January 28, 2013 10:58:10 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
No matter what happens for the rest of his professional football career, Pernell McPhee will be one of the chosen few who can say he played in the final game of a future Hall of Famer.
For that reason, McPhee has dedicated Super Bowl XLVII to teammate Ray Lewis.
Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens' standout linebacker, will end his 16-year NFL career Sunday when he, McPhee, and the Ravens will play the San Francisco 49ers in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
While it will be Lewis' last game, McPhee wants to remember it as the most important of his two-year career because the team is dedicating the game to its leader.
"He's a legend to so many people outside our locker room, but to us he's a person that's given so much of himself to the Ravens and pro football," McPhee said. "The least we can do Sunday is play our hardest to make sure he goes out the right way."
Lewis' retirement, which was announced less than a week before the playoffs started, has been a source of inspiration for the Ravens, who have played in the postseason the past five seasons. They were underdogs against the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, but won both games on the road to punch their ticket to New Orleans.
"A lot of people, I'm sure,think this is a dream season, but it's a reality we saw coming from the minute we lost in the AFC Championship Game last year," McPhee said. "Everything has been about getting back to that game, and then when Ray made his announcement, it was about getting him another Super Bowl ring."
Sunday will be McPhee's first Super Bowl experience, but he said last week in a phone interview with The Dispatch he's still young enough to think this type of atmosphere will happen again before his career is done.
"You have thoughts like this could be your only Super Bowl or championship game deal, but I'm with a franchise that excels and gets better every season," McPhee said. "I can't assume we won't strive for greatness after this year."
McPhee entered the season with high expectations after having six sacks in his rookie campaign. His performance helped him be the projected starter at one of the defensive ends spots in a 3-4 defense. However,a right knee injury forced him to have arthroscopic surgery in mini-camp. The injury hampered his play and he has been limited to one and a half sacks this season.
McPhee was deactivated for four games in November, so he has grown to appreciate the little things about being in the NFL.
"I've really learned how to take care of my body through a 17-game season and playoffs, and why things like the cold tub, hot tub and staying focused in the offseason on taking care of myself are so critical to what happens in the season," McPhee said. "I've just matured as a player and a person."
McPhee has been a force in the past two games. He sacked Denver quarterback Peyton Manning once, forced a fumble, and finished with three tackles in a 38-35 double-overtime victory in the American Football Conference divisional round. Against the Patriots, he tipped two passes by quarterback Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage, including one that inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe intercepted in the fourth quarter that helped seal a 28-13 victory in the AFC championship game.
"Right now I think I'm playing my best football of my career and I can't help but think me going through the injuries and the setbacks of this season was supposed to help me get better for moments like this," McPhee said.
'These moments' that McPhee refers to is a game that will be televised in hundreds of countries and viewed by billions of people worldwide. That's a big stage for a player who didn't see football in his future after two years at Pahokee (Fla.) High School. McPhee thought he has a better chance to make something happen in basketball. Three years later, McPhee became a junior college All-American and the perfect recruit for Dan Mullen's rebuilding job with the Mississippi State University football team.
"I never envisioned myself playing in a Super Bowl, but I've played in big games before like a high school state championship game, and when I played in the Gator Bowl to end my time at MSU. That was like this week preparing for a Super Bowl," McPhee said. "There's so much time in between games that you learned during bowl prep how to not drive yourself nuts waiting for kickoff and staying focused."
McPhee hopes to use the words and lessons he has learned from watching Lewis, who he said is "a mentor to so many without knowing it", to get another championship experience.
"We all want to send Ray out the right way," McPhee said. "What everybody should know about Ray is nothing he talks about or projects on the field is fake. He's always trying to do everything he does the right way. The right way for him to walk off that field Sunday is with that trophy."