NEW ORLEANS —
In the final week of his career, we got to see the many sides of Ray Lewis.
There was Reverend Ray – reciting Bible verses and recalling singing in the church choir as a child, talking passionately about his relationship with God, the voice rising like a revival-tent preacher as he warned everyone that “the trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That’s what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you’re trying to do.”
There was Revered Ray – one of the fiercest linebackers in NFL history, universally praised by teammates and opponents alike for his emotion on the field, his leadership in the locker room, for being an example of how the game should be played.
“I will probably be most proud of the impact I’ve had on so many men’s lives,” Lewis said. “The game will fade one day, numbers will fall, accolades will wash away, but there is nothing better than changing someone’s life.”
Some even wondered if there was a Roided-Up Ray – taking some sort of strange wildlife byproduct containing a banned substance. (Lewis quickly shot down Antlergate as a “joke,” and it must be noted, he’s never tested positive for anything illegal.)
And, of course, there’s Ragin’ Ray.
That one comes out for the last time Sunday, when Lewis’ last ride ends on the biggest stage of all.
The Super Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens linebacker gets a shot to go out a champion in the title game against the San Francisco 49ers. A few greats players have managed to do it this way– John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan come to mind – but it rarely happens in football or any sport.
“I’m jealous,” Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk said. “Ask any player, ‘How do you want to end your career?’ You want to tell your team, ‘This is it.’ You want to play in a Super Bowl and have a chance to win it. Very few guys get to leave the game with a storybook ending.”
It didn’t go quite as planned.
The report that the 37-year-old Lewis had purchased deer-antler spray from a quirky company in Alabama to help recover from a triceps injury – it supposedly contains a naturally occurring substance on the banned list – revived doubts about the character of the man. Some of these doubts had lingered since he was accused of covering up a double slaying in Atlanta the night after the 2000 Super Bowl.
In a way, Super Bowl week revealed there are so many Rays, it’s impossible to wrap him up in a tidy package.
Even Lewis will admit that the guy he professes to be most of the time – deeply religious, a caring mentor, a humble leader – is not the one you see when he puts on his helmet and pads. The one who dances out of the tunnel before home games, swaying this way and that, as if pleading to the whole world: “Look at me!” The one who plays with fury and arrogance, fully intent on breaking lesser men and lording it over them.
“I turn into a different person on the field,” Lewis said. “I am a totally different person off the field. But on the field, I’m driven to do whatever it takes for my teammates. There are so many of my teammates here today who I’ve honored and told them that I would do anything in my power so we can feel that confetti drop together, because that is the ultimate. For me being a leader of this team, I owe that to them.”
No one can questions Lewis’ contributions to the game as a player – a two-time defensive player of the year, a seven-time All-Pro, a 13-time Pro Bowler, a linebacker who defined the very essence of his position with his barely controlled fury.
Yet he spent a great deal of time in the days leading up his final game talking about the role of faith in his life. He described himself as non-denominational – again, someone who can’t be defined in cut-and-dried terms – but made it clear he relies heavily on a power beyond this world.
“God has always been a part of my life,” he said. “Faith is accepting things unseen. It’s hard to believe in sometimes, to listen to what man says. We can be tricky with words. We all can. We hear, ‘You’re too small. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ You don’t have too many more people to believe in than your faith. So my relationship with God is the ultimate. I don’t claim a religion. I claim there is a higher power. There is a higher power I go to. And I’m emotional when I go to him. It’s the ultimate conversation. There are no bad conversations with him.”
Talk like that can make some people skeptical. Those who lost loved ones in Atlanta 13 years ago likely would question his sincerity. Just hours after the end of a Super Bowl where Lewis was merely a spectator, he and several companions were involved in an altercation with another group outside a nightclub. Two men were stabbed to death. Lewis was accused, at the very least, of covering up the role of others and ditching a white suit he was wearing (it has never been found). He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against two others. They were acquitted, while Lewis received probation and a $250,000 fine from the NFL.
The following year, when the Ravens won their first Super Bowl and Lewis was designated MVP, Disney broke from its tradition and asked quarterback Trent Dilfer to proclaim, “I’m going to Disney World.”
But, in fairness to Lewis, he has largely stayed free from controversy since that gruesome night – deer-antler spray notwithstanding – managing to transform his image from renegade to elder statesman. After he announced his retirement, shortly before the Ravens began their surprising run through the playoffs, he even got a big hug from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“He taught me how to be a pro,” Baltimore running back Ray Rice said. “It’s a simple saying, but there’s a lot that comes with being a pro. He’s also taught me how to be a man as well. At the end of the day, when he announced his retirement, he put it into perspective by saying, ‘There’s life outside of football.’ The life outside of football is being a man, and that was really special for me because it just meant the world to know that this man took his time, not only to embrace me, but he took me under his wing and showed me how to do this thing.”
No matter which Ray walks off the field for the final time Sunday, Lewis is content with his legacy.
“I get to leave on my terms,” he said. “That’s the ultimate.”