Baltimore, MD — “…Everything that starts has an end. That’s just life…God is calling…“
With these words, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced today that he will be retiring at the end of this season.
Reactions to Lewis’ announcement are rarely seen in professional sports — or for that matter any field — because the stature and mythology around the central figure is rarely as grand. There have been legendary NFL players who wore number 52, but none loomed larger than Ray Lewis.
A MAN’S MAN ON THE FIELD
Ray Lewis is football. The prototypical throwback player that transcends his times. One could easily imagine Lewis playing in a leather helmet without a face mask, at some frozen stadium before packages platooned players in-and-out for various game scenarios. One could imagine Lewis lining-up against Jim Brown or Dick “Night Train” Lane. One could readily picture Lewis as a member of the Vikings famed Purple People Eaters. Lewis battling Sam Huff in the 1950s or Dick Butkas in the 1960s for top linebacker honors. That kind of transcendence can be said of only a special group in today’s talent pool.
In the age of reality show players, Lewis personified the traditional blue collar, leave it on the field, athlete. On one occasion, Lewis blew-out his shoulder in a game. To avoid conveying a weakness to the opposing team, Lewis proceeded to do a strenous workout on the sideline while waiting to go back on the field.
A consummate profession, Lewis’ work ethic is widely-recognized as a model around the league, even at 17 years in the NFL — the most seasons ever played by an inside/middle linebacker. His longevity cannot be overstated given the average duration for a first-round draft pick is only 9.3 seasons.
Ray Lewis Career Highlights
- 2-Time All-American at the University of Miami
- Drafted in 1996 out of the University of Miami, First Round, 26th Pick
- Lifetime career with Baltimore Ravens
- SuperBowl XXXV Champion
- SuperBowl XXXV Most Valuable Player
- 13 Pro Bowls, a record for inside/middle linebackers
- A inside/middle lineback record 10-time All-Pro Selections
- 7-time AP First Team All-Pro
- 3-time AP Second Team All-Pro
- 2-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year
- 3-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year
- 2-time NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year
- Tied with Lawrence Taylor on linebacker selections as All-Pro (10)
- Most Games Started at Inside/Middle Linebacker
- Most Interception Return Yards for an Inside/Middle Linebacker
- NFL 2000s All-Decade Team
- 20 sack/20 interception Club- Quickest to reach
- 30 sack/30 Interception Club- Quickest to reach
- 40 sack/30 Interception Club- Only Member
Lewis’ work on-the-field is the subject of fellow players, coaches, sports writers, and enthusiasts. But it is Ray Lewis off-the-field, his journey so to speak, that has not only laid up eternal treasures but also left a legacy that will extend beyond his years. The Other Ray Lewis overshadows arguably the game’s most celebrated linebacker. And we cannot appreciate the intensity of the fight in the man without recognizing the larger context of the fight that Lewis himself acknowledges.
HIS DEFINING MOMENT
When interviewed or featured in media stories, Lewis candidly points to an incident that occurred in 2000 as one of the most pivotal events in his life. The then flamboyant Lewis, who emerged from one of America’s most flamboyant college football programs — The Miami Hurricanes — was attending a January 31, 2000 Super Bowl XXXIV party in Atlanta. A fight broke out involving Lewis and his group and another group. Shots rang out. Lewis left the scene to remove himself from the scuffle. However, when the disturbance ended, dead were Richard Lollar (24) and Jacinth Baker (21); both having sustained fatal stabbing injuries. Lewis would watch the late night news, only to learn that he was one of three persons being sought for the a double homicide.
Lewis, along with Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, were indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges. During the course of the investigation, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard was unable to produce a white suit that Lewis was alleged to have been wearing on the evening of the fatal exchange; a suit reported to have blood stains that would be crucial evidence in the criminal cases.
Lewis’ criminal cases ended with his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Lewis plead guilty of obstruction of justice, having given misleading statements to local authorities. Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner sentenced Lewis, a first-time offender, to a maximum allowable 12 months of probation. The NFL fined Lewis $250,000. Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted, leaving no one to face criminal penalties for the two deaths. And Lewis later reached civil settlements with the family of Baker and with India Lollar (4-year old daughter of Richard Lollar).
