- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS -- We spend our whole lives creating a unique narrative. It is human nature to want to carve it in stone, the way we would want history to remember us.
But rarely does it come together like a soaring Disney movie, with a string orchestra underneath and all the storylines tied neatly together.
After 17 seasons in the NFL, Ray Lewis will play his final game Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII. It has been a dozen years since the Ravens defeated the Giants for their only Lombardi trophy. Lewis was the most valuable player. More than anything, he has said again and again (and again), he longs for the sight of confetti in the air.
"You always have these dreams, and you see the Super Bowls, and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, if I can ever be there one day,' " Lewis said during media day on Tuesday. "In my fifth year, I win it. Then, I go, go, go and I get close, I get close, and now, I am back. I'm back on my last ride. To go out with that confetti coming from the top of this building, and hearing those famous words, that the Ravens are Super Bowl champions, there is no greater legacy."
Will he go out on top -- or be left wanting? What if his quest ends in defeat? And even if the Ravens triumph, will that wash away the questions about Lewis that persisted here?
While Lewis was relentlessly crafting his chosen narrative, he was confronted with reports that he had used a banned substance to rejuvenate a torn triceps muscle -- making this "last ride" possible after he missed 10 games. That was the contention of Mitch Ross, co-founder of Sports With Alternatives To Steroids, in a Sports Illustrated article.
"I wouldn't give him credit," Lewis said, "or even mention his name or his antics in my speeches or my moment."
Lewis was similarly protective of his "moment" when asked about his role in a double murder after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in January 2000.
"I don't know anybody that's ever lived a perfect life," Lewis said, declining to go into specifics about the incident in which he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
Is this really the end?
Could Ray Lewis, as Ravens safety Ed Reed mischievously suggested, be playing us? Is he really retiring?
"I wouldn't be so certain about that," Reed said. "Ray might make a comeback. He might play 10 games next year."
Lewis says he has no such plans. "No. I've run my course in football. When I say I'm done, I'm done."
Certainly, Lewis still seems operationally viable. He leads all players in this postseason with 44 tackles.
But on Jan. 2, Lewis marked his rapidly diminishing territory, saying his career would end when the Ravens' season did. At the time, it seemed that would likely come at Denver or, at the very least, New England.
But as Baltimore rallied to upset the Broncos and then the Patriots in breathtaking fashion, the trajectory of the story grew into something approaching a quest -- a Quest, really. Lewis understood that by announcing his intentions, his teammates would rally around him, pushing the Ravens even further.
"I've watched many people on how they retire, and when they retire," Lewis explained. "I had not just an obligation to myself, but I had an obligation to my teammates and I had an obligation to my city -- that I did not want to end the season and then say, 'I'm gone.' I've invested too much time into Baltimore, into my teammates and into the organization to ever just walk out like that. I would have robbed a lot of people of those last goodbyes for me and them. That is why I did it that way."
Lewis is the most recent prominent athlete to delve into this ambitious tradition of exit strategies. After 14 seasons, Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver announced his retirement Thursday. He won a Super Bowl ring two years ago. Perhaps, if he is on the winning side Sunday, the 49ers' Randy Moss will follow him. Ravens center Matt Birk is also said to be debating whether to call it a career. Retirement is an emotional beast; you could hear it in Driver's voice when he talked about it. Psychologically, it's a difficult concept for any athlete to wrap his head around.
Sports history is filled with all kinds of unlikely exit scenarios. For every Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight boxer who finished his career 49-0 with a knockout of Archie Moore, center Bill Russell, whose last game was a Boston Celtics victory in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals in Los Angeles, and Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who went out with a Super Bowl victory to end the 2007 season, there are thousands of athletes who weren't so fortunate. Lance Armstrong, for example, won seven consecutive Tour de France titles before he retired in 2005. How did that work out?
Sometimes, it can get a little awkward planning your own retirement party.
The Bus drives home
If you're into the whole destiny thing, this one in the Big Easy is playing out a lot like the exalted exit of Jerome Bettis after the 2005 season.
Actually, the Bus decided to retire the year before, after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Bettis had completed a dozen seasons, run for more than 13,000 yards and his next destination looked to be Canton, Ohio. Wide receiver Hines Ward, tears in his eyes, announced Bettis' retirement to the media after the Steelers' last team meeting.
But the buoyant running back's teammates eventually talked him into one more run. Their best lobbying ploy: Super Bowl XL was going to be played in Detroit, Bettis' hometown.
It grew into a crusade and, naturally, the Steelers got there. When it was time for the pregame introductions, linebacker Joey Porter held the rest of the team back and Bettis ran onto Ford Field all by himself. It was a superbly cinematic moment.
"That was the best," Bettis said in a recent interview with ESPN. "The guys really appreciated what I had done to that point. There was a sense in the locker room that 'We're going to win this football game.' "
Cue the 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the game ball handed to Bettis by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the fluttering confetti, the hoisting of the Lombardi trophy, the shoutout back to Pittsburgh: "One for the thumb," Bettis declared.
He carried 14 times for 43 yards. It was his 206th and final NFL game; he was the last Steelers player to leave the locker room.
Scaling the mountain
After Pete Sampras won the last match of his career -- the 2002 U.S. Open final against rival Andre Agassi -- he exclaimed, "This one might take the cake."
It was his 14th major singles title, the most ever for a man. Still, he never said anything about retiring. It would be months before he finally realized his career was over.
"Once the aftermath of the Open went away, I wasn't sure what was next," Sampras told ESPN.com. "I'd hit balls every couple of weeks and I'd think, 'What am I doing out here? What am I getting ready for?' "
The Australian Open passed, then the tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. In late March, preparing to hit on the court behind his Lake Sherwood mansion in Ventura County, Calif., his coach, Paul Annacone, was the second to know it was over.
