When Bruce Lee first appeared on The Green Hornet, leaping down stairwells and launching lightning-fast leaping kicks, it was otherworldly; there was no category for it in the zeitgeist. A few years later and 45 minutes into Game of Death, we were ready for his blindingly quick rabbit punches and the eerie vocal twitterings that accompanied them. It was all still remarkable, but it was expected. Same with a Hendrix guitar solo or a Michael Jordan dunk. That's what the greats do: They alter our assumptions and change our concepts of the possible. They warp the world, or at least our expectations of it.
Ray Lewis is one of those greats. He's existed at that incomprehensible, barely human level, for 17 years-but let's be honest, this season, he was not the player he once was. The focus shifted from Lewis' considerable gifts as an athlete to the more esoteric qualities he brought to the game. For 17 years, Ray Lewis has been the standard-bearer for a city. He has been the nexus for a certain part of our civic pride. Sunday night's highlight reels were full of Ray Lewis and his "Squirrel" dance. Muhammad Ali was such a showman, but he stood alone. Jim Brown never danced his way out of the tunnel and neither did Larry Bird. Lawrence Taylor might have snorted a pile of cocaine the size of Jim Burt before every game, but even as high as a kite flown out the window of the space shuttle, he never danced. Dancing Ray changed the sporting world's expectations of what a great team athlete could be.
All that dancing is for the fans, though. The screaming is great, but how far does it really go toward the final score? So they pointed at Ray's leadership and his pregame war sermons. "What time is it?" and "Any dogs in the house?" Lewis would shout at his teammates, who'd answer respectively in unison with a mighty "Game time!" and a ferocious stream of barking. (Little known fact, Ray Lewis' famous calls-and-responses stemmed from a massive misunderstanding. He'd actually forgotten his watch and was worried that he'd left his dogs in the yard. That's why he asks each question twice. He really was just trying to get a straight answer.) It all seems a bit cliche now, but, like the laser strikes of Bruce Lee, it was almost mystical when Lewis first began the tradition. Joe Montana never gathered his team about him before battle; Mike Singletary led quietly. Though now it's become a part of the league, Lewis was first, and he became not only the leader of the Baltimore Ravens but also, in some ways, the force of his leadership rippled through the entire NFL community.
Of course, were it just the dancing and the theatrics, just the cheers and the speeches, no one would care. It took his play to carve out his legend. But this season Lewis had become a shade of himself. His arms once seemed to hold the stopping power of an aircraft carrier's arrestor cables. The way he'd end the forward progress of Eddie George or Jerome Bettis made you believe he could snatch a 30-ton F-14 from the sky and bring it screeching to a halt. But Bettis retired six seasons ago, and George-who was drafted in 1996 12 slots ahead of Lewis-was done two before that, and this year, it seemed opposing running backs were all too likely to break through those once impossibly mighty arms. For such an impenetrable wall of a man, his blinding quickness once made him appear almost omnipresent on the gridiron. He made tackles by the dozen, sideline to sideline, and could blanket the speediest tight end all over the field. This season he often seemed a few steps behind the play and he'd been a liability in passing situations for some time. And that was before he missed the final two months of the season with a torn triceps.
When Lewis took the field on Sunday, staring down Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts through his shimmering visor and his new facemask, thick and menacing like the prow on a steam locomotive, there still seemed to be something missing. His right arm was cocooned in a technological marvel, a mechanical brace that should have made him even more fearsome, more maniacal, but somehow made him seem human. It was hard to expect greatness on the field from a man hiding a recently torn triceps behind a brace so big it looked like he'd ripped it from the legs of Forrest Gump.
But 4:40 into the first quarter, Andrew Luck barked out his snap count, and before anyone on the field had even shifted, Ray Lewis, the stereotypical No. 52, had already taken a full stride. He covered the ground between his middle linebacker spot and the line before the center had even gotten the ball into Luck's hands. He twisted his body and slipped between the giant men on both lines untouched. It's an absurd notion, that a 250-pound man could slide through such a space and do it so quickly, so powerfully, like a Bruce Lee kidney punch, and with such ferocious grace, such consummate artistry, like Hendrix on a burning guitar, and with such absolute authority and finality, like a thunderous, two-handed dunk from MJ. Linebackers don't make those plays. Before Ray Lewis, human beings didn't make them, but how many times have we seen such plays from Ray Lewis? The eight-armed goddess Durga lacks the fingers to keep count. On the field, in the heat of the game, with elegance, authority, and mind-bending power, Ray Lewis redrew the lines of the possible and forever warped the football world.