OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — It seems almost impossible to imagine the Ravens without Ray Lewis, who has anchored Baltimore's renowned defense ever since the team came into existence.
For 17 years, Lewis has been stalking opposing quarterbacks and running backs. He inspired his teammates with emotional speeches, proudly donned his No. 52 jersey on Sunday afternoons and did everything in his power to help Baltimore win.
Soon, all that will only be a memory. In a stunning announcement Wednesday, the two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year said he will retire after the Ravens complete their 2013 playoff run.
"It caught me by surprise, because we all thought the great Ray Lewis was going to play forever," Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I thought he was going to surpass Brett Favre and still be out there doing it well into his 40s. He let us know that the sun is setting on his career. It's amazing and it's sad, all at the same time."
When Lewis gathered his teammates together Wednesday morning, no one had a clue what he was about to tell them.
"Everything that starts has an end," the 37-year-old Lewis said. "For me, today, I told my team that this will be my last ride."
The reaction was stunned silence.
"I thought we were getting our 'Let's go on a run in the playoffs' speech,'" Suggs said. "Not that."
Lewis has been sidelined since Oct. 14 with a torn right triceps. He intends to return Sunday to face the Indianapolis Colts in what will almost certainly be his final home game.
And when he does his trademark dance after emerging from the tunnel, Lewis will receive an ovation 17 years in the making.
"That moment I walk out of that tunnel Sunday, every person that was a Ravens fan — 1996 to this day — we will all enjoy that moment," he said. "It will probably be one of the glorious moments in my life."
Lewis is poised to walk away from the game because he wants to spend more time with his sons. While working to return from his injury, Lewis watched two of his boys play on the same high school football team in Florida. He intends to see Ray Lewis III perform as a freshman next year for the University of Miami, where Lewis starred before the Ravens selected him in the first round of the 1996 draft.
"God is calling," Lewis said. "My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father for 17 years. I don't want to see them do that no more. I've done what I wanted to do in this business, and now it's my turn to give them something back."
That's why Lewis will pull off his uniform for the last time after the Ravens lose or claim their second Super Bowl title.
"It's either (that or) hold onto the game and keep playing and let my kids miss out on times we can be spending together," Lewis said. "Because I always promised my son if he got a full ride on scholarship Daddy is going to be there, I can't miss that."
Lewis was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2000, the same season he was voted Super Bowl MVP following Baltimore's 34-7 rout of the New York Giants. Lewis was also Defensive Player of the Year in 2003, and is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 career sacks and 30 interceptions.
"I never played the game for individual stats," Lewis said. "I only played the game to make my team a better team."
After the Ravens moved from Cleveland, Lewis was drafted 26th overall in Baltimore's first draft. He became a fixture at middle linebacker and a beloved figure in Baltimore, and remained that way even after his alleged involvement in a double-murder in Atlanta in early 2000.