Tom Brady, Ray Lewis a classic collision of opposites
Tom Brady and Ray Lewis. The quarterback and the middle linebacker. Finesse and force.
They are former Super Bowl MVPs, masters of their crafts, and the faces of their franchises - the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. Today they clash at Gillette Stadium, with the winner earning a trip to Super Bowl XLVI Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Lewis is the man in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens, the team he’s been with since its inception in 1996. He has led the Ravens onto the field for 16 seasons, including 2000, when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. He is 250 pounds of power, muscle, and emotion, and has made a living separating running backs and receivers from the football. He could make you fumble just by yelling at you.
Brady has been the Patriots quarterback since September 2001 and has won three Super Bowls. He has thrown 50 touchdown passes in a single season and today commands the most explosive, quick-strike offense in the National Football League. He scares no one but beats everybody. He is polite, soft-spoken, and makes his living carving up opponents with surgical precision. GQ named him one of the 25 coolest athletes of all time.
The contrasts could not be more clear:
This is smashmouth vs. the perfect smile. Noise vs. calm. Brutal defense vs. electric offense. A guy who once ran with thugs vs. a guy who sells Uggs.
Ray Lewis talks trash. Tom Brady takes out the trash, careful to separate his recycling articles.
There’s harsh history between these two franchise players. Everybody’s been on their best behavior this week, but after the Patriots beat the Ravens in a regular season game in 2009, Lewis complained about Brady begging for a roughing the passer call. “That’s not football,’’ Lewis said. “It’s embarrassing to the game.’’
Baltimore’s Mount Rushmore of Sports would feature Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., and Lewis. Here in New England, Brady goes up alongside Ted Williams, Bill Russell, and Bobby Orr.
In the 21st century, Brady is the golden child of New England sports. His shoulder pads have been sprinkled with stardust since he burst on the scene as everybody’s All-America QB a decade ago. He is the latter day Joe Montana, playing at his best under pressure, beating teams without bravado. Patriots teammates have acknowledged being in awe of their quarterback, and Bob Kraft thinks of Brady as a fifth son. The ever-gushing Bill Belichick goes so far as to say, “when Tom says something, we all listen.’’
Lewis makes everybody listen. You can hear him from the parking lot. Face-painted, neck veins bulging, the Ravens middle linebacker whips teammates into a lather before the start of every game.
“Watch the other team when Ray comes out - they become mesmerized,’’ says NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, head coach of the Ravens for nine seasons. “I noticed Jeff Fisher [ex-Tennessee Titans, now St. Louis Rams coach] and some other coaches would try to gather their own team so they would not get pulled in by what Ray was doing with us. It’s all about his level of intensity and passion. There’s no BS. Players get that.’’
There are other distinct differences between the signature players. Brady is the guy who grew up in a tony suburb in Northern California and was doted on by his parents and three older sisters. Lewis was raised in stark Lakeland, Fla., and abandoned by his dad when he was a child. Brady played his college ball at Michigan, had to fight for playing time, and wasn’t drafted until the sixth round. Lewis played at the semi-professional University of Miami and was a first-round pick, the top-rated inside linebacker in the 1996 draft.
Brady and supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen are a power couple on a par with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Brady’s image took a minor hit when he fathered a child with girlfriend/actress Bridget Moynahan before marrying Bundchen, but he’s steered clear of late-night shenanigans and police blotters. He was involved in a car accident while driving his Audi to practice early in the morning in the Back Bay last year, but naturally, Tom was not at fault. He’s a spokesman for Stetson, Movado, Audi, Glaceau Smartwater, and most famously, Ugg Boots for men.
Lewis was indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges after his involvement in an Atlanta nightclub double homicide in January 2000. Murder charges were dismissed after Lewis testified against his two companions, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. He was fined $250,000 by the NFL and deemed unfit for the “I’m going to Disney World’’ commercial after being named MVP of the 2001 Super Bowl. He has since rehabbed his image, appearing on the cover of Madden NFL 2005, and in commercials for Old Spice, Under Armour, Reebok, and the NFL Network. In Baltimore, they love him more than the Preakness.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better middle linebacker,’’ says Ernie Accorsi, former general manager of the Baltimore Colts and GM of the Giants when they were beaten by Lewis’s Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. “He was an obstacle you had to deal with and we didn’t. That defense has changed personnel in the last 11 years, but the one constant is him.’’
“His longevity at that position is amazing,’’ adds former NFL coach Bill Parcells. “He’s a terrific pass defender, shows up every Sunday, and plays. That means a lot. He’s been a consistent producer and a team leader.’’
Parcells doesn’t believe Lewis can scare NFL players, and says this about Lewis’s pregame antics: “That seems to have evolved when they started putting microphones and cameras down there. A lot of people do it now.’’
Not Brady. In the image of his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, Brady is QB cool, killing you softly and quickly with one of the great passing attacks in the history of the league.
“Watching Tommy grow and evolve . . . he’s just a very unusual young man and a great leader,’’ says Kraft. “He’s matured beautifully and he’s still kept his humility.’’
The quarterback and the middle linebacker. Two stars. Two styles. At Gillette today at 3 p.m.
Only one goes to the Super Bowl.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.