What’s your lasting image of Ray Lewis as the iconic Baltimore Ravens linebacker heads into the NFL sunset?
Maybe it’s one particular defensive play in a 17-year career that will land him a first-ballot spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Is it Lewis doing his funky “Squirrel Dance” to hype teammates and himself? How about Lewis gathering the Ravens together to offer a pregame motivational message that provided a glimpse into his acclaimed locker-room leadership? The tears that flow as Lewis prays aloud to God on the field?
Or will it be Lewis wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and shackles inside a courtroom after being connected to the fatal stabbing of two other young men following a late-night brawl?
For people like Ana Burns Welker, it’s still the latter.
The wife of New England wide receiver Wes Welker became so frustrated by the Patriots’ recent loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game that she attacked Lewis on Facebook. She wrote, “If anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis’ Wikipedia page. 6 kids, 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay! What a hall of fame player! A true role model!”
She isn’t the only one who feels this way.
There is no more polarizing figure in Super Bowl XLVII than Lewis. There are those who believe Lewis never received what he deserved for the fatal confrontation that took place 13 years ago outside an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIII. Lewis and two friends (Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley) initially were charged with murder. Lewis later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice after agreeing to testify against Sweeting and Oakley, who were then ultimately acquitted.
Lewis still won’t publically provide exact details on what transpired. A statement made Monday during his first Super Bowl news conference — “I don’t know nobody that’s ever lived a perfect life,” he said — is about as revealing as Lewis gets.
For those who survived Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, forgiveness may never come.
For everyone else, it’s time to move on just like Lewis will from football after Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.
As many times as he will get asked about that fateful night in Atlanta by reporters over the next three days of Super Bowl media access, I don’t expect Lewis to provide any new details. He knows nothing can be done to bring Lollar and Baker back to life.
Lewis, though, didn’t let the opportunity to forge a better future for himself and others slip away.
Lewis isn’t like disgraced Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted in his murder trial only to run afoul of the law again and land in prison for what likely will be the rest of his life. You don’t hear about Lewis having any more off-field problems or living the high life in nightclubs like during what he will admit were his more reckless early days in the league.
It’s actually quite the contrary.
Lewis now receives bear hugs from Roger Goodell and is sought whenever the NFL commissioner wants to solicit player feedback. He is a resource to so many others — especially when he provides advice and motivation for athletes seeking his wisdom — that Lewis’ cell phone contact list is the size of an old-school phonebook.
You also will never know about many of the little things Lewis does to help others. Although some of his good deeds are heralded, there are plenty of mitzvahs Lewis performs that he doesn’t want publicized.
Slowly but surely, the way Lewis conducts himself has convinced a large number of fans that he is truly remorseful and sincere in his actions.
“Most of the time when you find somebody who goes through adversity, you really find out what their true character is,” Lewis said.
“I think for me, people really now are taking time to find out who I am. They’re really learning what my character is. My character is simply to make this world a better place, to encourage people that no matter what you’re going through, it’s not what you’re going through but your mindset while you’re going through it.”
Lewis became a far more devout Christian in the aftermath of his legal woes. He continued to offer praise Monday when saying, “There’s no me without Him — bottom line.”
Religion is another dividing factor in the court of public opinion about Lewis. Considering his history, some will label Lewis a hypocrite or blasphemous for referencing God.
I consider it one of his strengths, because such faith made Lewis who he is today. As he said Monday, Lewis “surrendered” to God. He mentioned Psalm 91 as one of his favorite biblical passages because it means “you’re always safe in the Lord.”
“Most of the times when you do surrender to Him, you have to walk in complete faith,” Lewis said. “Things aren’t seen. You don’t know what’s next. That’s one thing about God’s will — you can never see (it) before it happens. You can see it at the end.”
That end from an Xs-and-Os standpoint is drawing near. The 37-year-old Lewis reaffirmed he is calling it quits despite teammates such as safety Ed Reed continuing to try and change his mind.
“The guys ask me — are you really going to walk away?” said Lewis, whose retirement announcement in early January helped inspire Baltimore’s surprising postseason run.
“Man, I have so much to do. I really do. I have to go home and be a father to my kids. My community is definitely calling me in many other ways. And the game, I’ve ran my course.”
The next course for Lewis will likely involve an announcing job along with a new form of Christian outreach. Lewis also is anxious to see his 17-year-old son follow in his footsteps by playing at the University of Miami.
The last time Lewis reached the Super Bowl was with the 2000 Ravens. He refused to answer questions about the Atlanta deaths back then, even when the event was far fresher and the resentment toward Lewis much greater.
Back then, Lewis admits, he was a 25-year-old who was a follower. Lewis will now have all of his children in New Orleans along with his parents to attend this celebrated swansong.
“Any time you can finish a career with your whole family by your side, I think that’s the way you should always do it,” he said.
As for Mrs. Welker, Lewis understands she was standing by her husband’s side even though her words were yet another painful reminder of a night Lewis will never be able to forget.
“The (Bible) always confirms, ‘Even a fool is counted wise until he or she opens (their) mouth,’” Lewis said. “Sometimes, people just say silly stuff. They say it out of emotion.
“I truly forgive her and don’t have any hard feelings against her at all. I believe people make mistakes.”
Nobody knows this better than Lewis. Critics and detractors are making another one by living in the past.