Polarizing Lewis Subject of Debate
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis speaks during an NFL Super Bowl XLVII football news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in New Orleans. Lewis denied a report linking him to a company that purports to make performance-enhancers. The Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
New Orleans — There has to be more than one Ray Lewis, right?
One man — at least one who isn’t Tim Tebow — can’t possibly cause such a wide grab bag of mixed emotions that are so bright and yet so dark, so full of love and yet so filled with hatred.
One man can’t be both a throwback warrior and a modern-day drama queen. One man’s reputation can’t be so clear-cut when it comes to legendary play and yet so blurred by controversy off the field.
But that’s Ray Anthony Lewis Jr., whose 17-year Hall of Fame career is winding down with all those emotions and all that greatness battling all those past problems and, yes, even a new controversy as well.
Five days before he plays his final game in the Super Bowl, Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens were confronted in New Orleans with a Sports Illustrated report that says Lewis was given deer antler extract, which contains a banned substance, to help his torn triceps heal more quickly.
Lewis denied the report and Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the linebacker never tested positive for any performance-enhancing drugs. But 13 years after he spent Super Bowl media day addressing his involvement in a double murder case the year before, Lewis once again finds himself on the wrong side in the court of public opinion.
Right or wrong, Lewis’ remarkable story about coming back from what seemed to be a season-ending injury just in time to lead the Ravens in post-season tackles en route to the Super Bowl is now shrouded by suspicion.
While Lewis dodged the baggage from his past and present, teammates and members of Sunday’s opposition — the San Francisco 49ers — spoke about the 37-year-old 13-time Pro Bowler with reverence. In league player circles, Lewis is more Godfather than professional peer.
“When I came into the league, I thought Ray Lewis was 6-foot-6, 275 pounds,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I did a commercial with him before I even got drafted. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re not that tall.’ But it’s just something about that guy.”
Yes, he can be larger than life, whether it’s crushing a running back, preaching to his teammates or crying and looking to the heavens during the national anthem, as CBS cameras captured before the AFC championship game at New England.
“Ray Lewis taught me how to be a pro,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “Me being a pro has everything to do with how you act, not only on the field, but off the field as well. He set the example.”
Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, no softy on players, hugged Lewis after the linebacker’s last game in Baltimore. Then he talked about hiring Lewis as a special advisor because, “he’s a tremendous voice of reason.”
And yet there’s the flip side. There’s always a flip side with Ray Lewis.
Shortly after the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship game, Anna Welker, the wife of Patriots receiver Wes Welker, turned to Facebook to unleash the kind of anger that is commonplace among Lewis’ haters. She wrote: “By the way, 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 apologized later. But it’s hard to make something like that go away. Just as Lewis can’t escape what happened in Atlanta in the early morning hours on Jan. 31, 2000.
Outside a nightclub during Super Bowl week, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were stabbed to death. The murders still haven’t been solved.
Lewis originally was charged with two counts of murder, but they were dropped in exchange for his testimony against two of his friends, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor, while Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted. The white suit Lewis wore that night never turned up.
Lewis received one year of probation and a $250,000 fine by the NFL. Family members of the two men who were murdered sued Lewis for $13 million, but settled for an undisclosed sum.
Lewis was 24 years old the first time he sat at the Super Bowl and fielded questions about that night in Atlanta. Tuesday, he had to do it again.
“As hard as it is for them, as hard as it is, for (what) you want me to speak about or you want to report about, I just don’t believe, honestly, that this is not the appropriate time for that,” Lewis said. “Because the sympathy I have for that family or what me and my family have endured because of all of that, nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. 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’d rather not speak of that today.”
Lewis will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after he retires on Sunday evening. But, right or wrong, the court of public opinion won’t stop churning for one of the greatest players in NFL history.
The Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio. That’s about 15 miles south of Akron, which is where Baker and Lollar were born, raised and are now buried.