Ray Lewis' divinely inspired retirement tour has been the story of the 2013 NFL Playoffs. With his last game in Sunday's Super Bowl, Lewis has been lauded the last month as one of the all-time greats in the sport. His leadership, passion, and intensity have been endlessly praised. His personality and communication skills have already seen him line up a high-profile media career with ESPN. His spiritual nature has been at the forefront of his journey to pro football's summit.
But the Ray Lewis Retirement Tour is not without footnotes. There have been several looks back to January 2000. Although Lewis was originally charged with murder, he eventually pled guilty to obstruction of justice. With this being Super Bowl week there have been several stories about the family of Richard Lollar, the man killed, emerging. Time has pushed those events in Atlanta to the margins of the Ray Lewis legacy. Those charges don't come to mind when you see Ray Lewis doing his dances, crying in an interview, or being imitated on Saturday Night Live.
Not even deer antler spray and a possible PED scandal can slow down the Ray Lewis retirement train. Sure there are questions, and Lewis has done his best to dodge them this week, but that's all there will be – questions. Lewis hasn't failed a drug test and any PED use won't be proven in the final few days before the Super Bowl.
No, they're still just footnotes. Footnotes to the larger, more glorious story of one of the game's great warriors departing in style on the grandest stage of them all. That's what these playoffs have all been about – the football legacy of Ray Lewis. That's the way Ray Lewis wants it. He didn't want to rob you of the chance to say goodbye to him. Seriously. Once Sunday comes around, Lewis will be celebrated once again with his last dance, his last pregame speech, and his last game. NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin spoke to the Baltimore Sun about Lewis and his legacy:
"For what Ray has been through, honestly, I'm a spiritual man with an understanding of ministry," Irvin said. "Ray is using his life experiences to impact the lives of others. Ray had a horrific situation, a horrific situation where lives were lost, but Ray took that horrific mess and turned it into greatness. What I mean by that is Ray went through something to make sure nobody else from Baltimore had to ever go through anything like that ever again.
"We don't talk about this, but I don't hear problems coming out of Baltimore because Ray used his situation to give everybody an understanding. He's one of the greatest to ever play this game, on and off the field. People point back to the situation he was in and that's fine. But when you talk about the downs he got to, also talk about the highs. He's been incredible."
The redemption of Ray Lewis and his ascent to mythical status didn't happen overnight. His murder charge wasn't always a footnote. In the lead-up to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, with Lewis' Ravens facing the Giants, it was the dominant story. Lewis was only one year removed from a murder charge and he was dogged by the press about what happened in Atlanta.
But Super Bowl XXXV was the night the Ray Lewis story changed.
That night in Tampa, Lewis' Ravens destroyed the Giants 34-7. Ray Lewis was named the game's most valuable player.
Consider this – Lewis was voted MVP by the media after garnering just 3 solitary tackles and 4 passes defended. 5 players on that great Ravens defense had more tackles than Lewis. 4 players had an interception with Duane Starks scoring a TD. Michael McCrary had 2 sacks. Jamal Lewis ran for over 100 yards and a TD. Jermaine Lewis had a kickoff return for a score. And yet, Lewis was named MVP with one of the tamest statlines for anyone ever receiving the award. Why?
It wasn't just good enough for the redemption of Ray Lewis to win the Super Bowl. He had to be voted the game's most valuable player. The media vaulted Ray Lewis to that MVP pedestal. It was a story too delicious to pass up for those voters. Only then could the full arc of his comeback begin to be written.
If we look back to Super Bowl XXXV, you can see the seeds being sown for the redemption narrative of Ray Lewis as his football exploits began to take center stage and the events of Atlanta were slowly being pushed aside. A star NFL linebacker facing murder charges was a huge story. The same star NFL linebacker battling those demons and coming back to win Super Bowl MVP presented quite another story. Some might even say a great story. A narrative too improbable to pass up.
It's an evolution that has taken more than a decade to take place in full, but it began at Super Bowl XXXV. Here's some select pieces from January 2001 that show how the media viewed Ray Lewis at the very beginning of his road to redemption…
"His journey to hell and back will not include a trip to Walt Disney World, but as most of the football-watching world knows by now, Ray Lewis is not about Fantasy Land.
