As Ray Lewis tells it, the story of him and Baltimore is a creation myth.
His voice fell to a hush recently as he set the scene for his first season in the city, when the former Cleveland Browns were training at an abandoned state police barracks.
“It’s the one thing people don’t set out to do. And that is to change a culture, to really believe you can change a culture,” he said. “I walked in there that first day, and there was no hope. There were no numbers, no colors, no symbol, no nothing. We’re at an old army base, and every day as I’m leaving, I kept saying, ‘Damn, they’re going to believe. Our city don’t believe. My teammates don’t believe. But it’s possible. I’m telling you.’ ”
Then, the pivot.
“You know what happened from ’96 till the time I left?” Lewis said, his voice rising now. “Hope changed. It became real. Falling down is one thing. Getting your behind back up is a whole different mentality. Not being the favorites. The underdog roles are the roles you remember the most. And that’s what that city, from the day I walked in to the day I left, when they walked in that stadium, they believed one thing: ‘I’ve got hope. I’ve got hope that there will be a better day.’ ”
The narrative is, like everything about the man, outsized. And if you’re a skeptic, it’s downright hokey.
But here’s the thing.
Lewis really did transform himself from an unremarkable college recruit and an overlooked NFL draft choice into perhaps the greatest every-down defender in football history.
And he really did arrive in a city for which pro football represented abandoned dreams and create a new rallying point for the populace. Lewis proved to be the perfect emblem for his adopted home base — underestimated, messy and defiant.
When he takes his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 4, he’ll be celebrated by a nation of football fans as one of the greatest ever. But for Baltimore, the occasion will feel more personal.
Lewis will go down in the even rarer line of athletes who defined a time and place in his city, a status he shares with Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken Jr. and few others.
“Ray Lewis was and is the Baltimore Ravens,” said Rex Ryan, who as defensive coordinator helped design the units that gave a new NFL power its signature. “The fact he only played with one color jersey, that’s appropriate. When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, you think of one person. There’s a lot of great people in that organization, but you think of one person and that’s Ray Lewis.”
Lewis is a complicated figure, even for many people who’ve felt awed by his play and touched by his interest in their hopes and struggles.
Set aside those naysayers who’ve never gotten past the murder charges he faced in 2000 after two men were stabbed to death at a Super Bowl party he attended in Atlanta. Those charges were dropped, and Lewis became a greater hero than ever before in Baltimore. We’ll get to that.
But Lewis has continued to inflame debate, even in retirement. Last year, when Colin Kaepernick sought to find a new NFL team after a season of kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Lewis angered many of the quarterback’s supporters by urging Kaepernick to “let your play speak for yourself.”
After President Donald Trump became involved, Lewis infuriated those on the other side of the issue by kneeling with Ravens players as the national anthem played before the team’s Sept. 24 game in London. In Baltimore, critics drafted a petition to have the bronze statue of Lewis removed from the grounds at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis said he merely wanted the best for Kaepernick when he spoke out in the first place. And he said he was praying, not protesting, when he kneeled in London.
Regardless of his intentions, he found the center of the storm. It’s a place where he’s comfortable residing. In fact, he almost covets the tension, believing it pushes him to greater heights.
Baltimore accepted this early on and, in fact, embraced the aspects of Lewis that offended people elsewhere.
“Baltimore is really parochial. It’s not global,” said the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, who welcomed Lewis into his congregation at Empowerment Temple AME Church. “And people reacted to him like someone who was from here. More than what we had seen from any player of recent vintage, he wasn’t just showing up for fundraisers. He really hunkered down with people.”
Lewis had already lived out a condensed version of his Baltimore story at the University of Miami, where he quickly rose from an afterthought recruit to the unquestioned leader of a defense that included future NFL stars such as Warren Sapp and Kenard Lang.
Despite his remarkable production in college, where he was a two-time All-American, he fell to the 26th pick in the first round of the 1996 draft because of his unremarkable stature and the deglamorization of the middle linebacker position in the pass-happy modern NFL.
The lead story of the Ravens’ first draft in Baltimore was not Lewis but Ozzie Newsome’s choice of left tackle Jonathan Ogden over troubled running back Lawrence Phillips with the No. 4 pick. No one thought Newsome had found the future face of the franchise near the bottom of the first round.
No one except Lewis, perhaps.
Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ vice president of community and public relations, will never forget meeting Lewis for the first time when he flew to Baltimore the day after the draft. Lewis’ flight was delayed, so Ogden had already sat for his introductory news conference. As Byrne prepped the linebacker for his first Baltimore interview, he asked, “Do you have any goals?”
