Lewis a Walking Paradox

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis smiles during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis smiles during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

New Orleans — To stand in front of a Ray Lewis news conference is to take a ride on a verbal roller coaster, where unabashed hyperbole takes you to the summit, and attempts at humility steer you back down.

Lewis is a man of extremes, who in 17 years as the Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker has been on top of the football world as a Super Bowl champion, and at the bottom of life as a suspect in a double murder investigation.

Lewis is back at the Super Bowl for one last shot at a title, riding a combination of his return from a serious injury and announcement of his impending retirement to hijack the headlines during Baltimore’s late-season push through the playoffs. And while he’s no longer the defiant man who challenged all critics on the way to beating the Giants in the Super Bowl 12 years ago, his persona and legacy are no less complicated than they were then.

He is a study in contradiction.

Is he the inspirational leader teammates rely on to guide them to victory? Or he is a self-serving publicity lover out to enhance his own image? Was his role in the January 2000 bar fight that left two men dead really limited to the obstruction of justice charge to which he pled guilty, or does the never-solved case continue to cast doubt on his repentance? Was he telling the truth when he unequivocally dismissed a Sports Illustrated report yesterday that he used a banned substance to help rehabilitate his torn triceps (“I’ve never even thought about using anything like that,” he said), or is he hiding the truth of his amazing recovery?

Is he the player most deserving of celebration heading into Sunday’s championship game, or the one most deserving of scorn?

The answers are surely found somewhere in that muddled middle ground, which is why Lewis will forever be cast as his game’s most polarizing figure. Yet for someone who has sustained as many public black eyes as Lewis, a complicated legacy is the best he can hope for, especially when a ruined one is the alternative. Across the days from the Ravens’ upset win in New England in the AFC title game to these days leading up to the Super Bowl, the families of the victims of that bar fight have gone public with their enduring sadness and their disappointment that Lewis continues to be celebrated.

Lewis wasn’t interested in rehashing his controversial past.

“Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions,” he said, before veering into the verbal histrionics that make it dizzying to listen to him. “I just truly feel that this is God’s time, and whatever his time is, you know, let it be his will. Don’t try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody’s story sound right. At this time, I would rather direct my questions in other places. Because I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don’t. I live with it every day of my life and I would rather not talk about it today.”

This is why, for some of us, rejoicing in his success will always feel misplaced, because it feels as if we’re still waiting for a true recognition of the tragedy that occurred too many years ago. Yet for others, celebrating his redemptive arc feels more like a recognition of a life well-lived in the aftermath of unexpected adversity. Either way, Lewis’ ability to rewrite his own story represents a rare achievement in pro sports, and is a reflection on the force of his personality.

Yesterday, he was asked about being a legend.

“I think when you talk about a legend, when you talk about leaving a legacy, I think it’s all about what your peers speak about you, the people you actually impact on and off the field,” he said. “If nothing else, I have always told people that your greatest leaders are your greatest servants. You are going to find people who lead, lead, lead, but more importantly, they serve more than anything.

“That is what this team is built around, and that is what my whole legacy is about. My whole legacy from day one when I came in was I always grabbed someone to try to take them to the next level of being a better man, being a better woman, being a better child, whatever it is. At the end of the day, that’s what your legacy wants to be, to leave a great name. Hopefully, I did that.”

If you’re still not sure, just ask him. Because the more he talks, the more you realize that every story about this game, every person of consequence in New Orleans, is somehow connected to him. He’s guided young stars like Ray Rice. He’s playing for longtime teammates like Ed Reed. He’s motivated by past personal conversations with late team owner Art Modell, and his retirement announcement was done only to benefit those around him, to keep them alert to the reality of that flickering career dissipation light.

He rides a roller coaster all his own and is taking us along for the ride. Go ahead and enjoy it if you want, but if you’d rather walk away, we understand that, too.