Neil reflects on the highs and lows of Ray Lewis's career
Prepare yourself for some true sporting theatre when the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII from New Orleans on Sunday night.
This weekend's NFL title showdown will see Baltimore's Ray Lewis - the greatest middle linebacker in league history - play in the final game of his illustrious 17-year career.
And Lewis is sure to be the centre of attention as he dances his way out of the tunnel and then likely sets a new playoff record for the most tackles in a single post-season (he has 44 in three playoff games this season and needs two to break the record) at the age of 37.
But the future Hall of Famer has not been able to spend his final week in the spotlight answering questions about his tremendous career and what it will mean to run out to the cheers of thousands of fans one last time in the biggest game of them all.
Instead, he has been fielding questions about deer antlers!
Lewis was accused - via a Sports Illustrated article - of taking deer antler velvet extract in order to speed his recovery from a torn triceps that robbed him of 10 games during the regular season.
According to the reports, the deer antlers - which come in spray form - contain an insulin-like growth factor called IGF-1. I won't get into the science of that too much but suffice to say that hormone is banned by the NFL and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Lewis insisted time and again this week that this was a case of the company who makes the product - Sports With Alternatives to Steroids - trying to cash in on his fame and profile. If that was the plan, it has worked to perfection for the owners of SWAT's.
Lewis labelled the reports as "foolish" and "a joke" and added: "I've never ever taken what he says I was supposed to have taken. It's just sad that someone can have this much attention on a stage this big. I don't need it, my team-mates don't need it and the San Francisco 49ers don't need it."
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was also drawn into the media fire-storm and rightly pointed out that his star linebacker has never failed a single drugs test in his 17-year career.
Dividing opinion as he has done again this week in New Orleans is nothing new for Lewis, who has overcome significant controversy early in his career to reach the very top of the NFL totem pole with players around the league labelling him 'The Godfather of the NFL'.
Following the Super Bowl in Atlanta 13 years ago, two men were stabbed and killed following an altercation outside a nightclub. Lewis was originally charged with the double murder of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar but was acquitted relatively quickly.
He did plead guilty to a minor charge of obstruction of justice and offered evidence against his former friends Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting - but that double murder remains in the back of many people's minds when they watch Lewis take centre stage each Sunday in the NFL, even though he was never charged with the killings that remain unsolved to this day.
Maybe as a result of being close to such trouble in Atlanta in 2000, Lewis surrounded himself with the right kind of people over the ensuing years, became a force for good and grew into one of the most inspirational leaders the NFL has ever seen.
And he doesn't limit his inspirational leadership to the gridiron. Stories of his philanthropy have become the stuff of legend in Baltimore and his home state of Florida. After each Ravens home game, Lewis drives to a deprived part of 'his' city, approaches troubled youths on street corners and talks to them about making a better life for themselves.
The man who grew up without his father in the home and who sometimes couldn't afford to eat, is trying to make the lives of young people better so they don't have to go through some of the things he suffered while growing up.
He carries out a great deal of work with troubled youngsters through his Ray Lewis Foundation and even spent four days in London this past summer mentoring members of the British American football team, the London Warriors.
The Warriors - who feature television presenter Vernon Kay among their playing squad - work extensively to get troubled teenagers out of gangs and playing American football. In short, that team was right up Lewis' alley and he couldn't wait to get to London to inspire yet another group of young men.
As he told me this week in New Orleans, "the Warriors will always hold a special place in my heart. I love those guys. I want to give them a big shout out."
One of a kind
On the field, there has never been a middle linebacker quite like Ray Lewis. His desire to succeed is unmatched and he can take over a game with his sure tackling and complete refusal to be out-worked by anyone else on the gridiron.
And the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of Super Bowl 35 has been versatile, making plays against the run and the pass throughout his playing days.
Even now, in his 17th and final season, Lewis is first to the ball. He may look a step or two slower than during his prime, but he still ends up being the first one to drag down the ball-carrier - fired by a supreme level of football intelligence and a hunger to succeed that is off the charts.
I was privileged to spend four days with maybe the greatest defender in NFL history over the summer and I want to share with you some of his thoughts on football, life and his impending retirement.
Here are my 10 favourite Ray Lewis quotes from the interviews I conducted with him for Sky Sports...
1. "I truly believe when you isolate it, work ethic is the number one thing you need to succeed in life. If you go through all the great ones, the common denominator is work ethic. That is the gift."
2. "Either you do it the way I want it, or you can find another team. You're not going to mess around in practice and not pay attention in meetings. If you're going to do all that, you don't need to be in Baltimore."
3. "I'm an open book to anybody. My greatest motivation is people. I'll pick up my phone and speak to a kid who doesn't have a father or I'll speak to a kid who can't eat or cannot afford clothes. Every day I find a way to make it a better day."
4. "If you've been in the game as long as I have, you realise that wins and losses fade very quickly in life. All you have left are your morals, your integrity, who you are and where you came from. What have you done to make sure you don't fall back into those traps?"
5. "I chase pain. I chase what that feels like because I know that results come from doing that. Most people run away from that pain."
6. "I was never the biggest, I was never the fastest and I was never the strongest - but I've never met a man who will out-work me."
7. "When I got my first football jersey as a little kid I was so excited. It's the same today. I've played this game for a very long time but I still have that same passion."
8. "I don't care if people come in faster than me, that's fine because I'm not running track - my concern is for me to make more plays at the linebacker position. Being a linebacker is about effort - not talent."
9. "When my window closes, you will never have to worry about Ray Lewis making a comeback. I went too hard and took my family and kids through too much, sacrificing things for my NFL career."
10. "I love this game."
So after 17 seasons, hundreds of hard hits and more inspirational speeches than you can shake a stick at, Ray Lewis will divide opinion one last time in Super Bowl XLVII.
While Lewis is never going to be able to run away from his past and some will never change their opinion of him, there is no denying his greatness as a player and a leader for the Baltimore Ravens.
And as a Muhammad Ali-like showman who does enjoy the odd third person reference to himself, Lewis is going to be more than comfortable with the eyes of the world trained on him at the Superdome on Sunday night.
Whether you love him or hate him, there can be no denying that Ray Lewis is going to put on quite a show at the Super Bowl.
And I find it fitting that one of the greatest players in league history and one of the most controversial and iconic figures in American sport will go out on the biggest stage of them all.