Complex Lewis never quit on anything

Almost two years ago, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis sat down with a fellow Baltimorean to try to reach him. The guy was struggling. He had once been a legend in his field, yet his motivation had waned. The results were not there, and he was trying to figure out if he wanted to keep going or quit.

The guy was Michael Phelps, and what Lewis told him at least partially propelled him to London and an Olympic record for more gold medals than anybody else and certified G.O.A.T. status.

“You don’t give up on your talent. You can’t,” was how Phelps relayed Lewis’ message when we talked at a pre-Olympic meet in February. He was back by then, a final push for greatness.

I was reminded of what Phelps said Wednesday when Lewis announced his plans to retire from the game after the season. Because, as usually happens with endings, debate began about what exactly will be the enduring legacy of Lewis.

It seems obvious. Because what Lewis did exceptionally well, better than stalking a quarterback or taking down a running back or tackling with ferocity, all of which he was great at, was to get more out of the people around him than they believed they had in them. The real talent was his ability to bring people along, either by force of will or strapping them to his back or, more often than not, making them believe they could do what he needed.

It is not that simple for everybody. I realize this. For some, his name will forever be associated with a double homicide. There is no doubt he was involved in the incident that left two men dead after the 2000 Super Bowl. What he ended up pleading guilty to was obstruction of justice, though, he has been accused of a bigger role in the years since. Whatever his involvement was — and none of us know for sure — Lewis absolutely used that as his come-to-Jesus moment. There has been an effort to use his life and his talent and his wealth for good since that fateful night. He has, by all accounts, become a good man. Whether this evens the ledger is not for us to decide.

Lewis is a complicated character for exactly this reason. He does not fit neatly into our narratives. He is not a thug, nor is he a choir boy. He is complicated. He has made mistakes and come back stronger. He has won a championship yet is as hungry as ever. He is retiring, but he is not done. If ever there was a player who would rage against the dying of the light, it is Lewis. The eulogies and eloquent praises of his legacy probably should wait until the Ravens’ season ends. They are a long shot to advance beyond this weekend. It is exactly those shots that Ray Lewis always convincing people they can make. It would not surprise me in the least if part of the timing of the announcement was as a motivational tool for a wilting Baltimore team.

And if he were to call Phelps, my guess is the swimmer would tell him. It is not over when they say it is. It is over when you do.