The Passing of the Torch

 Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.

One of the most charismatic Presidents of the United States, a man whose time was cut too short, provided us with a quote that defines the world as we know it. He foresaw a young generation taking the reigns of the world and staking their claim as the next crop of successful Americans. They’ve seen the hardships of the world, and they know, at a young age, what dilemmas they will face as they grow older. Kennedy was a man of youth himself, and believed that just as presidents step down to make way for a new direction, the torch must one day be passed down to the next generation in all evolving events.

The same is true in sports. There will always be an elite set of players who reign over the sport like a Mt. Rushmore of the talented and famous. Those players define the sport and all who grow up with it. Everyone remembers their favorite players from their time. The fans of the 80’s would have grown up with Joe Montana, John Riggins, Lawrence Taylor, Jerry Rice and The Fridge. The 90’s? The Triplets in Dallas, Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders and Derrick Thomas.

Even after 17 bruising years, he’s still one of the most
feared players in the league.

Who are the 2000’s? Well, there’s a plethora of players who define their positions and the sport. I mean, who can you think of right off the top? Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Ed Reed, and…definitely Ray Lewis.

The first time I watched Ray was against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ’06 on opening day. The Ravens dominated that game, winning 27-0. But with it being my first real look at the play of Ray Lewis, I was beyond mesmerized. The tenacity, ferocity, and passion that he played with were unprecedented. When he had his arms reaching for a player, you could be sure that they wouldn’t see the rest of the play. It was a moment of (almost) clarity for me that there were players who were so powerful and unrelenting in their play. It wasn’t until the end of the season when I realized that there’s only one Ray Lewis, one of the best linebackers in football history.

Out of pure boredom two years later, I watched a San Francisco 49ers game in  Week 2 versus my Seahawks. I remember it because I was curious to see what all the hype was surrounding this kid called Patrick Willis. Yes, I speak as though they’re kids, that’s just my style.

Patrick Willis. The One. The Only. The Best.

It was astonishing. Willis was the most dominant player on that squad, never allowing a single tackle to evade him. He finished with only eight tackles, but each one of them came at a time when his team direly needed a stop. And to top it all off, Willis began a surge of scores with an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown to take the lead in the third quarter. The 49ers would win that game in OT on a field goal.

After just two seasons of my thinking that Lewis was the only player of his kind, I found his match. A young buck with a hunger for hard hits and takeaways. Both were the scariest players on their respective defenses. Teams couldn’t run without accounting for them. Quarterbacks couldn’t pass without keeping an eye on where they were. To this day, they still keep their eyes on those two stalwart ‘backers. And it’s scarily ironic that they’re both exactly the same build, both being 6’ 1″ and 240 lbs.

Ray Lewis’ time has come. Sunday, February 3rd will be the last game of his career. The last chance he has to leave the field with it all. His final opportunity to show the people of the football world why he’s the name of the decade. He’s Ray Effing Lewis. The time has come for him to go out with a bang, and leave the field, win or lose, for Patrick Willis to take over the title of best linebacker in football.

We’ll miss jarring hits like these, and the man who
delivers them in #52

Don’t get me wrong, though, Willis is not Lewis. And he never will be. But Ray knows as well as the rest of the league that someone will pick up the torch. Who better than another dominant player like Patrick?

Lewis is what remains of the older generation of football players. He defines what used to be, and what used to be wasn’t a long time ago. Still Patrick Willis the new generation of football players, and he has slowly become the definition of the youth movement in football.

I don’t think there’s a single player at the middle linebacker position more deserving of the title. He’s more powerful, aggressive, driven, passionate, and competitive than any player on the field where he presides. He doesn’t have the bravado and showmanship that Lewis has brought to every game he’s ever played, but he’s still a match. He let’s his playing do the talking. He powers over offenses like King Kong tossing over a line of Jeeps in the middle of New York City. If you’re a wide receiver with the ball running towards Willis…say goodnight, buddy.

The torch has to be passed at some point. Lewis was the future of the position at his zenith. He defined how linebackers play today. Like Lawrence Taylor, Lewis made quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, and head coaches insomniacs in the week leading up to playing him. And like Lewis, Willis makes you pay for every mistake you make.

Lewis and Willis are not the same. They never will be. They have their own styles of play and their own styles of leading. But they’re the best at what they do.

And now, they meet.

They meet on the biggest stage in all of sports. Both are riding highs: Willis, being in his first Super Bowl after years of toiling on one of the most underachieving teams in the NFL from 2007-10; and Lewis, Super Bowl XLVII being the last game of his legendary career. Both will leave legacies, and both have changed the game and how we view the power of defense, especially in this golden age of passing offenses.

Willis’ time to be recognized as the best
is well overdue. But his moment is here.

Now it’s time for Ray Lewis to hand off the terrorizing of quarterbacks to Willis. Lewis has done his part. He’s been the hallmark of a franchise, and a nation. He’ll be talked about forever. Defensive coordinators will tell their players to watch film of Lewis to see what it really means to play defense.

Where better to hand it off than on the biggest stage in sports? Patrick, get ready. This is your stage. This is where Ray shows his best for the last time, and where you prove why you’ll be the best for years to come.

It’s time for you to don the hot, fiery torch. Don’t burn yourself.

Y’all get yo popcorn ready. On Tuesday, we rustle through the trash and rediscover the beginnings of our modern San Francisco 49ers. Tweet us @aceing82!

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