OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In an era obsessed with legacy, Ray Lewis’s will be a complex one.
Long before he announced he would retire after 17 seasons as the fire-breathing identity of the Baltimore Ravens, he was a member of an exclusive fraternity that defined the linebacker position: Nitschke, Singletary, Lambert, Butkus, and Taylor as his only real company. His brand of intensity, a jolting mix of primal intimidation and joyful aggression, could be read as both genuine love for the game and self-aggrandizing bluster.
But he will be remembered as much for his dominance on the field as he will for his tribulations away from it, and then for his ability to rehabilitate both his life and his image and make an impact beyond the game. Thirteen years ago, he was on trial for the stabbing deaths of two men, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, outside an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV, and although he ultimately reached a plea deal for misdemeanor obstruction of justice, he payed a tangible price in the form of a $250,000 fine, at the time the highest the league had ever levied. He continued to pay in the court of public opinion.
He spent as much time on Court TV as he did on ESPN, and when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV barely seven months after his trial, he was shown in small ways how far his star had fallen. He was the only player to be honored as the most valuable player of a Super Bowl who was shunned by Disney World, Wheaties, and ostensibly the NFL, which did not use his image for the cover of its Super Bowl media guide the year after the Ravens won it.
But in the years since, Lewis has been a tale of personal redemption and a case study for image rehabilitation. He has become an ambassador for the game, a mentor both in and outside of his locker room, and a motivational speaker with far-reaching appeal beyond his sport.
Over time, he has again become a viable pitchman, showing up on the cover of Madden NFL Football and most recently starring in a Visa commercial, and should the Ravens defeat the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game and set up Lewis’s Super Bowl swan song, it’s doubtful he would be snubbed again.
“I think the greatest thing you can ever be remembered for is the impact and things that you had on other people,” Lewis said Thursday. “At the end of the day, with all of the men that I’ve been around, to one day look back here and listen to men say, ‘He was one of people who helped changed my life,’ is probably one of the greatest legacies to be remembered for.”
Support never wavered
From Babe Ruth to Johnny Unitus, Frank Robinson to Brooks Robinson, Lenny Moore to Cal Ripken, Baltimore has seen its legends come and go.
“Now our sports icon is Ray Lewis,” said Larry Young, a former Maryland State Senator and currently a radio personality for Baltimore’s WOLB. “People who this town has grabbed and said, ‘This one we’re all proud of.’ He’s now the icon.”
Lewis has become a walking personification of a proud city torn by violence but still looking for its own rehabilitation. He brought Baltimore its first championship since the Colts won Super Bowl V in 1970, molding the defense into his image, leading the team in tackles 14 of his 17 seasons. No other defensive player has played as many years with his original team.
Three years ago, the city named the portion of North Avenue, where Lewis hosts his annual Thanksgiving Turkey giveaway, “Ray Lewis Way.” At the ceremony, Lewis said, “All of these people with all this love and affection, that’s the same love I look at y’all with, because I lean on you the same way you lean on me.”
When Lewis was in the thick of the June 2000 murder trial, Young organized a prayer service at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
“I felt, when you go through times of this type, you should have prayer with you,” Young said. “We had no reason to believe the situation as it was portrayed. The hope was that if indeed this did occur that Ray was not going to be caught up in it.
“Of course, as we know, that’s how things turned out in his favor. But there was no information, there was nothing that led us to believe that here in Baltimore — he hadn’t been part of any of that activity in Baltimore. All that was new to us as it was being brought out down in Atlanta.”
Young befriended Lewis but when the city’s star was at the center of the murder trial, he was sent to monitor it. Young said the city’s support for Lewis never wavered.
“Down there during the trial, it was tense with the allegations we were hearing in the courtroom,” Young said. “But up here, I don’t think the citizens let what was being said to them grab them in such a way. There was an overwhelming feeling that Ray was not going to be found guilty. There was a sense that this is crazy, it’s confusing, it wasn’t very pretty what happened, obviously, but our Ray Lewis said this and we believe him. I don’t think he lost much favor up here as a result of the allegations.”Continued...