FOXBORO -- Mention the name Ray Lewis to Vince Wilfork and his eyes light up.
“Love for the game,” Wilfork beamed on Thursday when I asked him what Ray Lewis means to him on and off the field.
“The passion that he brings and the leadership he brings to the table. You can just tell. That whole stadium will be riled up; Patriots coming to town, Sunday night football, early on. Trust me, he’s going to have them ready to play, jump through a building to play us down there. We understand that, too.”
Wilfork played at the University of Miami almost a decade after Lewis established himself as one of the most devastating inside linebackers in football. But anyone who has ever come through Miami's football program knows what Ray Lewis is all about -- and it's more than just football.
Mention the name to the average football fan and -- to this day -- most think of a fiery NFL linebacker who has become the iconic figure of one of the league’s best franchises.
There’s no doubt the Patriots have leaders. They have Wilfork, Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo and Logan Mankins.
There’s no doubt they have veterans. They have Patrick Chung, Kellen Winslow, Wes Welker and Deion Branch.
They have Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones and other playermakers on offense, defense and -- on most Sundays -- special teams.
But they do not have Ray Lewis.
He is the man constantly delivering sermons on the sidelines and on the field, begging his teammates never to give in, talking to all of them like he is the big brother who will always have their back.
Yes, Lewis is 37. Yes, he is slowing down and very susceptible to teams that can isolate him in the passing game. Yes, in short, he’s not the player he was when he came out of the University of Miami in 1996. But Ray Lewis is a lot more than just an aging inside linebacker. A lot more.
“Ray’s smart, very smart, studies hard, very well prepared and he has good physical ability and he has great instincts for the game,” Bill Belichick said this week. “He anticipates well, has great instincts for the feel for the game and timing and anticipation and things like that. Of course, a lot of that is his preparation and film study and experience and so forth, but you put all those things together, I think they all add up.”
Thirteen Pro Bowls, seven first-team All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl MVP later, Lewis is destined for Canton now 16 years after the Ravens drafted him in their first year in Baltimore after leaving Cleveland and Belichick behind.
The one thing Belichick did not include in his description of future Hall of Famer is the intangible of leadership. But that trait is understood in any and all discussions of the middle linebacker.
He is the heart and soul of a team that -- along with the Patriots -- is considered among the elite in the AFC.
The Patriots had this in Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau in 2007, the last time the Patriots traveled to Baltimore.
When the Patriots fall flat like they did on Sunday against the Cardinals, it leads one to wonder if that intangible of fire and brimstone might be the final missing piece to the Patriots’ Super Bowl puzzle.
Could the Patriots use a Ray Lewis-type figure on their sidelines and in the locker room?
Granted, the Ravens -- with Lewis and Ed Reed -- still lost in the AFC championship game in January at Gillette Stadium. But leadership and fire can go a long way toward instilling a sense of urgency on a roster filled with talent but loads of inexperience.
Just imagine what Lewis -- or Bruschi for that matter -- would say to Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. This isn’t to disparage the impact of teammates like Mayo, Chung or even Wilfork. It’s just that Lewis drives the point home with so much passion, it’s impossible to miss the point: You only get so many chances to play the game at a high level. Don’t waste a single snap.
Anyone who watched the NFL Network “A Football Life” series this week knows what Lewis means to the Ravens, the city of Baltimore and his family.
He didn’t hide his 2000 arrest for manslaughter. As a matter of fact, the entire show was framed by his speech to Harvard Law School this past spring when he acknowledged the pain of being arrested in front of his three sons.
Which brings us to the other side of the complex case of Ray Lewis. It’s defined by one word -- pain. It has been a frequent theme in Lewis’ professional life.
Following a Super Bowl XXXIV party in Atlanta on Jan. 31, 2000, a fight broke out between Lewis and his companions and another group of people, resulting in the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
Atlanta police questioned Lewis and two companions, and 11 days later the three men were indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges. The white suit Lewis was wearing the night of the killings never was found. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard alleged that the bloodstained suit was dumped in a garbage bin outside a fast food restaurant.
