By Lauren Seifert
For 17 seasons, Ray Lewis has personified the Baltimore Ravens. He is, without question, the team’s heart and soul; the motivator, the intimidator, the gladiator.
That’s why his announcement Wednesday that he will retire after the playoffs comes as a shock. Not because it was unexpected, but because it’s tough to imagine football without him; his ferocious charisma, menacing stare, eyeblack smudged across his face. In short, he transcended his team and his undeniable persona encapsulated the organization for nearly two decades.
It is almost without question that Lewis will go down in the annals of NFL history as one of its greatest defensive players. He is all but assured to be a first ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame.
And to prove that point, all you need to do is look at some of his accomplishments –
- 227 starts in 228 career games
- 13 Pro Bowl selections
- Seven first-team All-Pro selections
- Two-time Defensive Player of the Year
- NFL 2000s All-Decade Team
- Super Bowl XXXV MVP
The 2000-2001 Ravens defense became fabled, setting an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, culminating with a humiliating 31-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. They are in the same pantheon as the’85 Bears, ’76 Steelers and the ’71 Vikings. And it was Lewis who was the cornerstone of that legendary group.
But nothing lasts forever and, as he said during his news conference, it was “time to create a new legacy.”
“God is calling,” he added. “My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for their father for 17 years. I don’t want to see them do that no more. I’ve done what I wanted to do in this business and now it’s my turn to give them something back.”
So, along with our perception of Ray Lewis, the warrior, there’s also Ray Lewis, the father, and Ray Lewis, the Christian.
But his narrative is much more complicated than that.
January 31st, 2000, the night after Super Bowl XXXIV, outside of an Atlanta nightclub, a fight broke out between Lewis, two members of his entourage and two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Baker and Lollar were stabbed to death and Lewis and his companions, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were indicted on two counts of murder and aggravated assault.
Six months later, Lewis plead guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Ultimately, both men were acquitted. Lewis was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and the league levied a $250,000 fine for conduct detrimental to the league. At the time, it was the largest fine of its kind in NFL history.
The reality is that the Ray Lewis we know and respect now will always have that permanent stain on his legacy. And it should. He was there, he lied to investigators about what happened and, 13 years later, the murders remain unsolved.
On the flip side, it’s also true that a man can change his ways. In the years since, Lewis has become something of a model NFL player, an inspiration on and off the field, from his considerable charity work to mentoring young players coming into the league.
Do his good deeds erase what happened? Of course not, but there is certainly something to be said for someone who repents and searches for redemption.
Last January, before an NIT semifinal game against UMass, Lewis delivered a locker room speech to Stanford’s basketball team. “I’m pissed off for greatness,” he told the players. “Because if you ain’t pissed off for greatness, that means you’re okay with being mediocre.”
That quote, eloquent in its simplicity, symbolizes Lewis. For all his trials and tribulations, he is the consummate competitor, “pissed off for greatness,” and never okay with “being mediocre.”
As for Stanford? The Cardinal went on to beat the Minutemen 74-64 and advanced to their first NIT title game since 1991.
At whichever point the Ravens season ends, Ray Lewis will ride off into the sunset, a new career as an analyst for ESPN on the horizon. We will look back on his career and reminisce. We will remember his electrifying presence on the field. We will remember the countless motivational speeches. We will remember the frenzied dances out of the stadium tunnel.
But, we will also remember that night in Atlanta. While it has no bearing on Ray Lewis, the football player, we must remember. No matter how much easier it may be to forget.