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NFL: Ravens' Lewis says farewell to fans in Baltimore

By Steve Ginsburg

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - With the clock winding down, Ray Lewis walked to the center of the field to soak it all in.

The Baltimore Ravens sent him out there -- on offense -- just so the crowd could pay homage to the first ballot Hall of Fame linebacker one more time.

And they did. As quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee to close out the game, the crowd roared more for Lewis than the Ravens' 24-9 AFC wild-card playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

It was theater at its finest. And the 71,379 who packed M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday hailed their hero like Sir Laurence Olivier performing on the London stage.

Every time he made a tackle the crowd stood. Every time he graced the large television screens they cheered. When Lewis trotted on the field each time, a city offered its thanks.

"My total focus today was to come in and play my heart out and get my team a win," said Lewis. "Everything else just came with it.

"There was probably no greater moment than seeing my kids, my mom, my dad -- my family right there in the end zone. That was probably when I lost it emotionally because I knew everything I have always done has been for them."

When the game ended, Lewis launched into his signature dance, an inspirational pre-game ritual that fires up the fans as much his teammates. Players from both teams surrounded the 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker in a show of respect.

Even if they continue to win, the Ravens will not have another home game this season, meaning Sunday's victory over the Colts was Lewis's swan song in Baltimore.

The Ravens' 1996 first-round draft choice had announced Wednesday that this year would be his last in the National Football League.

"We're all appreciative, grateful for the opportunity to be here and to witness this historic moment in sports," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. And it wasn't just about one guy.

"Nobody understands that more than the guy we're talking about. It was about a team. It was about a city, a fan base, about a great sport about a great career.

"I'm just humbled to be a part of it."

In an era of widespread team-hopping, Lewis played his entire career in Baltimore.

He had missed the last 10 weeks with a torn triceps, but started against the Colts and made 13 tackles. Lewis was widely figured to be lost for the season following his injury but the former Super Bowl MVP did not want to go out that way.

"Everything I did to get back, it wasn't for my team it was for my city," he said. "That's the one thing that I bought into from day one.

"I'm not just here to play football, I'm here to actually create real change in this city. If my effort can give you hope, faith or love then so be it.

"I'll give everything I have and today was about me giving everything I have. Showing people that no matter the circumstances that you may be going through, just push through it."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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