.
A year later, Lewis still has a watchful eye on Gooden and another promising, second-year linebacker, Jameel McClain. Both are hoping to fill the vacated starting linebacker spot left by the departure of Bart Scott.
Scott, who made the Pro Bowl with the Ravens in 2006, signed a long-term, free-agent deal with the New York Jets in the offseason. Scott followed former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to New York after Ryan became the Jets head coach.
Lewis says the would-be replacements are ready.
"On the field, athleticism, they're gifted in that area, but the way that Jameel and Tavares have already been over to the house, just to gain that knowledge, they're searching for it, and I'm giving it to them," Lewis said after the team's first mini-camp workout May 8. "But to see them apply it, it's a great thing to see what those guys are doing."
Lewis' attention to detail and his rigorous offseason workouts are the stuff of legend. The two young linebackers said they could not pass up the opportunity to visit with the 10-time Pro Bowl selection.
"Everyone looks at the game with one set of eyes, but with Ray it's like he's looking at it with 20 sets of eyes," McClain said.
Gooden aspires to the same career longevity as Lewis, who will play in his 14th season with the Ravens after re-signing with the team in the offseason.
"I know one day, hopefully when I'm in my 13th or 14th year, I can be somebody for some other kid and do all the right things and show everybody the right way to do things."
Gooden and McClain know they are stepping into potential star-making roles. Scott was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002. Within four years, he was a household name. Adalius Thomas, now with the New England Patriots, was a sixth-round draft pick by the Ravens in 2000. Within six years, he had become a two-time Pro-Bowl selection and graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs has been to two Pro Bowls since being drafted by the Ravens in 2003.
Failure is not an option in the Ravens linebacker corps.
"You don't want to be the weakest link," Gooden said. "They know I'm not going to be the weakest link because I just run around full speed and I just tackle people. Ray and (Pro Bowl safety) Ed (Reed) and the whole defense, they love that. That's what I love about this defense.
"They're going to hype you up. That's one thing these guys do. They don't make me feel like I am any less than they are. They make me feel equal to them. All of us play as one unit. We all get excited and celebrate with each other."
McClain invoked the latin phrase "Carpe diem" when asked about the opportunity. The lone undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Ravens to make the 2008 roster said he plans to seize each day. During the 2008 campaign, the Syracuse product played in all 16 regular season games and all three playoff contests.
That wasn't enough.
"I just want to keep playing and keep learning more," McClain said.
During the team's first mini-camp sessions, it was Gooden who found himself amongst the first unit defense. Coaches and players were curious how the second-year player would respond after missing most of his rookie season with a hip injury. He played in just four games before being placed on injured reserve last October.
Reviews have been spectacular thus far.
"Tavares looked fast today," head coach John Harbaugh said May 8. "To me, he looked like a linebacker. He was really patient on runaways, stayed square, played downhill, stayed on the backside of the play. It wasn't just running around like crazy. He played fast as a linebacker, which is good to see."
First-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was effusive in his praise of Gooden.
"I see a stallion," Mattison said. "I see a guy who looks like he's been to the Kentucky Derby that's been tied up for a year and is bigger and stronger. He came out the first day and was like a wild horse. But he's gotten better and better."
McClain spent much of last season at the outside linebacker spot, but appears destined to learn from Lewis at inside linebacker this season.
"We felt his feet and his athleticism and his body build would be much more suited to be a [middle inside] linebacker," Mattison said of McClain's shift. "He's picked it up right away. He's done a really good job."
Mattison attributes offseason growth for Gooden and McClain to linebackers coach Vic Fangio. The former defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts spent the last three years as a special assistant to Harbaugh and former coach Brian Billick. When Harbaugh promoted Mattison to replace Ryan as defensive coordinator, Fangio took over the linebackers.
"Vic Fangio is doing a great job with those 'backers," Mattison said. "I was teasing him in a meeting yesterday, 'Coach, last year they didn't get coached at all, because they sure have improved.' (laughing) I think really good things are coming up from there."
Gooden's intensity stirred discussion at the Ravens' Owings Mills headquarters throughout the first mini-camp session.
"Tavares is sometimes going too fast," Lewis said. "At a jogging pace, he wants to hit somebody, like right now. So, I've got to calm him down."
The second-year linebacker said he has one gear on the field.
"I don't know any other way but full speed," Gooden said. "Ed (Reed) told me yesterday, 'T, slow down! You're speeding. You're going 100 in a 70!' I don't know how to go half-speed. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing. I had a hip injury from just pounding, pounding and pounding. Now I don't feel it. Everything is great. There's nothing holding me back."
Gooden said he is aware that his Miami pedigree will only get him so far in the NFL. A legacy, he said, is not handed to anyone. It's taken.
"When you're in college, you watch all those Miami Hurricanes in the locker room and on the television," Gooden said. "You watch every game. Seeing Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, those were our top guys at "The U." I want to be out there on Sundays. I want to be talked about as one of those guys who adds to the fire, adds to that greatness."
As the 24-year-old linebacker looked out on the practice fields of the Ravens' complex, he almost ceased to sound like Tavares Gooden. The offseason sessions with Lewis suddenly took over his language.
"It's your 'want to' and willingness to get to the ball (that determines success)," Gooden said. "That's what I was always taught and that's what Ray told me. He said, 'whatever you do, just make sure you touch the ball.' So that's what I try to do every practice. Wherever the ball is, you'll see me flying through the screen on film."