Lewis claimed that the prosecution knew he was not involved in the murder but chose to go ahead with the case anyway, saying, "You don't care if I'm guilty or not. You’re going to make sure I go to jail for life."
Lewis' attorneys negotiated a plea agreement with Howard, the Fulton County District Attorney, where the murder charges against Lewis were dismissed in exchange for his testimony against his two acquaintances and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice.
Lewis admitted that he gave a misleading statement to police on the morning after the killings. Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner sentenced Lewis to 12 months' probation, the maximum sentence for a first-time offender; and he was fined $250,000 by the NFL, which was the highest fine levied against an NFL player for an infraction not involving substance abuse. Under the terms of the sentence, Lewis could not use drugs or alcohol during the duration of the probation.
“I turn pain into my friend,” Lewis said in the NFL Network piece, which aired this week. “The only way to ever defeat pain is recognize that pain exists. That’s the only way you’ll ever defeat pain, because pain comes every second of our lives.”
Having overcome the emotional pain of having his name dragged through the courts and the court of public opinion, Lewis had to deal with something more persistent -- father time.
Lewis missed four games with turf toe in 2011, including an important divisional game against the Bengals in Baltimore in November. This was the message he had for his teammates before that game.
“Adversity defines true character,” Lewis said in the pregame huddle on the field. “If one of us is hurting, the other parts have to pick it up.”
The Ravens won, 31-24.
We’ve seen this before from Tom Brady. Most notably in November 2010, with the Patriots getting their butts handed to them on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, Brady went ballistic on his offensive line and skill players. They responded and the Patriots woke up and won. But that was more like Jay Cutler than it was Ray Lewis. And more to the point, when Brady does it, it makes news. When Lewis does it, it’s standard operating procedure.
Brady and Lewis had the following exchange after the AFC championship game last January at Gillette, while Brady was looking ahead to Super Bowl XLVI and Lewis was making up his mind whether or not to return.
“I love you, man,” Brady told Lewis. “I mean that.”
“I love you, too,” Lewis replied. “Stay strong.”
Lewis went on to deliver a powerful postgame speech to his teammates about what the loss told him about the Ravens.
“God has never made a mistake,” Lewis began, joining hands with coach John Harbaugh. “He’s never made one mistake. This year, we did what we were supposed to do. We fought as a team, we fought as a team. The fact is we have to come back and go to work to make sure we finish it next time. That’s all we have to do. Joe [Flacco], you played your [butt] off. You hear me, man? Don’t ever drop your head when it comes to a loss, dog, because there’s too much pain outside of this that people are really going through. This right here makes us strong. Let’s understand who we are as a team, let’s understand who we are as men. Let’s make someone smile when we walk out of here.”
Which brings us back to Sunday night in Baltimore.
This is arguably the most adverse -- and hostile -- environment the Patriots will face in the regular season. They are in Baltimore, with fans wanting blood for last January’s heartbreaking loss that kept Lewis and the Ravens from their second Super Bowl trip. There was speculation that Ed Reed and Lewis might retire after the AFC title game loss. They didn’t. A game like Sunday is part of the reason they decided to return.
And Wilfork -- the closest thing the Patriots have to Lewis -- has been reminding his teammates of this all week.
“We know it’s going to be tough; it’s going to be very tough going down there on the road to try to walk away with a ‘W,' especially against a team that knows us very well. It’s going to be tough, but at the same time, this is the NFL,” Wilfork told me. “We’re all professionals and we have to find a way to get it done. Everything we have, we’re going to have to give it to them. You can’t hold back. It’s a one-game season right now for all of us. We have to be able to execute well. If we execute well, we’ll put ourselves in a pretty good situation to win the ballgame. But if we don’t it will be a long day for us.”
It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Wilfork to hammer that point home in Ray Lewis style several times before kickoff.