Ray Lewis' legacy a complicated one
Ravens star's credentials are impeccable, but Atlanta incident can't be overlooked
The legacy of Ray Lewis, for me, is complicated. I can't assess the career and the man, the player and the leader, without including one messy part of his past.
Because we know what Lewis has done as a football player: He will go down as the greatest middle linebacker of all time, a vicious intimidator who, in his prime, covered the football field with incredible speed and hit with force. He was so dominant that opposing teams played away from him. He has defined the Baltimore Ravens franchise and personified the city in which he has played for 17 seasons.
Lewis' longevity is unheard of in this era of free agency. Few players spend an entire career in one city, much less for 17 seasons. Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, all defined their franchises for more than a decade, and all three ended up chasing the ghost elsewhere.
Not Lewis. On Wednesday, Lewis told his teammates that he would retire after the Ravens' playoff race is complete. The era will end, and for the first time the Ravens will have to face a future without Lewis. That so many of his teammates, not to mention head coach John Harbaugh, stood and watched Lewis' news conference to announce his decision, after already listening to Lewis tell them during a team meeting, spoke volumes about how they feel about him. There is love and respect and admiration for a man who has dedicated his adult life to his craft, to being physically and mentally sharper than the opponent and to adapting when his physical gifts diminished.
His individual accomplishments are tremendous and will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018: 12 career Pro Bowl appearances, seven first team All-Pro selections, 227 starts in 228 career games, one Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award, two Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was the young cornerstone of the Ravens in 2000, led by Rod Woodson, that set an NFL record for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game season and smothered the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, winning 34-7.
Lewis has dedicated himself to giving back to the Baltimore community and to kids. He does extensive work in the community for the Ravens, some things that are publicized and others that are not. Lewis distributes school supplies to kids before each year. He distributes meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and provides toys for kids at Christmas.
Kevin Byrne is the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations and has been with the franchise since 1981, when it was still in Cleveland. He has watched every snap Lewis has played as a pro. He relayed a story that a police officer once told him and Lewis confirmed.
Once while driving the streets of Baltimore en route to the Ravens' team hotel on a Saturday afternoon, Lewis witnessed a drug pusher give a kid a packet. The kid ran to a car, gave the passenger the packet, and then returned to the pusher with money. Lewis got out of his car, and berated the pusher.
"How can you do this to a child?" Lewis asked the guy. "You were a child once? Who corrupted you? This is not the way to go."
Lewis invited the pusher to join him for a weekly workout he led at the Ravens practice facility for police officers. The pusher showed up with a handful of friends and started to turn his life around.
When the NFL sought a player to do a voice-over for its one-minute Super Bowl message last year about how the game has evolved and become safer, Lewis was asked to do it, and he did. He is in a current commercial for the league about the same topic, with Tom Brady and an actress portraying his mother.
Lewis has also counseled countless peers about how to avoid the pratfalls and problems that come with being a high-profile, wealthy, sought-after professional athlete. He has hundreds of players' numbers in his phone. He listens and leads.
The complexity of Lewis' legacy, for me, comes in what happened outside an Atlanta nightclub in January 2000, the night after the Super Bowl was played there, when Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were stabbed to death. Lewis was indicted on two murder charges, and six months later he pleaded to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge in exchange for his testimony against two other defendants, who were ultimately acquitted. It is an indelible part of his history, just like the No. 52 on his jersey. He was there. He lied about it. Then he took a plea deal.
Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Lewis $250,000 for conduct detrimental to the league. At the time, it was the largest such fine in NFL history, and it came with a caveat: If Lewis violated any part of his yearlong probation, the league would fine him an additional $250,000. Lewis did not give the league a reason to take any more of his money.
"If you remember, that was quite a hit," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "To see where he is today is remarkable. I would say it's a rather amazing comeback and rehabilitation of an image."
Some, like me, will never forget. Others, particularly young people, probably don't even remember. I certainly don't discredit Lewis' entire body of work, because he was a fantastic player who incredibly recovered from an event that, at the time, cast a dark cloud over the Ravens and the NFL. But the cynic in me, the realist in me, can't overlook it.
"When we talked immediately afterward, he was bitter and angry the way it had been covered," Byrne said. "We said, 'Ray, the reason we supported you from Day One and believed in you is because we know you. You need to show the world who you are, rise above it, so to speak, and that's exactly what he did.'"
Byrne called the breadth of Lewis' charity work "huge" and his impact on his teammates immense. Lewis invested in video equipment to watch film at home long ago and has held Wednesday and Thursday evening film sessions at his home for years. He is beloved by teammates, who recently started calling Lewis "Mufasa" in a nod to the central character from the "Lion King."
Byrne said he does not think Lewis is wrapped up in how people will view his legacy, the good or the bad.
"He's so deeply religious I think it matters to him less than people might think," Byrne said. "He's a big believer in God's will. He says, 'God put me in that prison for 10 days for a reason. There's a reason my kids saw me in an orange jump suit with my hands cuffed. There's a reason I tore my hamstring in 2005. There's a reason I tore my triceps.' His legacy, I don't think it consumes him. He is one who says, 'The best you can do is the best you can do.'"
Lewis was the best ever to play his position. He will be remembered for many things -- his football success, his charity work, his sense of humor, how he is as a man -- but because of what happened that night in Atlanta, I will always view his as a complicated legacy.
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