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A different Ray Lewis will play in this Super Bowl

– Ray Lewis’ makeup was running.

It was eye black, actually, that dark, oily greasepaint football players smear under their eyes to cut down on glare, but which Lewis has begun using to fashion a fearsome facemask for himself. And somewhere amid all those hugs on the field and a few tears in the locker room, it had already turned into a mess.

Lewis was sitting on a table in the Ravens’ training room after a 28-13 win over the Patriots that punched his ticket back to the Super Bowl, enjoying a quiet moment by himself.

Then Terrell Suggs, his sidekick and fellow linebacker, burst into room bellowing, “The Ravens are going to the Super Bowl!” It was as though somebody threw a switch.

“Say it again,” Lewis looked up and said, just above a whisper.

Suggs complied.

“Again!” Lewis hissed, a little louder this time, and began clapping his hands over his head in accompaniment.

Then he rubbed his eyes – as if checking to make sure he wasn’t just imagining the scene. And just like that, the eyeblack that began the night covering his cheekbones now adorned his chin like a beard.

“We’re built a certain way and we’ve got each other’s backs, through it all,” Lewis said. He savored the moment, remembering how the Ravens left New England a year ago, eliminated in this same AFC championship game.

“Last year when we walked up out of here, I told them, I said, ‘We’ll be back. Don’t hold your heads down because we’ve got something to finish.’ ”

That won’t be for two more weeks, at the Super Bowl against the 49ers in New Orleans, but win or lose, Lewis will be finished. A tough guy playing a position where toughness is a given, he defied the odds by lasting 17 seasons; all of them with the Ravens.

Lewis’ leadership is more than his stats, more than his awkward dance out of the tunnel, more than the hoarse pregame speeches he gives.

“There’s so many things you can say about Ray, but the thing you don’t see just watching the games is how much work he puts in,” backup linebacker Paul Kruger said. “A lot of guys outside this locker room have been talking about how we’re all playing for Ray, and that’s true. But playing for Ray means playing for yourself, too, and playing for the team, because that’s what he cares about most.”

Though it wouldn’t hurt, Lewis doesn’t need another Super Bowl, let alone another Pro Bowl, to secure his legacy. At least not the football portion of it. Lewis won the NFL’s biggest prize once already, in 2000, and was named MVP in that game to boot. He’s been picked for the Pro Bowl 13 times.

But a trip back to the big game will carry echoes of his last trip there, a year after Lewis was charged in a double murder after a Super Bowl party at an Atlanta nightclub a year earlier. Under an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and testified against his two former co-defendants. Neither was convicted, and Lewis eventually reached undisclosed cash settlements with the victims’ families.

Lewis worked hard to rebuild his reputation and slowly won back the kind of respect that had nothing to do with his play on the field.

“Ray’s a guy that’s turned everything over,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s surrendered everything and he’s become the man that he is to this day. He’s a different man than he was when he was 22 or 15 or whatever. I think everybody sees that right now.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.His columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.

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