“Yes,” Lewis replied. “I’d like to be the best ever.”
“The best linebacker?” Byrne wondered.
“No, the best player in the history of the NFL,” Lewis said.
And with that, he set the terms of his new engagement.
Lewis remembered spending Thanksgivings with his grandfather and the reverence with which the old man spoke of Jim Brown. He wanted to be so great that one day, he’d be the subject of other families’ turkey day reveries.
Before he became a Rorschach test for sports fans across the nation — by turns notorious, inspiring and confounding — Lewis created the culture for a new team that would rekindle a city’s love for professional football.
The Colts had been defined by Johnny U. — a crew-cut gunslinger who downed Budweisers beside steelworkers at the Club 4100 in Brooklyn Park.
But the emblem of this reborn franchise would be a defensive shot caller who danced during introductions, lifted teammates with his sonorous preacher’s voice and studied the game as compulsively as a coach.
You might not meet him at a local tavern, but after games, he’d often slip off to find a random street corner in a rough part of town where he’d talk to the denizens about trying to find a better path in life.
Much of what he saw in Baltimore reminded him of his boyhood in Lakeland, Fla., where he’d watched the crack cocaine epidemic sweep away so many promising lives. He didn’t start out with a grand plan. He merely wanted to connect with people and share his gospel of self-invention.
“The guys I was talking to then — many of them have been killed now — it was just me sharing that everybody has a choice,” he recalled. “You don’t have to choose this. Do you walk the other way? Or do you think you can beat the influence you’re around? And I would sit there on the corner, just regular old me. The conversations flowed naturally.”
Lewis was superficially different from Unitas. But in many ways, he was the same — an unexpected icon who gave his mind and body to football and operated with a personal touch.
When Brian Billick arrived to coach the Ravens in 1999, he already knew the 24-year-old Lewis was a great player.
“But the biggest surprise to me was — I knew Ray was the best player and was becoming more and more the face of the franchise — but how readily the veterans, guys like Rod Woodson, Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary, all these accomplished guys who’d been around awhile, how readily they gave themselves over to Ray’s leadership,” he said.
The team’s day-to-day life revolved around the young linebacker’s furious passion.
“It was every day, every game,” Ryan remembered. “And on the practice field, if we didn’t have it, he’d make it up. … If Ray ever asked a player, ‘You’ve got to pick it up,’ it would pick the whole practice up. So we never had bad practices. And it was him. It wasn’t us coaches. It was Ray Lewis. That was the thing he brought to the table. I would never want to let him down. I knew what he put in it, and as a coach, I never wanted to let him down. I never had a player before or after that I felt that way about.”
By his third and fourth seasons, Lewis felt his football mission reverberating with the city at large.
“They never really just had an outgoing personality, someone who will just say, openly, what’s on his mind. You know, ‘This my city!’ We’re going to rep my city,’ ” he said. “And they started to take heed to that. And I started to become a little more vocal about how dominant I thought we could be. We were playing that black-and-blue football, and a lot of blue-collar people can relate to that. It’s always the underdog, the underdog, the underdog. You come from that underdog perspective, and me being at the front of that, I think that’s when people really bought in to, ‘He is our city. He represents us.’ It was a natural marriage.”
It’s impossible to talk about Lewis’ connection to Baltimore without talking about Atlanta and the remarkable emotional swings of the year 2000.
Images of the All-Pro linebacker in an orange jumpsuit flooded airwaves and sports sections that winter and spring as Lewis prepared for his murder trial. For many fans in other cities, it did not matter that the case against Lewis fell apart or that, after the murder charges were dropped, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge.
For the rest of his career, he’d hear people call him a killer and hurl racist taunts from the stands at enemy stadiums.
In Baltimore, fans viewed his story quite differently, and if the bond between player and city had not already been sealed for life, it happened that year.
At training camp that summer in Westminster, person after person approached to shake Lewis’ hand and tell him face to face that he’d been railroaded.
“I don’t think you can ignore the racial issue involved,” Byrne said. “Many minorities in Baltimore could identify with a guy who was being screwed over by somebody in power. And he handled it with such dignity. He never lashed out against the prosecutors or the mayor of Atlanta.”
The city’s loyalty meant the world to Lewis, who said he knew he’d never play anywhere else after those 12 months.