Lewis has maintained that District Attorney Howard possessed solid evidence that he [Lewis] was not involved in the double homicide. During a presentation at Harvard University, Lewis reaffirmed, “They never had anything on me.” Indeed, Lewis has lamented on numerous occasions that Howard was willing to mete out a life sentence without regard for the evidence. Beyond that, a cloud still hovers near Lewis. In the minds of some sports fans, Lewis got away with murder. And that gulf between what Lewis asserts Howard knew and what some fans believed remains a sad footnotes on a stellar career.
THE FIGHT WITHIN
How Ray Lewis navigated through the seemingly dichotomous paths of star athlete and being a target of blame is a story more compelling than football statistics. To some extent, one makes the other more profound. One gives meaning to the other. Fully appreciating Lewis’ football performances requires an acknowledgment of the shame he has endured from the terrible events in 2000. Conversely, that tragic event takes on greater meaning because of who it involved. Not a “usual suspect” caught-up crime, but a rising star who, for good reasons, felt that he was on top of the world. This perspective fuses our own journeys with Ray Lewis. Many can attest to a fateful set of circumstances that interrupted our life plans. That fusion, what we share with Lewis, makes him a significant figure for our times.
On September 11, 2012, Lewis spoke at the funeral of Ravens Owner Art Modell. His impassioned tribute posed this question, “If you did nothing else in life, what would you fight for?“
Lewis serves notice of a fight in a range of venues made available to him because of those two dichotomous paths of celebrity and a tragic event. Lewis often speaks of training. Not for football, but rather, for life. From the locker room of numerous college teams to audiences inside of prisons, Lewis’ echoing of a fight that others must also engage signals that beneath the surface of sacking a quarterback or causing a wide receiver to fumble, he has been engaging in his own fight. A fight within.
Lewis, a professed Christian, has been fighting the good fight of faith to become the person that God has purposed for him. For Lewis, that fight began with him being left in an incubator by a father who abandoned him without as much as giving him a name. That fight followed Lewis through a rough childhood. The fight continued in brushes with the criminal justice system that gave God a chance to speak about the blessing he had not sufficiently appreciated. And we can safely conclude that fight “to become” received an added dose of adrenalin in those who remember January 31, 2000.
Relatively few people in the world reach the notoriety of Ray Lewis. Media serves to help us understand their world. Popular themes such as purchases of expensive items (e.g., private jets) take center stage in stories conveyed to the general public. Less common are themes that unite us in a common humanity, a common deeply-felt aspiration to fulfill our purpose. The fight of which Lewis speaks is common to all mankind. We are wired as such. While some ignore the compass within, it is most certainly there. And every-now-and-then, God uses extraordinary people to remind us of these very ordinary yearnings.
THE OTHER RAY LEWIS
Ray Lewis has clearly engaged the fight. Several years ago, I read an article on Lewis that revealed his regular hosting of Bible studies in his house. The person who once committed to the NFL that he would not abuse drugs or alcohol had grown into a man who found more fulfillment in being near his mother than hanging in places where drugs and alcohol were plentiful. Lewis had chosen a quiet life as opposed to the streets where his face would immediately open doors. That Other Ray Lewis finds redemptive elements in injuries, games coming down to the last minute, and the recovery of a relationship with his once distant father. That Other Ray Lewis has seen his purpose beyond the field as an intercessory prayer warrior for a terminally-ill friend and wounded veteran. That Other Ray Lewis has arrived at a profound sense of the sacrifice his children have made during the NFL playing days. A hard-hitting linebacker has yielded to the Other Ray Lewis, a trumpet for love.
So on this day, when Ray Lewis announces his retirement, the avid football fan in me weeps inside. I weep in the same way I wept as I watched Julius Erving play his last game. But the Lewis retirement conjures up other sentiments. And for certain, those other sentiments are connected with God’s continued unveiling of The Other Ray Lewis.
QUESTION FOR YOU:
Is the idea of an inner fight a driving motivation in your life?
Does Ray Lewis, the man, give you more appreciation Ray Lewis, the Raven?
What other celebrities are inspiring you to engage “the fight”? If so, who are they?
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