- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS -- Dressed in a snappy powder-gray suit, Ray Lewis shuffled on sandaled feet into a ballroom at the team's downtown hotel.
A few hours after the Baltimore Ravens arrived for Super Bowl XLVII on Monday, the 17-year veteran faced the media for the first of four sessions in four days.
Wedged into a narrow gap in the steady stream of obligatory last-dance retirement questions was this modest query: "Ray, do you remember getting your first career sack?"
Lewis brightened, for this wasn't an invitation to deliver a farewell soliloquy. It was a simple matter of trivia, though hardly trivial.
"John Harbaugh," he offered, a little too quickly.
There was an awkward pause. Lewis grimaced and corrected himself, saying, "Uh, Jim Harbaugh. Yeah."
At the age of 37, it's sometimes difficult to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday, so it wasn't terribly surprising that Lewis briefly confused the Ravens coach with his San Francisco counterpart.
"Absolutely, I remember it," Lewis said. "How could I forget it?"
Seventeen years ago, on Oct. 13, 1996, Baltimore's rookie middle linebacker tackled the Colts quarterback for his first career sack. In Sunday's Super Bowl, Lewis has a chance to achieve some poignant symmetry in what he has billed as his last game -- a final career sack against Jim Harbaugh's 49ers.
It's a minor thread in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but it's another example of the NFL's mysterious circle of life.
It was only a single play, one of more than 15,000 in his career, one of more than 2,500 tackles from one of 248 games, but it remains a milestone that Lewis clearly cherishes. Harbaugh? Not so much.
When the subject of Lewis' first sack victim surfaced Tuesday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Harbaugh responded, "I've been informed that that was myself."
There was no flicker of interest, no attempt to reminisce. Next question.
Harbaugh said he didn't hear about it until a few weeks ago, when his father Jack passed along that little nugget after talking to Baltimore reporters.
"My legend grows," Harbaugh deadpanned in San Francisco in early January. "Ray Lewis' first sack."
Harbaugh insisted he has no memory of the sack.
"No, I don't," said Harbaugh, 49. "In 1996? I've forgotten half my life."
That 1996 game was no ordinary Week 7 regular-season contest. It was TNT's first Sunday night game and it featured, for the first time, the Ravens meeting the franchise that had left their city in Mayflower moving vans 12 years earlier under the cover of darkness. The Ravens, no strangers to relocation themselves, were playing their first season in Baltimore since leaving Cleveland.
The Ravens had drafted the University of Miami star with their No. 26 overall pick (offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was their No. 4 overall choice), and Lewis made an immediate impression. That evening at the RCA Dome he was flanked by Mike Croel on the left and, on the right, Jerrol Williams.
Marshall Faulk, the Hall of Fame running back who played a (regrettably) pivotal role in that sack, said his first impression of that game concerned Lewis' extraordinary speed.
"I broke into the secondary on the right side and I looked back -- I never looked back -- and this linebacker is chasing me," said Faulk at the NFL Network's interview session Tuesday at the Superdome. "I mean, he just ran around the cornerback and the safety, and he was chasing me. I knew right then he was something special."
With a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter, the Colts had a first-and-10 at the Ravens' 49-yard-line. Harbaugh leaned under center Kirk Lowdermilk and dropped back to pass. Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett came crashing down from Harbaugh's left, flushing the quarterback forward. Lewis was blitzing up the middle, but Faulk didn't see him until it was too late.
"Yeah," Faulk said. "It was just a weak attempt at a block by me. It was me and him up the gut. I just didn't engage him far enough up the field. I'm getting pissed off just thinking about it right now."
Burnett, who played for 14 seasons before retiring a decade ago, laughed at the memory.
"Marshall's skill set was unbelievable," Burnett said from Baltimore, "but blocking wasn't one of them. I don't think he wanted to block -- his hands were too precious."
Harbaugh, trapped seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, fell right into the arms of Lewis.
"I was just running around making plays," Lewis remembered. "When I sacked him, I remember getting up and doing this dance with my shoulders, shaking my shoulders."
It wasn't the signature, back-arching dance routine we have come to know so well, but you can see its origins in that very first shoulder shimmy under pads that were way too wide for his then-narrower frame.
"He was just 21, a baby," Burnett said. "He wasn't a legend back then, but you could see it coming."
The Ravens, who would finish the 1996 season 4-12, lost by a score of 26-21. Harbaugh completed 9 of 15 passes for 155 yards and 1 touchdown. Lewis led all players with 11 tackles and 1 of the team's 4 sacks. The Colts went on to earn a wild-card playoff berth with a 9-7 record.
Two years later, Harbaugh would join Burnett and Lewis as teammates on the 1998 Ravens squad.
"He was the furthest thing from what we call those pretty-boy, don't-touch-me quarterbacks," Burnett said. "There was no baseball slide with Jim Harbaugh. He was putting his helmet in your chest -- in practice, sometimes even in the hallway."
Lewis said Harbaugh coaches the same way he played.
"He is kind of straightforward," Lewis said. "He is a hard worker. He understands what he wants to get done. And when he comes in to get it done, he is going to do everything he has in his power to get it done. He is a very passionate person, but he always has purpose in what he is doing."
Harbaugh might not remember the play, but he remembers the man -- fondly.
"Ray Lewis is one of the greatest players to ever play the game," Harbaugh said. "He's a fine person, a great football player and a man I truly respect."
So, does Harbaugh really not remember the play? Reporters peppered him with the question more than once.
Harbaugh flashed a by-now familiar look of disgust, the one where his eyes seem slightly crossed.
"I could make something up," he said, "but I'd be making it up."
Ray Lewis will never forget his 1996 sack of Jim Harbaugh -- even if the 49ers coach has no recollection.