“It deepened it at such a level, because a bunch of people separated out football. They went to the person, and they stood up for the person,” he said. “And that, man, when people can see that, see you go through things in the public eye, a lot of people will sit back and see how you respond. How will he come out of this? So when Baltimore backed me … it bonded a city and community in a way that no other circumstance would have bonded it.”
Once the games began, the disparity between Baltimore and everywhere else intensified. Here, Lewis was a revival leader in full flower, playing the greatest football of his life for a defense that laid waste to the NFL. His purple No. 52 began to eclipse Ripken’s orange No. 8 as the emblem for a new generation of city sports fans.
On the road, Billick recalled: “Every week, we went into another city where that was the front-page story on Sunday morning, the picture of Ray in an orange jumpsuit and that type of thing. That really did kind of build an us-vs.-them dynamic for that team.”
He described a late-November home game against the Cleveland Browns to illustrate Lewis’ command of that wild season. The Ravens were rolling toward a league record for fewest points allowed, but the hapless Browns somehow drove 86 yards for a touchdown to start the game.
“We’re all stunned. The stadium is stunned,” Billick said.
The coach stalked down the sideline to rip into his defense, but Lewis intercepted him. “Don’t say a word, I’ve got it,” the 25-year-old linebacker said.
The Browns gained 26 yards and didn’t score again.
“I don’t know exactly what he said, but that was classic Ray Lewis,” Billick said. “He said, ‘This isn’t going to stand. This isn’t us.’ And the players responded to him.”
After four playoff games in which opponents scored a combined 23 points, the Ravens defense reigned as the greatest force in football. And Lewis, love him or hate him, was the sport’s signature player.
From then on, the images became a rite of autumn in Baltimore. The squirrel dance to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” as billowing flames accentuated each Lewis shimmy on his way into M&T Bank Stadium. The moments when he’d pull teammates into a tight pregame circle and scream, “Any dogs in the house?” The Pro Bowl appearances he racked up every season he was healthy.
Skeptics surely found him ridiculous at times, but those beside him, many of whom were sucked into Lewis’ obsessive pursuit of greatness, saw it differently.
“The bravado and the dance, the whole nine yards, some people didn’t care for it,” Billick said. “They thought it was too much bluster or too much ego or too much about him. Until you were part of it. Then you saw exactly what it represented. Those people weren’t around for every practice, every weight session, every meeting to see the consistency. Some could look from the outside and say, ‘It’s just a show.’ But no. That was Ray through and through, every day.”
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti liked to sidle up to rookies as they walked off the practice field during training camp. “So tell me, who’s the hardest-working player on this team?” he’d say, knowing the answer would be Lewis.
“And I was setting them up,” Bisciotti recalled. “I’d say, ‘Man, that’s really disappointing.’ They’d look at me quizzically. And I would say, ‘I was hoping you would say it’s you.’ They’d kind of look at me like now they’re embarrassed. And I would say, ‘Let me get this straight. He has more experience than you. He has more accomplishments than you. And you’re saying he tries harder than you, too?’ ”
Bisciotti was having a little fun, but he also wanted them to grasp the price of true greatness.
As a student of leadership in his pre-NFL business life, he found Lewis compelling.
“When I say the unique leaderships skills that Ray had, he literally could inspire you to give more than you think you could give, to sacrifice more than you think could sacrifice, and he drove people to be their best selves,” Bisciotti said. “And it was by example. There was nobody watching more film, nobody staying in the gym longer after practice. So the effect he had on others, it’s hard to quantify. But I do believe that playing next to Ray, you gave more than you would have or could have if he wasn’t there. And I find that remarkable. I really do.”
Lewis played for 17 seasons, almost unheard of in a league in which the average career is less than four. During what he termed his “last ride,” the 37-year-old tore his triceps in the sixth game of the season. In typical fashion, he worked like a demon to defy the odds and return for the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, he was a step slower than the young San Francisco 49ers on the other side of the ball. But he still finished with seven tackles and celebrated the end of his career with a parade through the streets of Baltimore, the city he’d made his own.
He comes to Baltimore frequently in retirement, working to boost his Power 52 jobs initiative or shepherding groups of city children to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Farm, where he gives them a glimpse of a different world. He spends much of the rest of his time keeping up with his own children, all of whom are either in college or headed there.
Recently, he fell into conversation with an older Baltimore woman, who told him that every time she watched him dance out of the tunnel on Sunday, she felt a little more hopeful about the week ahead.
“If you can give somebody that gift,” he said, his voice breaking. “If you can pass that gift … ”
And for once, Ray Lewis was out of words.
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