The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2018 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting memorable moments for each member of the eight-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.
Ray Lewis, 1996-2012
Imagine an NFL linebacker so vicious he gets offenses trembling, so hulking that he’s used as a model for marauding aliens in a big-budget Hollywood movie. Imagine Linebacker X heaves quarterbacks like he’s tossing bags of dog food and blows up offensive lines like a bowling ball thrown overhand. You’d say Linebacker X is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and you’d cheer as he strode into Canton.
Now remember Linebacker X is Ray Lewis, and suddenly the lines get a whole lot blurrier.
On the field, Lewis possessed an uncanny knack for spotting the center of the action and hurling his gargantuan frame right into it. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, punk,” he used to hiss at Peyton Manning as he gleefully leveled the icon play after play. He broke Manning so badly that Peyton hung around after one of the most devastating upsets in his career, a stunning overtime loss to Baltimore in the 2012 season’s playoffs, just to wish Lewis well.
By then, Lewis had been breaking quarterbacks for nearly two decades, first at the University of Miami – where he ran with everyone from Warren Sapp to a fellow who washed out of football, name of Dwayne Johnson – and then at Baltimore. The accolades he piled up in purple were too numerous for even Lewis himself to wrap up: two-time Super Bowl champ, 13-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first team All-Pro, member of the 2000s All-Decade team. The living embodiment of Mike Tyson’s old line about everyone having a plan until they get punched in the head, Lewis altered every game plan of every team he faced every time he stepped onto a field.
Thing is, you can’t consider Lewis without factoring in where he’d end up after the game hit 00:00. Most notorious remains Lewis’ involvement in a double homicide in Atlanta during Super Bowl week in 2000. Lewis was convicted of obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor; despite the fact that the blood of one of the victims was found in Lewis’ limousine, and the white suit Lewis was wearing that night was never located, no other individuals were ever convicted in the murders.
And yet Lewis not only came back to the Super Bowl as a player the very next year, he won MVP.
More recently, Lewis made a total hash of the controversy over protests during the national anthem. First, he suggested in 2016 that Colin Kaepernick should, in effect, just shut up and play – a tricky endeavor since no team, either then or since, would sign him:
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) September 8, 2016
The next year, Lewis then charged that it was Kaepernick’s girlfriend who was keeping him from getting signed. Once the locker room mood shifted following President Trump’s denunciation of kneeling players, Lewis aligned himself with the players who chose to kneel during the anthem – but unlike them, Lewis put both knees on the ground:
“I didn’t drop on one knee in order to protest,” Lewis said, trying to stake out some sort of middle ground in the bitter protest debate. “I dropped on two knees – both knees – so I can simply honor God in the midst of chaos.”
Lewis remains an undeniably powerful, motivational, and inspirational figure – just try to find an NFL fan born after 1985 who hasn’t done his squirrel dance – and, naturally, he’ll get the final speaking slot. You may not quite make sense of what Lewis is trying to say – “He meant everything he was saying, but I didn’t know what he was talking about 90 percent of the time,” Joe Flacco once said – but you can’t deny the man will move you, one way or another.
“All you have to do is deliver something that people want to hear,” Lewis said on a recent conference call. “It will have people and myself in a roller coaster that people will never forget.”
Ray Lewis will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a deserving player. But he’ll be remembered for much more than that.
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