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DENVER – Inside the empty locker room Peyton Manning hugged Ray Lewis.
This was long after the great double-overtime playoff game had finished Saturday evening, after Lewis had left the field and the near-zero temperatures, victorious. This was also after Lewis had wept at his locker, eye black rolling down his face. And this was even after he showered, dressed slowly in a suit, did a news conference and a television interview that went longer than promised.
Manning undoubtedly wanted to go home, yet the Denver Broncos quarterback waited somberly inside a deserted Baltimore Ravens locker room. Beside him was his wife Ashley and their nearly 2-year-old son Marshall. Saturday's defeat had to be one of the most agonizing of Manning's career – a 38-35 loss in a game he was 38 seconds from winning – and still the Mannings stood in front of the empty locker of Ravens nose tackle Terrence Cody for a long, long time Saturday evening.
They did this because it was Ray Lewis.
Because in his last days of football, the Ravens linebacker won't walk silently into the night.
"I'm so happy for you," Ashley Manning said as Lewis finally walked into the room.
Then Peyton Manning and Lewis talked quietly, their voices mostly muffled but the tone obvious and admiring. If Peyton Manning wasn't going to go to the Super Bowl it was clear he wanted Ray Lewis to be the one who did.
The Ravens won't crumble in these playoffs. The team that looked lost the last few weeks of the season has come to life in the postseason, since Lewis, their star linebacker, came back from a triceps injury that was supposed to have ended his season. Now that he has returned and said his career will end when the season does, it is as if the Ravens have gathered behind him in one last desperate push for a Super Bowl that has eluded them since they won their only championship in 2001.
They were supposed to lose to the Broncos on Saturday. They were done when they got the ball on their own 23-yard line with 1:09 left in regulation, trailing 35-28. Then quarterback Joe Flacco, the one who has endured so much scorn in Baltimore, heaved a long pass to receiver Jacoby Jones, who grabbed the ball from the frosty air and ran to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown that tied the game. They survived an entire overtime until they hit the winning field goal less than two minutes into the second overtime. And all of it seems so much like something that is bigger than them all.
All week Lewis had challenged his teammates. He told them not to listen to the voices outside their practice facility in the Baltimore suburbs. He called on them to remember all the injuries they endured in a season where starter after starter went down. He told them he had a dream they would bond together and fight through significant odds and win a championship.
Then before they left the locker room on Saturday afternoon he quoted the Bible.
"No weapon formed against us shall prosper," he said.
At halftime he brought the players together, made them touch each other and repeat the same phrase.
"The whole day I just needed my team to keep reciting: 'No weapon,' " he said later. "The energy is crazy, the emotions are crazy, but to stay the course the way this team stayed the course, I tip my hat off to my team."
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The players do not speak openly about Lewis' impending retirement and the motivation it appears to have rendered. They say this run is bigger than him. Head coach John Harbaugh agreed on Saturday, pinching his fingers about an inch apart when asked to quantify how much Lewis' retirement is driving the team. He too spoke of the Bible. He said he realized that talking about this will make people uncomfortable but he spoke as if Lewis' expressions of faith has become a unifying element in a room that a few weeks before might have been filled with doubt.
"There's a spirituality in here," Harbaugh said. "I can't describe it."
Perhaps such things are said on nights like Saturday, when victory is pulled from certain defeat. But there is also no doubt that the booming presence of Lewis stomping around the locker room has brought this team to life again. If Lewis is going to quote scripture, the Ravens are more than happy to buy in.
The last several days have allowed them to realize how much they love him. His retirement announcement stirred stories of the complex legacy of a trusted leader who also once was charged in a murder case. They have rallied behind him as this history has been discussed and maybe in this too they have come closer.
Lewis was sick all week. He had a fever. He coughed so many times he just wanted to collapse in bed. The last four days were awful, he later said in a small hallway beneath Sports Authority Stadium. But he kept pushing because he doesn't want to let go of his dream, for himself and for his team. He had 17 tackles Saturday, seven more than any other player on the field. "This one situation we just kept fighting and kept fighting," he said.
He talked about the embattled Flacco and said: "He grew up today."
"You're the general, lead us to victory," he said he told Flacco.
Then in the small hallway behind the Ravens' locker room, he leaned against a cinder block wall and smiled. He said he cried in the locker room after the game because he was exhausted from trying to convince his teammates to believe in his dream.
Then he closed his eyes. The television technicians fiddled with his suit jacket, clipping a microphone to the lapel. Someone reminded him that Manning was waiting and he wondered where.
"I'm missing a great moment with a great winner right now," he said to no one in particular.
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And when the television people were done, he opened a door and walked back into the locker room, now empty, save for the Mannings. Ashley Manning pulled out her phone and asked for a picture. Her husband stood next to Lewis. Manning wore a gray overcoat. He looked sad. Lewis beamed, his smile wide. Manning's was smaller, more subdued.
They shook hands, the great quarterback congratulating the leader of the Ravens who had inspired his defeat. Then they broke apart, heading in opposite directions: Manning to an offseason he probably still couldn't accept and Ray Lewis toward another week of football in the season that won't end.
Then off toward the bus Lewis walked. He pulled a suitcase. A Ravens official walked next to him and they laughed as they left the stadium with the impossible dream still very much alive.
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