WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — There is no way to determine for sure if Ray Lewis is the best middle linebacker in NFL history.

Many would argue in his favor. Others might suggest Hall of Fame stars Ray Nitschke, Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier were more talented and fearsome.

This much is certain: No one has played the position as effectively for so long as Ray Anthony Lewis.

The Baltimore Ravens are preparing for their 15th NFL season, and so too is Lewis. He has been their starting middle linebacker since their opener against the Oakland Raiders, when he had nine tackles and an interception to earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Lewis has since been invited to 11 Pro Bowls, was named Super Bowl MVP in 2001, twice was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year and has led the Ravens in tackles in 12 of his 14 seasons.

“Nobody in the history of the league at his position has done what he’s done. It’s incredible. It’s not even close,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Some of those guys played nine, 10, 11, 12 years at the most. Here he is in his 15th season.”

Singletary made it through 12 years, Lambert and Lanier hung on for 11 seasons, and Butkus quit with bad knees after nine seasons. Nitschke survived 15 years, but back in those days the NFL had a 14-game schedule. Nitschke played in 190 games; Lewis is at 194 and still going strong.

And the 35-year-old Lewis has given no indication that he’s even close to wrapping up his sensational career.

“The love of the game keeps me going,” he said. “It’s just the 1-on-1 battle, man, and the love for me will never stop.”

That’s how it’s always been for Lewis. His fierce tackling, passion for the game, outstanding lateral movement and ability to lead has been part of his repertoire since his rookie season.

“Like Day 1, that’s how I feel in the 15th year,” Lewis said. “It’s the same thing. The bottom line is, football isn’t going to change. Football is always going to be football. The integrity of the game is built by coming to help your team win a championship.”

That, as much as his affection for the game, keeps Lewis coming back year after year. It’s been a decade since Lewis and the Ravens won their only Super Bowl, and he’s thinking it’s about time it happened again.

“When I won it, (safety) Rod Woodson made it special for me. (Tight end) Shannon Sharpe made it special for me,” Lewis said. “And now, the chemistry that I’ve built with Ray Rice or Michael Oher or Joe Flacco, to win one with them would be a very special thing. Then they’ll talk about the same thing, when Ray was special. It always comes around.”

Heck, his teammates are already talking about Lewis with reverence.

“The guy is unbelievable. He really is,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “To play that long at that position, and as physical as he’s played — whatever water he’s got linked to his house, I’ve got to get some.

“It’s not just the physical side, but the mental side,” Johnson added. “He’s always got a chip on his shoulder, he’s always hungry, never content, never satisfied.”

Said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who signed as a free agent during the offseason: “Everybody in the league knows what kind of respect Ray gets for what he’s put into the game.”

After all these years, Lewis hasn’t changed.

“He’s just as excited, he’s just as enthusiastic about football, he’s just as into it. He wants to have an impact on all the young players, he wants to have an impact on the team,” Harbaugh said. “All he can think about is this season. Maybe that’s what has made him so good. He thinks about one practice, one week at a time, one season at a time.”

There’s no telling how long the cycle will continue.

“At some point in time, the end of his career is going to come,” Harbaugh said. “And when it does, there’s no linebacker in the history of the game that’s going to have a better body of work than what he’s had.”


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