Making an entrance in Canton: Inside Ray Lewis’ signature dance

Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018, focusing on plays, moments or defining characteristic of the inductees. Induction is Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, on ESPN.

Ray Lewis walked into sculptor Fred Kail’s studio, and he identified immediately the vision for his 9-foot-tall, 1,200-pound statue that would sit in front of the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium.

Lewis’ eyes wandered from the small clay figures that featured typical linebacker stances. He saw a mold of him doing his famous squirrel dance in the corner of the room.

“That’s my signature right there,” Lewis told Kail. “All the other linebacker poses, that could be anybody. But that one … they’ll know who that is.”

Lewis will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, joining the all-time great middle linebackers who were defined by intensity and intimidation.

There was Mike Singletary’s stare and Jack Lambert’s toothless snarl. For Lewis, his passion was encapsulated in a five-second gyration during player introductions that ignited fans, teammates and even opposing players into a frenzy.

Walking onto his home field, Lewis emerged from the smoky tunnel as Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” began to play. He picked up a clump of grass and threw it in the air before showing off his moves.

It starts with a slide to the left, then a shimmy to the right and a wiggle of the legs. After a couple of chest pops, Lewis leans back and screams toward the sky.

This trademark dance has been performed by brides and grooms at weddings, preschoolers as well as the mayor of Denver (after losing a playoff bet). Countless athletes have performed Lewis’ same moves, from Odell Beckham Jr. to Pedro Martinez to former UFC champion Jon Jones.

Here is the story of how a dance became part of the legacy for one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, as told by the people who experienced it:

From SkateWorld to stadiums

Before football, there was another love for Lewis — dancing. At the age of 13, two years before he would put on a helmet, Lewis joined a dance group organized by hometown friend Kwame King. They called themselves the Hardy Boys.

Lewis: “We had dance competitions every Sunday at this place called SkateWorld. We danced in the Martin Luther King parade. Now listen, I have footage of that. But you will never see it.”

Chad Steele, Ravens vice president of public relations: “I’ve seen the videos. I would say it was a cross between New Edition and Color Me Badd. They’re all dressed in the same early ’90s outfits. The choreography was a little cheesy. But as much as I want to bust on it, they were good. The guys could move.”

Lewis: “In my hometown, Kirby Lee, a childhood friend of mine who was in the armed forces, always used to do this dance. We named the dance ‘The Squirrel,’ the way the squirrel moves. He always did it. Kirby was my biggest fan. He has my number tattooed on his shoulder. I told him that one day I would do his dance. He said, ‘No, you won’t.’ I’ll never forget it, I got in front of the mirror and I started flowing with it. The next week, I go to Marvin [Lewis, then the Ravens defensive coordinator] and say, ‘Look man, they’re going to introduce the defense. The stadium needs some excitement.’ He was like, ‘Go ahead and do your thing.'”

Marvin Lewis*: “I was there when they started that nonsense. We couldn’t learn how to get lined up, but we could choreograph a dance. I almost melted down on the sideline.”

Ray Lewis: “I had no music to it. I came out raw and did it. The crowd went crazy and lost their mind. People erupted and said, ‘You have to do this every week.’ Now, people started running to games before the games before they knew I was coming out. Then I got creative. I needed a song to go to it. I played with a few songs and ended up with Nelly. It timed up perfectly with my movement.”

Terrell Suggs, Ravens linebacker: “It was the most exciting part of the game except for the end and the outcome. Even the opposing team looked forward to it when they came to play us. They would say, ‘I hope the defense is going to be introduced because it fired us up, too.’ I’ve never seen that in the history of sport. I didn’t get to see Michael Jordan [in person], but when the lights came on, I’m pretty sure it was similar.”

Keeping Ray Lewis’ gladiator roots

The Ravens changed the playing surface at their stadium from natural grass to FieldTurf in 2003. That forced Baltimore to get creative if it wanted Lewis’ entrance to remain the same.

Lewis: “When the movie ‘Gladiator’ came out [in 2000], I resonated with where he was from a low moment in his life. He went through something that was very challenging in his life, and now he had to regain his name and rebuild his brand. When Russell Crowe picked up that dirt before battle, he declared one thing: I’m at war. When we got that new turf [at the stadium], I was like, ‘Look guys, I have no grass to pick up. I need grass. I need to touch it.'”

Steele: “We made sure he had a patch of grass every time he came out of the tunnel. There was one time we got there a little before intros and we’re like, ‘Oh crap, where’s the grass?’ [Director of event operations] John Cline had to really quickly drive a few blocks to where there was grass by a gas station and bus terminal. He cut out a big patch, put it in the back of his car and drove it back to the stadium.”

Lewis: “The culture we had was how do we make this the experience of a lifetime. Winning games is one thing, but we’re entertainers. That’s what we’re here for. The only time in professional sports history that TV stations started blocking out minutes for me to do that dance. It was crazy. That’s when I sat with the head guy at the Ravens’ stadium running the Jumbotron. I was like, ‘Listen, I want you to cue this part. When I give the signal, unleash hell.'”

Marvin Lewis*: “The greatest thing about it now is, I tell our rookie players, you have to get up there and watch this. They’re all like, ‘Hey coach, you’re right.'”

Last dance

Ray Lewis’ last dance came during the 2012 Super Bowl run. It nearly ended four years earlier. John Harbaugh became the Ravens coach and wanted to create a culture based on “team, team and team.” Lewis’ pregame theatrics appeared to put the spotlight solely on him.

Harbaugh*: “I was looking at it from the outside in, and I didn’t know Ray. You would maybe assume it was a selfish thing. My first thought was, ‘We’re not going to do this.'”

Ray Lewis: “[Harbaugh] came to me, and I said, ‘All right, we can stop it.’ Then I was like, you should ask a couple of players and hear what they say.”

Harbaugh: “I said, ‘Let’s do it and show me what it’s all about.’ When I saw it the first time, I understood and I was all in. That’s the great thing about Ray. It’s never been about him. It’s about the crowd, the players and his team.”

Jacoby Jones: “[In 2012], We were in the meeting room and Ray announced that this was going to be his last ride. Then, Harbaugh walked up and said, ‘Jacoby, I bet you could do the dance in the middle of the meeting.’ I get up and I had some dip in. You know how Ray picked up that piece of grass, so I took the dip out of my mouth and threw it down and I did the dance.”

Harbaugh: “[For the last play in Lewis’ final home game], it just popped into my head like Ray Lewis should be out there, dotting the I in the victory formation. It was like the tuba player on the script Ohio. It just made sense. I thought of it somehow — God put it in my head — and I went back to Ray and said, ‘Do you want dot the I?’ He was like, ‘I don’t have my helmet.’ It was a mad scramble, and I don’t even know if it was his helmet that he put on. Of course, Ray took it from there.”

Lewis: “Jacoby and all of them on the field were like, ‘You have to do the dance at the end. This is your last one.’ So, I did it in the middle of the field. That’s your battle call. When anybody knows anything about sports or professional football, they see that dance and say one thing: When he did that dance, whatever you got to do, buckle up eight chinstraps because it’s going to be that type of game. It really symbolized giving your all.”

Notes: * — Interview with NFL Films in 2010

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