"He was lacing his shoes up," Annacone remembered, "and he said, 'I'm done, I'm done playing.' Just like that."
Sampras did not immediately go public.
"I wanted to give myself a chance," Sampras explained, "but once I saw Wimbledon come and go and I didn't really miss it, I finally knew I was done. I played to prove things to myself, no one else. The record books don't matter. I had just climbed a big mountain and was happy."
Riding off into the (Hawaiian) sunset
"We had a tough time getting over that hump," Elway said in an ESPN interview. "The pressure builds from the expectations of your fans. It's difficult."
The strong-armed quarterback had played 14 seasons, amassing historic numbers, particularly in the area of dramatic comebacks, but he was never a champion -- until Super Bowl XXXII. The Broncos beat the Packers 31-24 in San Diego, but Elway chose not to walk away into the Rocky Mountain sunset. He knew Denver had a chance to be even more dominant the following season.
Sure enough, the Broncos beat Atlanta 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII and Elway was the MVP, completing 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards and one touchdown. At 38, he was the oldest-ever Super Bowl MVP.
"To be able to walk away from a career and be able to say 'I've got two Super Bowls' was unbelievable," Elway said.
While there was no announcement after the game, Elway was leaning toward retirement. That following May, after discussions with his father Jack, he made it official. That Super Bowl wasn't his last game, though.
The following week, Elway completed four of five passes for 55 yards in the opening drive of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. His last pass was a 3-yard touchdown to Sam Gash. Of course it was.
Michael Jordan just couldn't get enough of the long goodbye. He liked retirement so much, he did it three times.
Pay attention, there will be a quiz later:
After going his first seven seasons without an NBA title, Jordan won three in a row with the Chicago Bulls, from 1991-93. And then he walked away -- only to resurface as a minor league baseball player for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. In 1994, the Bulls retired his No. 23 jersey and unveiled a bronze statue at the United Center.
In March 1995, Jordan announced he was finished with baseball and returning to the Bulls with a simple two-word declaration: "I'm back!" He eventually ripped off another three-peat, from 1996-98. In six successful NBA Finals, he was the MVP each time. And then he retired again, in January 1999.
Unable to leave it alone, he signed with the Washington Wizards in 2001. Predictably, it did not go well. His last game was Aril 16, 2003, in Philadelphia. With 1:45 remaining, he was intentionally fouled by the 76ers' Eric Snow, sank two free throws (his 14th and 15th points) and left to a three-minute standing ovation.
The UCLA Bruins had just won a heart-stopping 75-74 overtime game against Louisville in the 1975 national semifinals, when John Wooden announced he was retiring. Properly fired up, UCLA beat Kentucky in the final for the coach's 10th NCAA basketball title in 12 years. Al McGuire, too, had a keen sense of timing; his last Marquette team defeated Dean Smith's Tar Heels for the 1977 title.
Tony La Russa managed three teams to World Series titles. Three days after the St. Louis Cardinals won in 2011, he confirmed his retirement. La Russa became the only manager in Major League Baseball history to retire in the same season he won a World Series.
Bill Walsh also went out on top, but it was a bittersweet experience for the San Francisco 49ers coach.
Walsh led the 49ers to Super Bowl victories three times in the '80s, the last a thrilling 20-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in South Florida in January 1989. His departure was no grand gesture; he was exhausted and believed it was necessary for his mental and physical health. As the success of the 49ers under his successor, George Seifert, grew, Walsh reportedly came to resent it. The Niners repeated, winning Super Bowl XXIV 55-10 over the Denver Broncos, and awarded Walsh an honorary ring.
He never wore it, and eventually, he gave it away.
"The sickest man in America"
For 15 seasons, from 1963-77, Jackie Smith was the St. Louis Cardinals' state-of-the-art tight end. When his career ended, he had amassed 48 catches for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns -- sure, chump change for Rob Gronkowski, but huge numbers back in the day.
At the age of 38, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys for the 1978 season. Smith was used almost exclusively as a blocker in goal-line situations and did not catch a single pass all season long. But in Super Bowl XIII, the Cowboys called his number. Trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-14, Roger Staubach dropped back on third-and-3 and fired the ball to Smith, who was all alone in the end zone. It hit him in the hands, but he flinched and dropped it -- all things considered, one of the worst drops in league history.
"Bless his heart," broadcaster Vern Lundquist intoned, "he's got to be the sickest man in America."
The Cowboys settled for a field goal and ultimately lost 35-31. That drop was the last time Smith ever touched the ball; he retired before the 1979 season. Fifteen years later, he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One more shot
Michael Phelps, who has 22 Olympic medals, is the most decorated Olympian ever. But it might never have happened if not for a certain Ravens middle linebacker.
After taking home eight gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the swimmer was exhausted. It was his third Olympiad, and he wasn't sure he had the strength to train properly for London. At the same time, Lewis, a fellow Baltimorean, was finding it harder and harder to stay healthy. They talked often about their situations.
Phelps credits Lewis with providing the motivation to return to the pool.
"He probably helped me put some things in perspective," Phelps told ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill after the Ravens won the AFC Championship Game in New England.
"One more shot," Lewis would tell Phelps. "We are going to have one more shot."
Phelps put in the work and won four golds and two silvers in London. His last gold medal, which came in the 4x100-meter medley relay, was his 18th. It was also his last official swim.
"Without getting into details -- what we talk about I have never said to any other soul on this planet -- I'm just very fortunate to have somebody like that and somebody as powerful as him in my life," Phelps said. "I can never thank him enough."
Ray Lewis is trying to go out as a champion -- an ending that few in sports have managed to attain.