No. 1: Ravens LB Ray Lewis
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Or, to put a finer point on it -- when Mike Ditka looks at today's player, whom does he want lining up next to him or across from him?
Which of today's players did our group of Hall of Famers deem really old school?
The playing days for our 20-member Hall of Fame panel spanned the '60s (Jim Brown) to the turn of the century (John Randle).
We presented four players a day, culminating with our top four Friday.
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WHAT THE HALL OF FAMERS SAY ABOUT RAVENS LB RAY LEWIS
JIM BROWN: Ray Lewis embodies everything that a player should have and more because not only does he fulfill his role, but he helps everybody else on the team. He has a great heart, and his mental toughness is as good as it gets. You don't want to have a physical tough guy without him being mentally tough and having heart, which means he can hang in there and give up a certain part of himself that other people are afraid to give up.
JOHN RANDLE: What else you can say about Ray Lewis? He plays the way I played and I respect the hell out of him. It's amazing to see how well he's doing because you know all the times he plays injured and hurt. He has definitely left his mark on the game. I don't think there will be another one like Ray. When you think of the Ravens you think of Ray Lewis. For years when offenses set up, the first thing they say is, "Find out where Ray Lewis is." Regardless of that fact, he still establishes himself as one of the best year in and year out. When you look at the game you see how it's changed over the years, but Ray Lewis has never changed over those years.
MIKE SINGLETARY: I've got to make it a tie at the top between Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis because choosing between these two for toughness is like choosing between your kids. Ray Lewis is No. 1 because he's been the best defensive player in the league for years.
LYNN SWANN: The fact that Ray Lewis has been able to play 16 seasons is amazing. You can't even notice a drop-off. He'd be viewed the same way in my era. He'd be at middle linebacker and he'd be an absolute terror, like a Dick Butkus.
DARRELL GREEN: Ray Lewis is as tough as nails. He's a guy that plays with a reckless abandon on every play he's ever played. He only has one speed and one way of getting his job done. He makes a conscious decision in every game, on every play, on every rep of bringing the same Ray Lewis that went out there on the 10,000 plays before. He has to do the same boring wax on/wax off with the same drive and the same power. Him doing that, to me, for that period of time with always that amount of intensity, that's huge.
SONNY JURGENSEN: Ray Lewis is the first guy who comes to mind. When you think of those old linebackers, you think of Ray Lewis. He is an exceptional player, with exceptional passion for the game.
DWIGHT STEPHENSON: Ray Lewis' toughness peaked when he dislocated his elbow so seriously that a teammate was forced to help him put on his jewelry. Lewis missed two games, returned wearing a heavy brace and registered 11 tackles against Pittsburgh.
LEWIS ON HIS TOUGHEST NFL MOMENT
Lewis was having another All-Pro season in 2002 before suffering the first major injury of his career. On Oct. 6, 2002, he hurt his left shoulder while trying to recover a fumble. As Lewis was falling to the ground, his shoulder popped out and back in while he tried to brace his fall.
The injury was so serious that it eventually forced him to go on injured reserve, but Lewis was determined not to miss the rest of this game.
As soon as I popped it, I remember falling on the ground, and I knew something was wrong. And I came to the sideline, he [the trainer] started moving it. I was like, "Just let me see if I can do some pushups." If I can do pushups, I can play, you know? And so, when I jumped on the ground, I just -- I did like 12 or 15 pushups. I was like, "I'm good. I'm good."
And I went back in the game. Because, like I said, I knew something was wrong, but I also know it's just one part of my body. I got a whole part of me left that I'm willing to sacrifice for the men that's out there fighting with me. So my pain is put in the afterthought. I don't got time to think about that right now. And when I went back out there, I played, I think, like, eight, nine plays. And then, I got on the goal line, I ran into this guy -- pow -- and I knew it was done. I was like, OK, I'm going to do more damage, you know, if I stay in here.
But that's kind of the thing we're talking about, when we're talking about toughness, you know? I don't call myself tough; I call me dealing with that injury tough, you know, just because I made up my mind, to say, no pain lasts always. That's always my philosophy with pain: no pain lasts always.
ESPN.COM'S JOHN CLAYTON ON LEWIS
Like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and other great interior linebackers, Lewis has the style and intensity that works in any era. He has an old-school appreciation for the game and its physical nature. He reminds me of a cross between Butkus and Singletary. He understands football is a game of collisions and contact.
From his early days as a wrestler, Lewis learned how accelerate his body and make violent tackles that not only stop offensive players but also intimidate them. On top of all his physical skills is his leadership. He's held the Ravens' locker room together and has given his franchise a physical persona since his arrival.
CLAYTON ON HALL OF FAME CHANCES: Because he's one of the best leaders and inside linebackers in NFL history, he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN
ON TWITTER #NFLNYERA
Just read in '02 Ray Lewis' shoulder popped out during a game, he showed the trainer he could still do pushups & went back in o_O #NFLAnyEra— GV (@gregstwitta) January 27, 2012
#NFLAnyEra list by ESPN was a Steeler love fest, but I obviously can't argue with Ray Lewis at number one. Much respect, Ray-Ray.— Martin Marrufo (@martinpmarrufo) January 27, 2012
ray lewis right where he should be.... 1 on #nflanyera list— Danny Sadler (@DannySadler23) January 27, 2012
#NFLANYERA TOP 20
Additional reporting by ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain, Louise Cornetta, Amy Parlapiano and Alyssa Roenigk.
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