Standing in the sand outside his oceanfront villa in the small South Florida town of Highland Beach, Ray Lewis waves at an older couple as they stroll by on their morning seaside walk. Unlike many of his neighbors in the exclusive hamlet outside Boca Raton, the legendary Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker—now in his 13th NFL season—is hitting the beach behind his off-season home to avoid retirement.
Covered with sweat and a 45-pound weight vest, the two-time defensive player of the year is halfway through a set of 20-yard-deep sand sprints, just one element of his 90-minute early-morning grind. He’ll complete three total workouts before this muggy June day is over. “I don’t like the beach that much,” Lewis admits between gulps of water during a 60- second rest interval. “I’m always working on it.”
Not that Lewis has ever shown an aversion to putting in work. Now 33, the Lakeland, Fla., native is still producing on an elite level, leading the team with 120 tackles in 2007 en route to his ninth Pro Bowl selection. Considered one of the best to ever play his position—arguably the most physically demanding on the field—Lewis has already outlasted the careers of Hall of Fame middle linebackers Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary and has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“I’m going to play four more years,” the 6’1″, 250-pound Lewis announces. “I really don’t believe I’ve played my best football.” The bodily toll of a 13-year NFL career would seem to render an improvement on his 225-tackle season in 2003 or his MVP winning performance in Super Bowl XXXV impossible, but those who know Lewis aren’t quite ready to doubt him.
“Every now and then you’ve got exceptions in this world, and Ray is one of them,” says Ravens assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who’s in his tenth season coaching Lewis. Ryan, whose father, Buddy, served as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears in the mid ’80s, claims the only player he’s ever seen match Lewis’s work ethic was Walter Payton. “[After retiring], Walter was asked if he would’ve done anything different. And he would always say, ‘I would’ve worked harder,'” Ryan says. “He worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. I feel the same way about Ray.”
While most NFL players take at least a month off to recover after the season, Lewis skips only two weeks, during which he still gets in a light workout almost every day. He also focuses more on flexibility and nutrition than ever before—the only meat he eats is fish—but remains old-school when it comes to his off- season routine, trading the chance to train with fellow pros in high-tech facilities like Arizona’s Athletes Performance for his own methods.
“Football isn’t played on no machine. Those are great if you want to run a 40,” he says. “But if you want to survive in the league for 13 years, you better go back to your dog days. The dog days is sand. The dog days is taking three decks of cards, flipping each card over, and whatever’s on the card doing the number [of pushups and situps].”