It was cold, stark reality that saw Lewis charged with murder, the memory of that orange jump suit marking his darkest days, a year of doubt dogging him despite being acquitted.
That year came to an amazing conclusion Sunday night as the Baltimore Ravens defeated the New York Giants 34-7 at Raymond James Stadium and Lewis was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV.
"It's a storybook nobody would believe," said Lewis, the NFL's defensive player of the year. "To be here after what happened last year … there's no feeling like this. If I could explain it, it wouldn't be a true feeling. My body is tingling.""
Bob Harig – St. Petersburg Times 1/29/01
"I couldn't imagine what was going through Ray Lewis' mind Monday morning, precisely 52 weeks after his personal nightmare began. Who'da thunk this? And so I asked him, a couple of minutes after he got the keys to a sport truck for being named the Super Bowl XXXV MVP.
"There hasn't been time for me to reflect," a gravelly voiced Lewis said, 10 hours after leaving the field of his dreams. "Last night, I just wanted to see my kids, my nephews and my nieces. They were running wild in the streets. My 5-year-old son [Ray III] said to me: 'Daddy, you were Super Bowl MVP.' Really, there's been a greater reward that's been on my mind, and that's the Super Bowl. But God has poured me out more blessings this year than I can count — team MVP, defensive player of the year, Super Bowl MVP."
I watched Lewis smile through his 15-minute press deal Sunday night, and though he hadn't slept overnight, and though his voice sounded like the batteries were running out Monday morning, he was the happiest man in the room. He even greeted Paul Tagliabue, the man who fined him $250,000 last summer, warmly. But Ray Lewis did just what he did through the season, and just what he has done consistently since his arrest a year ago. He kept up the defenses. He wouldn't let us know him."
-Peter King, Sports Illustrated 1/29/01
"He has led the Ravens in tackles each of his five years in the league, been named to four AFC Pro Bowl squads and won the league's Defensive Player of the Year Award, a Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP.
Forget Disney and being on the Wheaties cereal box (kids don't eat it anymore anyway).
Lewis is headed for further greatness. He is headed to the Hall of Fame, where he will be in elite company, but also possibly the best of the bunch if he remains healthy."
-Mike Preston, Baltimore Sun 1/31/01
"The trial was over, they said. Lewis had been acquitted, pleading guilty to a lesser charge. He had been fined $250,000 by the league, a punishment he has appealed. Now, move on and leave the man alone.
Still, the interrogation continued, and Lewis — a floppy hat pulled down tight over his forehead — sat through them.
On Sunday, there were no more questions, just a football game to be played. And Lewis has never needed any protection there.
"There is no emotion like this," he said, "right now, to be here after being where I was last year."
"It was that way for Lewis in nearly every stadium he visited this past season, fans yelling crude comments like "Murderer!" and "Killer!" But Lewis remained focused, tried to refrain from confrontation. He believed that he had been knocked down so that he could get back up and do something improbable, wondrous and magical.
His family told him so. His spiritual convictions assured him so. His heart, his mind, his soul were renewed toward a new resolve, a new mission – to make it count. Make it all – football, family, life – count.
And Ray Lewis did it. He came through the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium as the last Raven introduced and he did this dance, this signature, shaking, wiggling dance."
-Thomas George, New York Times 1/30/01
Had the Ravens lost that Super Bowl, had Lewis not won MVP, who knows what would have happened to his legacy. Did winning that award, did seeing him lift that trophy immediately transform how the public viewed him? We'll never know. What we do know is Ray Lewis' public image transformation commenced at Super Bowl XXXV and it comes to a climax at Super Bowl XLVII. Both occasions have had their fair share of controversy, but both have stood down to the on-field legacy and redemption of Ray Lewis.
So Ray Lewis will do his signature, shaking, wiggling dance one more time Sunday night in the Superdome and he'll probably be the last Raven out of the tunnel once again. And it shouldn't surprise anyone if he wins the MVP award should the Ravens lift the Lombardi Trophy.
It would be a great story.