Hundreds of games later, he's ready to call it a career.
"I'll make this last run with this team, and I'll give them everything I've got," he said. "When it ends, it ends. But I didn't come back for it to end in the first round."
The news of his decision to retire quickly resounded throughout the NFL.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who served as Lewis' defensive coordinator last year, said, "I thought, shoot, the guy could play forever and would play forever. Great person, great man, great player, just an unbelievable human being — what he's done for that organization, that city and for that matter, so many people. He's obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will be sorely missed."
Marvin Lewis, now Cincinnati's head coach and Lewis' first defensive coordinator in 1996, said, "He's had a tremendous career, tremendous impact. His mentorship to other players, his leadership is hard to describe."
The two men met last Sunday before Baltimore's game against the Bengals. Marvin Lewis recalled, "I said to myself, 'He doesn't look a day older than when we drafted him.'"
Lewis was respected by his peers, too, even those who were on the receiving end of his crushing tackles.
Green Bay defensive standout Clay Matthews said, "I know guys around the league — offense, defense, special teams — look up to him because of how he goes about his business and the influential role he has not only for his team but around the league."
Lewis is the key figure in a defense that has long carried a reputation for being fierce, unyielding and downright nasty. He led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons, the exceptions being those years in which he missed significant time with injuries (2002, 2005, 2012).
When Lewis tore his triceps against Dallas, it was feared he was done for the season. But he would have none of that.
"From the time I got hurt, everything I've done up to this point has been to get back with my team to make another run at the Lombardi (Trophy)," he said.
Well, not everything. Lewis spent time watching his boys play football, which caused him to call his rehabilitation "bittersweet." After spending countless hours from Monday through Thursday working to return from the injury, he hopped on a plane toward Florida to be with his boys.
"I got to be there every Friday," Lewis said. "Me being who I am, not having a father myself, that damaged me a lot. I didn't want my kids to relive that.
"One of the hardest things in the world is to walk away from my teammates. But the now I'm going to step into other chapters of my life.
"I knew I couldn't split my time anymore. When God calls, he calls. And he's calling. More importantly, he calls me to be a father. It's OK to be Daddy. Yes, this chapter is closing, but the chapter that's opening is overwhelming. That's what excites me the most."
Lewis could have made the announcement during the offseason.
"I think my fans, my city, I think they deserved for me to just not walk away," he said. "We all get to enjoy what Sunday will feel like, knowing that this will be the last time 52 plays in a uniform in Ravens stadium."
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay and National Writer Nancy Armour contributed to this story.
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