On April 20, 1996 the Baltimore Ravens, with the 26th overall pick, took an undersized and slow middle linebacker out of the University of Miami.

That pick raised eyebrows by “experts” for the second time in the first round for the Ravens. Earlier, with the fourth overall pick, the franchise chose Jonathan Ogden instead of the very talented, but troubled Lawrence Phillips. Were the Ravens smarter than everyone else in the room that day, or were they reaching and overlooking better players?

After over a decade of stellar play from Ogden and going on 16-years of excellence from Lewis, the Ravens really should not have to ever defend what they do in the draft. They did enough on that day to last them for a lifetime. It was obvious that this franchise knew what they were doing.

With Ogden, they got a rock on the offensive line. A man that would anchor one of the more dominant running attacks in the early part of the century. With Ray they got…well, more than even they could imagine they would get. They got a sensational football player and an entertainer all rolled up into one package.

Ray Lewis has been the ultimate “Face Of The Franchise” throughout his career. He’s been the man that’s led the charge for this fan base and the man who this organization turns to when they’ve needed a leader.

It’s hard to imagine a day without Ray, but that day is imminent as the Canton-bound middle linebacker enters his 16th season in the National Football League. It’s a day Ravens’ fans can’t imagine as Lewis has remained a constant on the AFC’s Pro-Bowl team and 1st and 2nd team All-Pro honors in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

How do you think about a man who’s still playing at that level to retire anytime soon? Easy when that man is living on barrowed time in terms of what’s expected of any NFL player, especially one who’s been one of the best for two football generations.

Who leads the team out of the tunnel if not Ray Lewis? Who fires up the crowd and his teammates if not Ray Lewis? Who’s the face of the organization if not Ray Lewis?

Professional sports is all about marketing. Yes, for the fans, it’s about winning, but it’s difficult to market a losing team. We should know that in Baltimore. Without Ray Lewis, who do you market? Ravens’ fans have recently struggled with this reality when the team decided to part ways with veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Part of me believes that maybe the fans were having a hard time realizing that this generation of football stars were fading. Today Mason and Heap, but who’s next? Was that our football lives flashing in front of our faces?

Sports greats become super heroes and Ray Lewis has been the leading man for two decades. Old habits are hard to break, but one day, it’s going to happen. I’m not trying to rush the process at all, but I’m very realistic. Ray Lewis can’t play forever. We just wish he could.

Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobLongSports


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