Ray Lewis - Page 6 - Ray Lewis And Baltimore (2)

Ray Lewis
- Page 6
Ray Lewis And Baltimore (2)
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 Saturday, 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 athleteswhodefined a time and place in his city, a status he shares with Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken Jr. and few others.

“Ray Lewiswas 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 J. 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 atM&TBank 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.”

‘I’d like to be the best ever’

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 futureNFLstars 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 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 notmeet him at a local tavern, but after games, he’d often slip off to find a random street corner in a rough part of townwhere 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.,wherehe’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