Next man up


Vontaze Burfict

NEW ORLEANS — Ray Lewis has one game left and before the Bengals heave a sigh of relief they're going to cheer for him to go out Sunday with a Super Bowl ring.

"There are so many great stories," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who admitted during a quick stop down here this week the Ravens are his second favorite team. "When you build the thing from the ground up, you have several memories. We came from the dirt up."

Marvin Lewis is caught in a time warp during this purple-infested Mardi Gras staged for Ray Lewis. It was Marvin who molded Ray during his first six seasons in the league as the Ravens defensive coordinator, culminating in a week much like this one in Tampa 12 years ago when Baltimore held the Giants to just a kickoff return in the Super Bowl and Ray was named MVP.

"The relationship we had was more father-son, because we would find a different way to meet with each other," Ray said this week, reminiscing about Marvin. "I would come up to his office every day, sit there and pick his brain on how defensive coordinators thought, the things about being a man, all of these different things. He is one of the biggest reasons why my career is definitely where it is today."

It is 17 years later and Marvin is still molding and it just so happens to be another young linebacker.

The 20-year-old first-rounder out of Miami in Ray Anthony Lewis has morphed into Vontaze Burfict. When Burfict turned 22 this rookie season, it came the day after his first NFL start in Washington at WILL, an outside linebacker position he had never played until the week before. If Lewis was coveted, Burfict was unloved and undrafted.

"It's funny. A lot of my teammates call me (Marvin's) son," Burfict said this week from Corona, Calf. "A lot of my teammates see it as well that he wants me to be great."

So count Burfict as another Bengal rooting for the Ravens.

"I know fans in Cincinnati probably don't want to hear it, but I'm hoping Baltimore wins," he said. "I hope he gets to dance. I hope Ray Lewis wins his last game."

Burfict can be forgiven, too. The Ray Lewis story hits him too close to home.

"That's good me and Coach are going for the right team," he said with a laugh. "It's kind of the same thing going on right now. I want to be as good as Ray Lewis, of course. I want to be better. That's kind of how Marvin has been taken in on coaching me. Little things done well stacked up on a bunch of things and you can be a great player. He takes a lot of pride in practice and game film and different things just to try and make me better."


Ray Lewis is a hard guy to figure. He has been at the center of a double murder case, has six children with several women, and this week became tangled in a banned substance abuse scandal in which he has denied all allegations.

And yet as much hate and controversy as he inspires, he also commands a bottomless vat of loyalty and respect from a legion of coaches and players.

Just look in the locker of Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. For the past two years there has been a Ray Lewis checklist of what goes into being an NFL Mike backer.

"It will bring tears to my eyes," Marvin Lewis said of Sunday's final bow.

Hue Jackson, who may be named the Bengals running backs coach as soon as Tuesday, used to get all over Ray Lewis when he coached the Bengals wide receivers from the sidelines. Not only Lewis, but Terrell Suggs, and anybody else on the field for the Baltimore defense.

But there was enough respect there that when Jackson went over to coach the Ravens quarterbacks in 2008 and 2009, he developed a close relationship with Lewis that grew into a weekly Friday card game.

Earlier this week Jackson told The Baltimore Sun he was sorry for the distraction the banned substance story caused and he apologized to the Ravens for introducing Lewis and other Ravens to the owner of Sports With Alternatives to Steroids. Lewis has denied he took those supplements to help heal his torn triceps and Jackson told the paper he doesn't believe Lewis took them.

On Friday, Jackson reflected about their relationship and how it has stayed strong.

"It extends beyond the football field," Jackson said. "To me, Ray Lewis is every bit the football player and man I would think anyone would want. His passion, his energy, his thirst to win is greater than anybody I've seen."

One thing that has never been disputed is that Ray Lewis is the most generous of players when it comes to passing on his experiences to the next generation and those are his greatest supporters. Guys like Burfict, who suddenly got a phone call from Ray Lewis out of the blue heading into his last year at Arizona State. He never forgot it.

"My head coach (Dennis Erickson) hooked me up with him. He thought he could give me some words of advice going into my last season. We talked it up a little bit. He pretty much gave me some encouraging words. To keep going at it. It isn't easy. An individual can do it, it just takes dedication. Very sincere."


After Lewis avoided jail in the 2000 murder case. Marvin Lewis thought he saw Ray reach out more and more to younger players.

"It taught him a valuable lesson that he has been able to carry that message to others -- know who you are with, know your surroundings and never take things for granted," Marvin Lewis said. "He always had that ability but it also felt blessed that The Lord gave him another opportunity and that he should take advantage of it and do for others."

This week Ray Lewis's ears perked up when he heard Burfict's name.

"That's one of the ones I spoke to when he was coming out," Ray said. "I just spoke into his life and then he came back. We played him in Cincinnati and he came up to me and he said, 'I was the kid that you spoke to.' It was good. It was very rewarding to hear that he had made the steps and kind of took my advice and he said, 'Everything you kind of told me kind of stuck with me.' Just a bunch of stuff about being a better person and player."

That was after the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium, when Lewis sat out and watched Burfict take a page out of his book with 18 tackles to finish off his 174-tackle season for the most productive year ever by a Bengals undrafted rookie on either side of the ball.   

After it was over, Burfict approached Lewis and asked to have a picture taken with him. Which is a lot more than he did before his first NFL game, the Monday Night opener in Baltimore.

"I didn't go talk to him. I was playing special teams," Burfict said. "I just watched for him during (pregame). I couldn't even do anything with my team. I was too busy watching him, seeing what he was doing. It was just crazy."

All the tackles must have made Burfict feel worthy enough to ask for the photo as Lewis leaned into him and told him there is success in his future.

"It was shocking to talk to him and shake hands with him; a guy I admired so much," Burfict said.

Jackson knows Marvin Lewis about as well as anyone and he understands his approach with Burfict.

"You see that's Marvin's way," Jackson said. "He sees something in Vontaze. He knows if he can harness it and channel it and get it going in the right direction, there's a great, great football player there.

"Obviously Ray had to do the work, but Marvin knew what he had: a young talented, athlete who with the right seasoning could be a great player. If Ray respects you, he'll follow and you can't but help respect Marvin. Marv is knowledgeable. Marvin is determined. Marvin is strong and knows how to relate to players. With Marvin's skills as a coach, take a guy that's very talented and passionate and you get this great football player. Come Sunday it will end one of the league's greatest careers."

With 17 years of hindsight, Marvin Lewis has a pretty good idea why he and Ray clicked together.

"He's a smart guy and a young guy when he was drafted who had great ability and he had a great natural drive to be the best," Lewis said. "He hated to lose and wanted to make our team better and in that way we were connected."

And now Burfict is connected to both. Lewis won't play anymore snaps after Sunday, but Burfict, whether he stays at outside backer or goes to the middle, is going to keep him alive on tape.

"I love the way he gets off blocks really well," Burfict said. "That's part of my game I'm trying to improve. Get off blocks better. Making more explosive plays like he does. Just trying to get better than what I did last year."

Marvin Lewis has probably talked to Burfict more recently than he's talked to Ray. When he announced his retirement, Lewis said Ray had to change all his phone numbers and he doesn't have them.

That's OK. You may not be able to find him by his old number. After Sunday's game, No. 52 is headed to Canton and maybe heaven if the vote matches the rhetoric. But you'll be able to find a part of Ray in Burfict's No. 55 and Maualuga's No. 58 and all the other kids that watched for 17 years.

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