By Larry Fine
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Ray Lewis, the face of the Baltimore Ravens franchise, believes the time has come for another Super Bowl title for his team and a storybook ending to a brilliant, 17-year National Football League (NFL) career.
"I just think that if it is your time, it's your time," Lewis told reporters on Wednesday ahead of Sunday's NFL title game in New Orleans between Baltimore and San Francisco.
"For us to be here today, it's bottom line, our time."
Lewis has been one of the dominant linebackers of his era since joining the Ravens in their inaugural season after being selected with the 18th pick of the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of the University of Miami.
Lewis, a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, seven-time First Team All-Pro, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Ravens' Super Bowl win in 2001, has also been the unquestioned leader of the team even while dealing with controversies.
The deeply religious Lewis has led with a fervor and showed his evangelical fire on Wednesday when asked again to react to a report he had dismissed the day before claiming he had taken a banned substance this season to aid his recovery from injury.
After firmly denying the allegation, he said the matter would have no affect on his team mates.
"It's a joke, if you know me. I tell them all the time, and this is what I try to teach them, don't let people from the outside ever come and disturb what's inside," Lewis told a news conference.
"That is the trick of the devil. The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That is what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you are trying to do.
"These are lessons that I teach my team mates, that outside don't matter. I don't care what nobody says about us, or what they want to report. I have too much respect for the business, and my body, to ever violate like that."
Lewis has dealt with other controversies, most notably when he was linked to a double murder that took place after a scuffle outside an Atlanta nightclub in the early morning hours of the 2000 Super Bowl, which he attended as a spectator.
The linebacker was initially charged in the murder but later plea bargained to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge. He was also fined $250,000 by the NFL for his involvement.
"I live with it every day of my life and I would rather not talk about it," Lewis told reporters during the massive Media Day that kicked off the Super Bowl week.
Lewis began to rehabilitate his image immediately following the Atlanta incident as he led the Ravens defense in a record-setting season that carried them to a one-sided Super Bowl triumph over the New York Giants.
Brian Billick, coach of that Ravens team and now an analyst for the NFL Network, said Lewis had become an inspirational figure both on and off the field to rightfully earn the respect of players across the NFL.
"People keep saying, is he the greatest linebacker of all time?" said Billick. "I'm not into labels, but let's talk about the greatest defensive players of all time. He's in the discussion."
The former coach said the redemptive nature of Lewis's story made his NFL journey even more special.
"It's a great story, a great American story and it's a great way for him to go out," Billick said about Lewis's return to the Super Bowl stage. "For him to be able to finish his career the way he has, it's a fairy tale ending."
Billick said that from his earliest days in the league, the fiery Lewis revealed his leadership skills.
"You could see right away the passion, the intensity and the ability," the former Ravens coach and current broadcaster said.
"When you see a Shannon Sharpe, a Rod Woodson, a Trent Dilfer, a Tony Siragusa, who had been in that league a while, and who normally would be those leaders ... capitulate the leadership of this team to a young Ray Lewis, that told me there's something special about this guy."
Off the field, Lewis founded the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation to help underprivileged youth in Baltimore and underlines the importance to team mates of making a difference in people's lives.
This season, Lewis came back from a torn triceps suffered in October to join the playoff push even as he announced he would retire when the Ravens' season ended.
Fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs, who also battled through injuries this season, called Lewis's decision a turning point for Baltimore.
"We all focused ourselves and you know, the reality set in that we're not all going to play forever," Suggs said. "We always say about (how) the window of opportunity is closing. That kind of got everybody's mind right to go on a run."
Lewis noted that the Ravens had come close in recent years, failing in two of the previous four seasons to clear the final hurdle for a return to the Super Bowl, so this trip was especially sweet.
"When the clock hits triple zeros, no matter what happens, that will be my last ride," said Lewis.
(Reporting by Larry Fine)