BEREA — Hero worship can be a dangerous thing in the NFL, especially if the idol in question is a snarling, bone-crushing, freak of nature like Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
“Some of our young guys have probably been Ray Lewis on PlayStation (video games), now they’re playing against him,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said Thursday. “But you’ve got to be able to get past that.
“It only affects the game if you let it affect the game. It’s only an issue if you let it become an issue.”
Mangini will find out just how much of an issue Lewis is Sunday afternoon, when winless Cleveland travels to Baltimore in Week 3.
Though the Ravens have added numerous offensive playmakers in recent years — including quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, and wide receiver Anquan Boldin — the face of their franchise remains Lewis, an 11-time Pro Bowler.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pounder has long boasted Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials, but he continues to add to them on a weekly basis with the only team he has ever played for.
At age 35, Lewis leads Baltimore with 14 tackles and one quarterback sack, fueling its status as the league’s secondranked defense — and raising his career totals to 2,360 and 37½, respectively.
“He is one of the most physically gifted human beings who has ever played the game, and that goes to his passion and work ethic,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “There also isn’t a guy who works harder in the league today at his age. He’s so passionate about everything he does.”
Lewis’ passion came through loud and clear on a conference call with the Browns’ media. At various times he was playful, pensive and defiant — but always stone-cold serious about his dedication to the game.
“Nobody has ever gotten up with me at 5:30 in the morning, nobody knows what my body feels like, nobody knows how hard I train,” said Lewis, who was the 26th overall selection in the 1996 NFL Draft. “Nobody knows that, so when people speak about, ‘Oh, he’s lost a step,’ you don’t know that unless you’ve trained with me.
“When you hear those things, it’s what keeps me going over and over and over again. I’m hungrier in my 15th year than I was in my first year.”
Mangini was part of Lewis’ rookie season as an assistant coach for Baltimore. He remembers the pre-draft discussions between general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach Ted Marchibroda and owner Art Modell about the Miami (Fla.) star, as well as the draft room process that led to his selection. Suffice to say, he is a big fan of the only player in NFL history with 30 sacks and 25 interceptions.
“I use the term ‘force multiplier’ to describe Ray because he makes the people around him better,” Mangini said. “He makes everyone want to play better because he’s constantly pushing himself.When arguably your best player has that type of work ethic, it affects everyone else in a positive way.”
And in turn, Lewis has affected Cleveland in a negative manner, putting up huge numbers in 20 head-to-head matchups. He has amassed 245 tackles, 11 passes defensed and four interceptions against the Browns, along with seven sacks — his most against any team in the league.
Lewis says he plans on upping those totals this season while continuing to defy Father Time.
“I always tell people, ‘Be careful what you ask for,’” he said. “An older Ray Lewis is much more wise. I used to run around not knowing what I’m doing. Now, I’m running around knowing what I’m doing, knowing exactly where you’re going to be and beating you to the punch.”
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com.