OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In an era obsessed with legacy, Ray Lewis’s will be a complex one.
Long before he announced he would retire after 17 seasons as the fire-breathing identity of the Baltimore Ravens, he was a member of an exclusive fraternity that defined the linebacker position: Nitschke, Singletary, Lambert, Butkus, and Taylor as his only real company. His brand of intensity, a jolting mix of primal intimidation and joyful aggression, could be read as both genuine love for the game and self-aggrandizing bluster.
But he will be remembered as much for his dominance on the field as he will for his tribulations away from it, and then for his ability to rehabilitate both his life and his image and make an impact beyond the game. Thirteen years ago, he was on trial for the stabbing deaths of two men, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, outside an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV, and although he ultimately reached a plea deal for misdemeanor obstruction of justice, he payed a tangible price in the form of a $250,000 fine, at the time the highest the league had ever levied. He continued to pay in the court of public opinion.
He spent as much time on Court TV as he did on ESPN, and when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV barely seven months after his trial, he was shown in small ways how far his star had fallen. He was the only player to be honored as the most valuable player of a Super Bowl who was shunned by Disney World, Wheaties, and ostensibly the NFL, which did not use his image for the cover of its Super Bowl media guide the year after the Ravens won it.
But in the years since, Lewis has been a tale of personal redemption and a case study for image rehabilitation. He has become an ambassador for the game, a mentor both in and outside of his locker room, and a motivational speaker with far-reaching appeal beyond his sport.
Over time, he has again become a viable pitchman, showing up on the cover of Madden NFL Football and most recently starring in a Visa commercial, and should the Ravens defeat the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game and set up Lewis’s Super Bowl swan song, it’s doubtful he would be snubbed again.
“I think the greatest thing you can ever be remembered for is the impact and things that you had on other people,” Lewis said Thursday. “At the end of the day, with all of the men that I’ve been around, to one day look back here and listen to men say, ‘He was one of people who helped changed my life,’ is probably one of the greatest legacies to be remembered for.”
From Babe Ruth to Johnny Unitus, Frank Robinson to Brooks Robinson, Lenny Moore to Cal Ripken, Baltimore has seen its legends come and go.
“Now our sports icon is Ray Lewis,” said Larry Young, a former Maryland State Senator and currently a radio personality for Baltimore’s WOLB. “People who this town has grabbed and said, ‘This one we’re all proud of.’ He’s now the icon.”
Lewis has become a walking personification of a proud city torn by violence but still looking for its own rehabilitation. He brought Baltimore its first championship since the Colts won Super Bowl V in 1970, molding the defense into his image, leading the team in tackles 14 of his 17 seasons. No other defensive player has played as many years with his original team.
Three years ago, the city named the portion of North Avenue, where Lewis hosts his annual Thanksgiving Turkey giveaway, “Ray Lewis Way.” At the ceremony, Lewis said, “All of these people with all this love and affection, that’s the same love I look at y’all with, because I lean on you the same way you lean on me.”
When Lewis was in the thick of the June 2000 murder trial, Young organized a prayer service at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
“I felt, when you go through times of this type, you should have prayer with you,” Young said. “We had no reason to believe the situation as it was portrayed. The hope was that if indeed this did occur that Ray was not going to be caught up in it.
“Of course, as we know, that’s how things turned out in his favor. But there was no information, there was nothing that led us to believe that here in Baltimore — he hadn’t been part of any of that activity in Baltimore. All that was new to us as it was being brought out down in Atlanta.”
Young befriended Lewis but when the city’s star was at the center of the murder trial, he was sent to monitor it. Young said the city’s support for Lewis never wavered.
“Down there during the trial, it was tense with the allegations we were hearing in the courtroom,” Young said. “But up here, I don’t think the citizens let what was being said to them grab them in such a way. There was an overwhelming feeling that Ray was not going to be found guilty. There was a sense that this is crazy, it’s confusing, it wasn’t very pretty what happened, obviously, but our Ray Lewis said this and we believe him. I don’t think he lost much favor up here as a result of the allegations.”
Time has repaired Lewis’s good name, but it has done nothing to heal the families of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker.
“It’s like it happened yesterday,” said Cindy Lollar-Owens, Richard’s aunt. “He was like one of my children.”
When Lewis and the Ravens reached the Super Bowl the January after his murder trial, both families were put through the emotional wringer, the confetti falling on Lewis as he celebrated the pinnacle of his career while the victims’ families were being besieged by media looking for their sides of the story. Lewis’s retirement and the Ravens’ playoff run has created an imperfect storm, dragging the painful memories up again for the victims.
“I think it’s more sad because it’s being brought back out into the spotlight,” Lollar-Owens said. “We never forgot about it. Some family members talk about him, some of them don’t. Everybody handles death differently, but just the way it happened, it’s just sad.”
In 2001, Lollar-Owens went to Tampa for Super Bowl XXXV to protest. She took the trip alone, armed with only flyers and pictures of her nephew, and an easel to hoist.
“A great big ol’ easel,” she said. “Bigger than me.”
She doesn’t see herself making a trip to New Orleans this time if the Ravens again reach football’s biggest stage.
She’s read countless stories about Lewis since the incident. Each one paints a different portrait of him.
“It’s so many different stories it’s hard to say what’s the truth and what’s not the truth,” she said. She said she met Lewis.
“He just said how sorry he was and that his attorney was telling him he couldn’t say anything,” she said. “He couldn’t apologize or anything.”
Now she wants to be able to move on.
“I don’t want to just harbor all this forever,” she said. “I mean, what good is it going to do. It’s like a pie. You cut it in three parts, you’ve got a third that believe he did it, another third that don’t believe, then you’ve got another third that don’t give a damn.
“So what do you do? You go on with your life and try to think about the good things. I want to remember my nephew as Richard Lollar, the barber. I do not want to remember Richard as being murdered.”
Should she ever speak to Lewis again, she said she has two requests.
“My nephew has a headstone and when I go and visit my nephew’s grave, I do not like bending down and looking down at his grave,” she said. “I would like to be able to stand up and look at him. Also, I would like to get a building, get it lavished and have it in his name — Richard Lollar’s barbershop. I want to remember my nephew as Richard Lollar, the magnificent barber. That would be my closure.”
Without question, Lewis will be commemorated with a bust in Canton, Ohio. With the deaths of former owner Art Modell, along with family members of both defensive lineman Pernell McPhee and wide receiver Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ season was already emotionally charged, but when Lewis announced this month he would retire, it gave the season a different purpose.
“We know this is the last ride for Ray,” said defensive back Corey Graham. “It’s big. I know for me as a defender, it means a lot. I’m out there with him, an opportunity to play with him probably the last time ever, and you don’t want to be the guy to let him down.”
A player synonymous with the franchise will walk away from the game, and an era in Ravens football will come to an end. Lewis will be one of the greatest players the NFL has ever seen. He will be remembered for everything he’s accomplished on the football field, but not completely defined by it. He will be far removed from the tragedy 13 years ago.
“At the end of the day, all of our eyes will close one day,” Lewis said. “When they do, my only job is to hear those two famous words from God himself, and that’s, ‘Well done.’ Success is one thing; I’ve always believed impact is another. To go out in the communities and change someone’s life, I believe that’s what all of our jobs should be one day.
“It’s not to compete against nobody in this. It’s not to make somebody feel bad or make somebody relive this or relive that. It’s to teach someone how to move forward. No matter what you go through in life, you have to find out a different way how to move forward.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.