OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The voice is a thunderclap in a room of loud men. It rises high then rolls low, fueled by tears and agony and joy. The voice spills stories from a book – a good book – the speaker believes and the men listen and nod and agree because many of the Baltimore Ravens read this very same book. And because they trust the voice and they trust the Bible from which the voice reads, they believe the voice gives them strength. They believe it gives them unity. They believe it is helping them win.
This is the Ray Lewis the Ravens know.
But this is not how much of America sees Lewis. Even though the Ravens linebacker has been a great star and one of football's most dominant defensive players for much of the past 17 years, his name is forever frozen in a single event that occurred right after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in 2000. The lingering images are of an NFL player standing trial for the murder of two men.
And while he was never convicted of the murders and the case against him didn't seem strong, enough questions still exist. The public conviction will never go away. So as these playoffs have extended and the celebrations of Lewis boomed, his boisterous declarations of faith have crashed against old perceptions.
For every Peyton Manning waiting to embrace him after Baltimore's AFC division round win in the Denver, there is an Anna Burns Welker, wife of Patriots receiver Wes, who wrote: "Please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids, 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"
At Super Bowl week, the clash will be bigger than ever. Lewis will rant and quote scripture in the final media sessions of his career. The skeptics will shout louder than they have before. And much of America won't know exactly what to think.
Faith is a tricky thing in sports. It bathes some players in a luminous light of good while making others look like cheap opportunists. Many of those same fans who hang on the every word of Tim Tebow express disgust at the very idea of Ray Lewis. This despite the fact that Tebow's expressions of Christianity have had far less impact in the Broncos' and Jets' locker rooms than Lewis's have had in Baltimore's. To the teammates of both men, Ray Lewis is a far bigger hero than Tim Tebow.
He turned a ragged life into a good life. Isn't that something to celebrate?
"According to the Bible his sins are forgiven," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, who has spoken and written about his own faith. "He's come from a totally different background than someone like Tim Tebow. He has come to Christ later in life but isn't that true of so many? The Bible teaches us that not only are our sins forgiven but they are forgotten."
Everything in Ray Lewis' recent existence says he is the man he claims to be. His rambling speeches may sound tiresome after awhile. A few teammates might grow bored or find his declarations of faith to be irritating, but few doubt his sincerity. Nobody sniffs out a fake in sports faster than another athlete. If Lewis didn't live his words, the Ravens would have long stopped listening.
More than most teams, the Baltimore players' faith is close to the surface, especially in the weeks since Lewis returned from a triceps injury at the start of the playoffs and declared he was playing the last games of his career. Throughout the Ravens' double overtime win over Denver he kept yelling "No weapon formed against you shall prosper!" Afterward, coach John Harbaugh spoke of a "spirituality" that was taking over the locker room. He said people are probably uncomfortable with him saying that. But it was an honest appraisal of where his team is. And a lot of the Ravens' emotions are driven by Lewis – no matter how perplexing that might be for people outside the team.
"To have such a big personality be so passionate about his faith it certainly helps us all bring it out," Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox said.
Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones says Lewis doesn't even swear at practice. And while plenty of Ravens do, his power is so extreme that many follow his lead. In fact his influence around teammates is so immense it's almost impossible to find a comparison in football. Rare is a defensive player also the leader of a locker room. The next closest thing might be Reggie White whose presence dominated the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Many around the Packers felt his impact was larger than even that of Brett Favre.
Brett Fuller, the pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Northern Virginia and the Redskins' team pastor, was a good friend of White, who died in 2004. He's the godfather to one of White's children. Though he doesn't know Lewis personally, he sees White's larger-than-life affirmations in the Ravens' star. He can see a team congealing around Lewis the way Green Bay did around White in the Super Bowl years of 1996 and 1997.
"Very few guys can say the team is my team and have it not affect the locker room," Fuller says.
The next week is going to say a lot about the final legacy of Ray Lewis. The man from the murder scene in 2000 has a chance to convert doubters with his words and actions in preparation of the Ravens' showdown against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. If the Ravens win and the players continue to talk about the inspiration he has been to them, opinions will have to change.
"There's no way we can escape our public reputation," Fuller says. "I can't fault people who listen to Ray's past and question his credibility. But I will say: 'Can't we get people to see the redemption?' No we aren't all perfect. At some point in life we are accused of something and everybody wants to write a new chapter."
And if Ray Lewis' newest chapter has truly been good, pulling together the Baltimore Ravens for this run to the Super Bowl, it might be worth wondering if maybe Lewis's complicated legacy isn't so complex after all.
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