LAKELAND, Fla. – Gwen Gentry makes a left on a small street named Connestee and pulls up alongside an old sienna house with a solitary black folding chair on the front porch. She gets out of the car and looks up. This is it, she says. This is Ray Lewis' childhood home.
She points to a clearing on the right, framed by two huge trees. Over there, she says, is where Ray first played football as a little boy.
Greatness grew up here, only a short walk from the Interstate 4 corridor that connects Disney World to the East and Tampa to the West. Gwen, Ray's aunt, used to live in this house too, along with Ray's mother, Buffy, and Ray's grandmother Elease. It was Elease McKinney who was the "backbone of the family," says Gwen. It was Elease, along with her husband, Gil, who raised Ray.
Elease McKinney is now in Tampa, in a hospital room, suffering from serious complications from diabetes. She's been ailing for months, throughout her grandson's final NFL season. Gwen says she coded three times in the fall, and she and her sisters have been visiting daily, taking turns at her bedside from dawn to midnight. "She only sees shadows," says Gwen, so her daughters sit with her during Ray's games and tell her what's happening. Elease, 72, can't speak well. Her daughters read her lips.
It feels like we know everything about Ray Lewis now: the Hall of Fame career, the pregame dance, the face paint, the prayer, the crying. Lewis has even been parodied on "Saturday Night Live". The man is a celebrity. The deteriorating condition of his grandmother, however, has been kept largely private. Ray has visited her frequently this season, sitting at her bedside only a few miles from Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers play.
"When they said she wasn't going to pull through," Gwen says, "Ray said, 'You do everything you can to keep my grandmama alive. Money is no obstacle.' "
There's a national debate over who Ray Lewis is. He is a hero to many, a football phenom with an infectious charisma. He is a villain to many as well.
Lewis attended a Super Bowl party in Atlanta on January 31, 2000, and a fight broke out. Two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, were fatally stabbed. Lewis and two men he was with were indicted 11 days later on murder charges. Lewis would later admit to giving a misleading statement to police on the morning after the killings. He eventually agreed to testify against the men he was with, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. The NFL fined Lewis $250,000. He was named Super Bowl MVP the very next year, but his reputation was permanently altered. No one was ever found guilty of the two murders, and many still believe Lewis got away with a heinous crime.
Despite the court of public opinion, Ray Lewis' reputation has been the same around here since he was little: He is, above all, Elease McKinney's grandson.
It was Elease who insisted on Ray learning the Bible at a young age and going to church. Lewis is known now for his preaching, but he was a junior deacon as a child. He could recite verse at age 4. Elease made sure of that. "It wasn't if you wanted to go to church," Gwen says. "You had to go." Buffy was very present in Ray's upbringing, but it was Elease who raised a driven and unyielding football prodigy who Gwen still describes as "very shy."
"Ray, coming up, Ray was always laid-back and quiet," Gwen says. "Oh, he has a big mouth now. But he was off to himself. He was. In sports, he stood up as a leader. He was always serious about football."
The flamboyant person we see now emerged at the University of Miami, Gwen says, but it was always a cover for an earnest grandson who dared not disappoint the family matriarch. Lewis' father, Ray Jackson, was not heavily involved in his son's childhood, although they are closer now. The name Lewis comes from the man Buffy was dating when young Ray entered high school. Without a father growing up, Ray Lewis' grandmother and mother (who declined an interview) were the law.
Gwen says it was Elease who called her late on the night Lewis was arrested in February 2000. "They got Ray for double murder," she told her daughter, who is now 51. The next morning, they boarded a flight for Atlanta, where they remained in a hotel for the better part of two months. Every day was the same: wake up, pray, go to court, eat, go back to the hotel, pray, and go to sleep.
"I know it wasn't Ray," Gwen says. "My son, I would have doubts. Not Ray. I knew it wasn't true."
When she first got to the jail in Atlanta, a pastor told Lewis his lawyer had arrived. The door opened, and in walked Gwen. "Oh my god!" he yelled. "You're my attorney? I'll never get out of here!"
"You know I didn't do it," Ray told his aunt in jail. "I had nothing to do with it."
That made sense then to Ray's family, and makes sense now. It makes a little more sense when you see the huge mural of Lewis hanging in the Kathleen High School gymnasium, only a short drive from where Lewis grew up. In the photo, Lewis isn't wearing a football uniform, but a wrestling warm-up. He won 80 of 90 matches in the 189-pound division. He's clasping his hands modestly in the portrait, with only the hint of a smile on his face. He does appear shy.
"Ray didn't fight when he was here," Gwen says. "He would run from a fight. He would run and tell on you."
That argument won't go very far with Lewis' detractors, but there's no need for argument in Lakeland. Here, Lewis is a devout, well-meaning man – then as now.
Just ask Clint Glover, a 62-year-old retired local schoolteacher who met Lewis back in 1997. Glover is now the volunteer head of the Lakeland branch of the Ray Lewis Foundation. Glover had his own Foundation shirts made, spends his retirement recruiting for the upcoming fundraiser, and says he has never asked Lewis for a dime in return for his efforts. He says "it's a blessing" to be able to work for Lewis, though he admits he would accept some form of payment if Lewis offered. "My wife asks me how much I pay for all this," Glover says. "I never took receipts so I'll never tell a lie. I don't even want to know."
Some fans rolled their eyes when Lewis ripped off his jersey after the Ravens' AFC title game win and crumpled to the ground in prayer. Glover says that moment inspired him to work harder for the Foundation. "That motivates me to get the job done," Glover says. "I love the guy because he's giving the Lord the credit." Glover says he has raised roughly $60,000 in two years of service, including $20,000 from Lewis himself. One of the highlights of the past year, Gentry says, was when the Foundation bought Christmas presents for a single mom of four who had recently been raped.
The true believers remember this Ray Lewis, the quiet kid who was always serious, always in church, always practicing by the old sienna house. The rest of the world knows another Ray Lewis, the loudmouth who got into trouble, got out of it, got his team to two Super Bowls and is now one of the most respected players in the league. Ray Lewis the football player will be remembered for generations, the shy kid from Lakeland only by a generation that is now becoming old and gray.
A few houses up Connestee Street, some kids are playing football as the sun sets. When told Ray Lewis grew up just a few feet from here, the boys scream and jump. They had no idea.
Then a tiny boy – too young to play football – waddles out to the road and asks a question in a soft voice:
"Who is Ray Lewis?"
That will always depend on whom he asks.
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