NEW ORLEANS — Super Bowl XLVII will not be the grand finale and weeklong celebration of future NFL Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis’ career that his fans and supporters hoped it would be, and I, for one, am glad. I am neither a believer in, nor hater, of the myth that Lewis has become. I am simply exhausted by the never-ending contradiction Lewis is, tired of the debate and satisfied that he will finally now have to prove who he really is if he hopes to be remembered as the hero his legion of fans tries to paint him as.
Allow me to recap as briefly as I can what’s brought Lewis to this penultimate moment in the creation of his legacy. 13 years ago, at Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, Lewis was involved in altercations that led to the murders of two men. That is one of perhaps only two facts about what happened in Atlanta that is not the subject of some debate. The second is that Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in the case to avoid further prosecution on more serious charges.
There is no evidence I’m aware of that Lewis himself wielded the knife that killed the two men, or that he is in any way directly responsible for their murders. In exchange for his plea deal, Lewis did testify in the trial of two of his companions that evening who were charged with the murders and eventually acquitted. The murders remain unsolved to this moment, the case apparently quite cold. How forthcoming and completely honest Lewis was in his testimony at trial has been the subject of great debate, but it’s a debate I offer no opinion on since I have no knowledge of anything that went on that evening. There are a number of other questions about evidence, circumstantial and missing, that have been debated ad nauseam through the years. Again, I cannot comment. The only other fact I believe we have is that only Lewis and his companions truly know what happened that night, and they have apparently been done talking for some time.
There are two additional points on which we do have something close to a full understanding. The first is that, from the time Lewis accepted his plea and paid a huge fine to the NFL as a penalty for his involvement and behavior, he has worked hard to become what he and many around him believe to be a better man. I am told he is an outstanding father to his children, he has found God, and worked tirelessly in his community to give to those less fortunate than him. Many in that legion of fans I mentioned revere him as someone near saintly. After all, isn’t everyone entitled to a second chance? Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. To know better is to do better.
The second is that Lewis is extremely selective in what he believes to be the requisite values required of the devout Christian and pillar of the community he aspires to be. To this day, Lewis has never reached out to or given closure to the families and friends of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, the two men murdered that night in Atlanta. He did make significant monetary settlements to select members of each of the families to avoid appearing in open court to answer civil charges they brought against him. The six children to whom I’m told Lewis is an excellent father are with four different women, none of whom Lewis has ever married. But, isn’t everyone entitled to a second chance? Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. To know better is to do better.
Is there a better definition of the word contradiction walking and talking today? I am not judging, I am merely defining and leaving it to each of you to form your own conclusions. Ray Lewis is one of the greatest linebackers ever to play football — there is no debate on that point at all — and it is in this light that Lewis arrived in New Orleans to play his final professional football game and to be honored and adored by the many who love Ray Lewis, the football player.
Upon his arrival in New Orleans, in response to a question about what the outpouring of respect he receives from his fans means to him, Lewis responded, “I don’t know anybody, honestly, who has lived a perfect life. But, I have seen people who went through things before, and realistically, most of the time what happened, when you find somebody goes through adversity, you really find out what their true character is,” he said. “I think, for me, people really now have taken time to find out who I am. They are really learning what my character is. My character is simply just to make this world a better place, to encourage people that, no matter what you are going through, it really isn’t about what you are going through; it’s your mindset while you are going through it. So, when you see all of the support that I am getting right now, I am in total awe of the respect people have for someone who has been through adversity, but found his way out and just really showing what my true character is and who I am as a person.”
The next day Lewis told us this on how he feels about being treated as a legend. “I think when you talk about a legend, when you talk about leaving a legacy; I think it is all about what your peers speak about you, the people you actually impact on and off the field,” said Lewis. “If nothing else, I have always told people that your greatest leaders are your greatest servants. You are going to find people who lead, lead, lead, but more importantly, they serve more than anything. That is what this team is built around, and that is what my whole legacy is about. My whole legacy from day one when I came in was I always grabbed someone to try to take them to the next level of being a better man, being a better woman, being a better child, whatever it is. At the end of the day, that is what your legacy wants to be, to leave a great name. Hopefully, I did that.”
Then the story broke in Sports Illustrated alleging that Lewis may have used a substance banned by the NFL in his rigor to get back on the field for his final act, and for possibly the first time in his NFL career, Lewis played offense. “I think, honestly, and I am going to say it very clearly again, I think it’s probably one of the most embarrassing things that we can do on this type of stage,” said Lewis. “I think it takes totally away from — you give somebody the ability to come into our world. Our world is a very secret society, and we try to protect our world as much as we can. But, when you let cowards come in and do things like that, to try to disturb something. I’ve said it before, I’ve said a million times, the reason why I am smiling is because it is so funny of a story, because I never, ever, took what he says I — whatever I was supposed to do. It’s just sad, once again, that someone can have this much attention on a stage this big where the dreams are really real.”
The problem Lewis expects us all to ignore is that there is significant circumstantial evidence connecting him to the substance, including a taped conversation with the man alleged to have supplied it to him just months ago, when the use is alleged to have occurred. We have no idea whether he actually used a banned substance, and even if he did, we have no way of knowing whether it was intentional or not. But in this post-Lance Armstrong world, when it’s clearly Lewis’ voice seeking instruction on how to use the substance in question and telling the provider to send him “all of it,” his denials will ring hollow, at best. I do not believe it will impact the Super Bowl game itself, but I do believe these are questions Lewis will eventually have to answer more completely than he has this week if his legacy is to be the one he seeks.
There is only one point in all of this on which I am adamant. With all the great story lines at this Super Bowl, we’d all be far better off if Lewis’ story were no more than a footnote. Along with the Harbaugh brothers, Joe Flacco, Justin Smith, Ed Reed, Frank Gore, Michael Oher, Anquan Boldin and Patrick Willis, there are dozens of other players in this game more worthy of our attention and admiration than Ray Lewis.