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NEW ORLEANS – Reginald "A.J." Oakley captured it best with his assessment of Ray Lewis.
"I accept him for who he was, a good athlete," said Oakley, one of two men Lewis testified against 13 years ago following a double murder in Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV in which he was also initially charged with murder.
After Oakley's remark, there is silence. A long, halting pause in which the listener thinks a "but" or "and" or some bridge to the next comment will come.
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Finally, after seven or eight seconds, Oakley is asked what kind of man Lewis is.
"He's human like everybody else," said Oakley, who was acquitted on murder charges (along with Joseph Sweeting) in the January 2000 deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. "When everything was going crazy at that time, I don't think it was a big deal for him to do whatever it took to protect himself. He had his career he was worried about. … I was the new guy in the group, so I was the guy he sacrificed."
That picture of Lewis, formed from the panicked hours after the street fight that resulted in Baker's and Lollar's deaths, is somewhat haunting considering the events leading up to Super Bowl XLVII between the linebacker's Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco on Sunday.
The latest charge against Lewis is whether he used a performance-enhancing drug to get back to health after suffering torn triceps in his left arm in October. The injury was initially thought to be a season-ender. Instead, Lewis is now hoping to lead the Ravens to the second title of his 17-year career.
Win or lose, Lewis' legacy is a daunting one to consider. Is he a hero who has turned his life around to the point that it's unfair to bring up his distant past? Or is he an opportunist who uses a religious song and dance to cover the fact that he's willing to take PEDs to further his final cause?
Or is there some middle ground in the process? As Oakley said, is he simply human and therefore frail, particularly in the face of desperation?
Oakley's depiction of Lewis in his book "Murder After Super Bowl XXXIV" is a far cry from what will be presented Sunday in the slick television production. In the most telling moment of his life, Lewis wasn't leading others, he was protecting himself. Oakley talks about that moment with great calm all these years later.
"What happened that night was crazy and for months after that, it was truly surreal," Oakley said. "For all those months after that and leading through the trial, I was just in this haze. The strangest thing is that it all happened in a minute. I got hit in the head and then a minute later, after everybody has been fighting, we all jumped in the limo and then they're firing bullets at us.
"It was crazy how fast it all happened and when it's like that, you don't have time to think. You can't figure out what's going on. You're just going and going. Then you find out that somebody died and then it was like, 'Every man for himself.' "
Lewis, who accepted a plea deal to obstruction to justice in the case, declined to comment on Oakley's book or his comments Thursday. However, Lewis gave some glimpse into the alternating vision that he projects on the field and the one he maintains in private.
"On the field ain't about humility," Lewis said of the warrior image he projects on game day. "I don't get paid to be humble on the field. Off the football field is different."
The problem is that fans don't easily compartmentalize. Separating the on-stage persona from the day-to-day reality is like trying to sort gravel from dust. People are constantly seeing the glory and not the reality. The ugly moments when men's souls are tried to the point that they claw for freedom or just the ability to play another Sunday – sometimes to the point of crawling over a fellow man – aren't just far from pretty, they aren't seen.
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"The public doesn't want to see what we have to go through to get on the field on Sunday," Denver Broncos defensive tackle Justin Bannan said recently. "They don't want to know what we have to go through or what we're willing to do. They just want to see the show."
No, fans don't want to see weakness. They want their heroes fully formed and without flaw. Achilles doesn't really have a heel.
They don't want to consider the conversation I once had 13 years ago with Armando Salguero, my colleague back when I worked for the Miami Herald. When Lewis agreed to the plea deal and testified against Oakley and Sweeting in June 2000, Salguero looked at me and said, "How do you think history will remember Ray Lewis, as a hero or a villain?"
"How about just as a man?" I replied.
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