Ray Lewis. Saying the name will divide just about any room right down the middle. Some revere him, some revile him. His on-field skill is unquestioned but the agreement ends there. Going to his second Super Bowl, his position as the best linebacker ever just might be solidified. But even after all the tackles, all the awards, all the accolades, his career will still have an ever present black eye.
We all know the story, or at least think we do. Lewis was with some friends at a nightclub in Atlanta Super Bowl Sunday, January 31, 2000. Wearing a white suit, he and his friends got into an altercation with another group that resulted in the murder of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
To this day only the people that were there know the exact truth. Lewis’ involvement wasn’t questioned, but the extent of it was. In order to save himself from jail time, Lewis testified against the very friends he was with that night and pleaded his own case down. The white suit he was wearing—apparently covered in victims’ blood—was never found.
Later that year, with his freedom intact, he had the best season of his career, won league MVP, helped his team to the Super Bowl, and won Super Bowl MVP.
By all accounts it was one of the greatest years by a defensive player in history. But the entire year had a black cloud hung over its head.
Whatever happened that night shortly after the turn of the millennium not many can speak to. What we can speak to is everything that’s happened since. No matter your thoughts on Lewis after that night, what can’t be disputed is that he has stayed out of trouble off the field.
No amount of “good behavior” can bring back the two men that were killed that night. But in a world in which athletes rarely learn from their mistakes—mostly because they don’t have to as they aren’t held accountable by many—Lewis seemed to have learned from his.
Here in Kansas City we’re familiar with Larry Johnson and his off the field issues. What made Johnson’s already frustrating actions even more worse, was his inability to learn from his mistakes and change. It’s bad enough that he had multiple slip-ups, but you truly have to wonder about somebody when they repeatedly make the same mistakes.
Regardless of your thoughts on Lewis, something has to be said for his ability to not fall back to his previous ways.
Former KC Star columnist Jason Whitlock recently wrote an article about Lewis. In that column he opined that the pain from that trial still lingers and remains with Lewis. That pain is part of what has fueled his ability to play the most violent position in the most violent game with such ferocity for longer than most could ever dream. It’s an interesting theory and I think it holds water.
During this remarkable postseason run the Ravens have had, Lewis is the first interview after every victory. In a season cut short by injury, his team was just trying to make it to the postseason to get him a chance to play one more game in what he has said will be his last season. Lewis is either lauded or loathed each time.
Some people think the passion Lewis shows for the game and for his religious and spiritual beliefs is admirable. Some think you can’t add as many air fresheners you want but it’s not going to cover up the stench of what Lewis may or may not have done but was certainly involved with.
Going a step beyond the pain, I see a man who is overcompensating. I don’t pretend to know Lewis or what his life is about. I can only surmise by what I see from how the man presents himself to us as the American public. What I see there is a man who has seemingly rededicated his life to being a better person, in hopes that it will make up for his past transgressions.
Anybody who has even a vague familiarity with our legal system in America will tell you there are far too many holes that will allow a guilty man to go free. Anybody who has that same familiarity with any kind of religion will tell you that forgiveness plays a large role in any belief set.
For me personally, the ballad of Ray Lewis isn’t about forgiveness or loopholes. It’s about learning and growing.
The Super Bowl that took place the day of the double homicide Lewis was involved in had a player who participated named Leonard Little, who most are probably familiar with. About a year and a half before that game he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter while driving intoxicated. Four years after that Super Bowl, he was arrested again for driving under the influence.
Little didn’t learn from his mistakes. And his story isn’t the exception either. These athletes grow up in a world in which they are the most popular, they make the most money, and everybody bends over backwards to make sure they don’t have to deal with any unwanted consequences. For that reason, it’s hard for them to learn from their mistakes.
It appears Lewis has bucked that trend. I don’t wish to call him guilty or not guilty for the events of that night in the year 2000. I can’t even claim to like his post-game interviews. At times, they can be self-indulgent and preachy. There may be more “look at me” in Lewis than there should; given the role he’s actually played this season. The play of quarterback Joe Flacco probably deserves more attention than he does.
But all of that may just be his way of dealing with his knowledge of what actually happened that night. Forced attrition and disingenuous apologies are things that I hate, especially from athletes. What I can appreciate about Lewis, despite the attention-grabbing nature of how he goes about his business, is that it seems completely genuine.
If Lewis can turn his life around and be an inspiration for others to do the same, then it just might be worth all the love he gets lavished with. I am not one who thinks that athletes are role models or should be. But I am also one who can’t ignore the role they play in our society. Even if they shouldn’t be looked to as role models, it doesn’t mean that can’t be positive examples. I don’t know what happened that night, and I won’t pretend to. I am not going to anoint Lewis as some have either. But what I can say is that Lewis has earned my respect on the field and off of it as well for what he has done to positively change his life.
People make mistakes. People can change for the better. Lewis is a great example of both and the grand stage of the Super Bowl after this tumultuous season for the Ravens will be a fitting end to his career that always seemed made for the world’s biggest stage.