So it all comes down to this.
Now the 17-year veteran prepares to play in his final game, fittingly in a Super Bowl and against the franchise that had an impact in him arriving in Baltimore.
Let's flash back to April of 1995 and the first round of the NFL draft. The Cleveland Browns, led by head coach Bill Belichick those days, were in possession of the 10th overall pick and by all indications had their hearts set on Penn State tight end Kyle Brady. And so certain were the Browns that Brady was their man that there were rumors that there was a jersey with his name on it when he arrived in Cleveland for a press conference.
But lo and behold, here came the curve ball. The New York Jets opted to take Brady with the ninth overall selection, much to the chagrin of numerous Jets fans. But more significantly, it caught the Browns completely off guard and seemingly without a backup plan, they opted to trade the pick to the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers, who took UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes with the selection.
In exchange, the Niners gave up a lot, flip-flopping picks in the first round and giving up both third-and fourth-round picks that year, as well as a first-rounder in 1996. Now with the 30th overall pick, the Browns opted for Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell.
So let's fast forward to the season. San Francisco was on its way to an 11-5 season and a repeat as NFC West champions. The Browns were not only en route to a 5-11 finish but the franchise was on its way out of town. Owner Art Modell would be taking the team to Baltimore where they would eventually be referred to as the Ravens.Now we arrive at the 1996 NFL draft and Baltimore would now opt for a talent from UCLA, grabbing tackle Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall selection. Meanwhile, San Francisco would be slotted with the 26th overall pick, but that choice now belonged to the franchise that used to reside in Cleveland. And with that selection, Baltimore would take University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis.
Four years later in 2000, the Ravens would get hot at the right time and, led by one of the great defensive units of all time, plastered the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. Lewis was named the game's MVP in the team's only appearance in the Big Game. Meanwhile, the 49ers haven't been back to the Super Bowl until now.
So Lewis now faces the 49ers on the biggest stage in what will be his final afternoon playing the game he loves. In a league full of great stories and magnificent performances, it's also never short on historical irony.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. A former NFL research coordinator for ESPN, he is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.