Ray Lewis - Page 7 - Ray Lewis And Baltimore (3)

Ray Lewis
- Page 7
Ray Lewis And Baltimore (3)
Unitas. But in manyways, hewas thesame—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 in1999,he already knew the24-year-old Lewis was a great player.

“But the biggest surprise tome 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 guyswho’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 pickthewholepracticeup. 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.”

A bond with Baltimore

By his third and fourth seasons, Lewis felt his football mission reverberating with the city. “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 becomea littlemore 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 inanorange jump suit flooded airwaves and sports sections that winter and spring as Lewis prepared for hismurder trial. Formany 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 hima 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 comeout 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.

Onthe road, Billick recalled: “Everyweek,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.-themdynamic 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 acombined 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.

Lewis the leader

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 hisway 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, sawit 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 youwere 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 fromthe 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 Iwas 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 themto 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 leadership 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 for17 seasons, almostunheard of in a league in which the average career is less than four. Duringwhat he termed his “last ride,” the 37-year-old tore his triceps in the sixth game of the season. In typical fashion, heworked 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 careerwith a parade through the streets of Baltimore, the city he’d made his own.

He comes to town 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.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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