It’s safe to say Ray Lewis will be remembered for a lot.

His mysterious white suit from that fateful night in 2000. His squirrel dance. His pregame pep talks. His bone-crushing tackles. Oh, and some deer antler spray.

But for a second, forget all that. Forget the allegations and the accolades. Retiring after 17 years as the face of the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis is finally departing the game he loves so dearly, and is doing so in the rarest of fashions.

Ray Lewis is going out on top.

Say what you will about his conduct on the gridiron (nothing short of stellar), in the locker room (fiery inspiration unrivaled in today’s NFL), and off the field (questionable, to say the least). All that matters in this moment is that Lewis has just accomplished what so few legends in any sport have been lucky enough to enjoy: ending his career with a championship.

His performance in Super Bowl XLVII wasn’t a vintage Lewis performance — a mere four solo tackles — and the build-up to the big game was surrounded by the swirling rumors of his use of deer antler spray, the latest cutting-edge performance enhancing supplement to enter our PED lexicon.

But all that can be summed up simply enough. Ray Lewis, in his final season, his final game, left on the highest of high notes. Ray Lewis, putting on the Ravens jersey and tearing up the turf, sideline to sideline, for the final time, went out with the Lombardi Trophy in one hand and the other hand cupped around his ear: “I can’t hear you.” His championship is talking too loudly.

How many athletes can claim to have done what Lewis has just done with his career? Excellence from start to finish, all with one team. Intensity, passion, and dedication that never waned. And most importantly, our final memory of him will be that of a Super Bowl champion.

Going out on top is a tantalizing prospect for superstar athletes. Of course, all players set out each year to win a title. But the odds are always against them. For superstars in their final act, this is a brutal reality.

Look at Brett Favre. His quest for the El Dorado of athletics, that glorious championship in the final season of a career, left him battered and bruised. He couldn’t locate the elusive treasure with the Packers, and so gave his tearful goodbye to the game – or so we thought. Before we could process the gunslinger’s fine career with Green Bay, he was demanding another shot at that championship. He bounced to the Jets, and then to the Vikings, and then when he could physically bounce no more, Favre hung up the cleats. His body had finally betrayed his mind. His carnal need for one more championship, one more go at the game he so loved, couldn’t propel his aching body anymore. Worse yet, Favre’s attempts to go out on top tore to pieces a storybook ending to a career that was meant to be finished in a Packers uniform. Favre drove his body into ruin and put a dent in his Packers legacy, all in hope of going out on top.

Even “His Airness” himself experienced withdrawals similar to Favre’s. Twice Michael Jordan leapt out of retirement to return to the court in search of another championship ring. The first comeback was a grand success – another three championships for the G.O.A.T. His second comeback, this one despite his reputation as the most influential basketball player of all time having already been cemented, was a calamity by comparison. Two lackluster seasons right here in Washington, D.C. barely yielded even a sniff of the postseason, much less another title. Air Jordan is still the greatest. But even he was held captive by that fleeting feeling of standing tall on the podium as a champion one last time.

Not all the tales of superstar athletes end in agony, though. John Elway finished off an already solid career with two Super Bowls, retiring after winning the second game’s MVP and repeating as champion. Cal Ripken Jr. finished on his own terms; same with Wayne Gretzky. Although it was just a regular season contest for both, the two legends rode off into the sunset with a final home game, no indecisiveness to be found, touching tributes to their Hall of Fame careers.

But they, along with Lewis, are the exceptions to the rule. Ray acknowledged as much in his post game chat with Baltimore native Michael Phelps. Phelps is someone who knows a little something about going out on top, having won 18 Olympic gold medals and retiring after this past summer’s Olympiad.  Lewis said to Phelps, “I told you I was going out on top!” The exclamation, looking at the path so many superstar athletes have taken looking for one last title, seems to be much more a defiance of the norm than a recap of events.

If winning a championship is the goal for any season, then a championship in a final season is the sweetest of them all. Ray Lewis is one of the lucky few to have triumphed in this regard. So when the dust settles and we take a step back and examine the complex career of Lewis, let’s start by remembering Ray for what he did at the end: go out on top.

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