Thirteen years ago, Ray Lewis was in the back of a limousine speeding down an Atlanta street, leaving the chaos of what would become a notorious murder scene.
Today, Ray Lewis prepares to play his final minutes in the NFL as one of the most celebrated and iconic players in league history.
These are two sets of indisputable facts, facts that don't seem to connect in any meaningful way. To accept one set, you have to virtually ignore the other. It just doesn't make sense, no matter which angle you take. How does a man implicated in a double homicide end up receiving a congratulatory bear hug from the NFL commissioner in front of thousands of fans wearing his No. 52 jersey? From the other direction: How could a man who's done so much for his team and his community still be held accountable for a tragedy for which he was absolved?
From any angle, though, this question looms over the entire life and career of Ray Lewis: How on earth did he get here from there?
The story of Ray Lewis is the story of American culture at its most redemptive … and its most soulless. There are those who are willing to overlook what Lewis may or may not have done, and there are those who will never let the man escape suspicion.
What's inescapable is that as well as Ray Lewis played the game of football, he played the game of redemption even better.
"He's a remarkable case study of worst-to-first," says Vada Manager, a corporate strategist and a former Nike executive who helped guide the company's strategy during Kobe Bryant's rape accusations. "There aren't many athletes who have done what he's done in rebuilding his image from where it was to where it is today."
Some facts, to set the stage: Early on the morning of Jan. 31, 2000, Ray Lewis was in the Buckhead district of Atlanta, celebrating with friends in the wee hours after Super Bowl XXXIV. The Rams had just beaten the Titans in one of the most thrilling last-second finishes in the game's history.
Lewis was already a three-time Pro Bowler, certainly a star but not yet an icon. That night, he and a group of friends found themselves in a heated argument with another group outside an upscale bar. The argument turned physical, punches were thrown and Lewis and his companions piled into a limousine to leave the scene. Behind them, Jacinth Baker, age 21, and Richard Lollar, age 24, lay dying of stab wounds.
Again, these are facts. But the angle of those facts – the cause of the fight, the person (or persons) holding the knives, Lewis' knowledge of and involvement in the events – remains unknown. He and two of his companions were charged with murder. Lewis' attorneys negotiated a deal: dismissal of the murder charges in exchange for testimony against his colleagues, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, and a plea of guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor.
Oakley and Sweeting were later acquitted of the murder charges. Lewis was fined $250,000 by the NFL, put on a one-year probation and would go on to reach undisclosed (and still confidential) settlements with the families of both victims.
More facts: The very next season, Lewis was not only in uniform, but also he would lead his Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl and win MVP. He would go on to amass 13 Pro Bowl invitations in his career, and when he leaves the game at the end of this postseason he will be considered one of the very best ever to play his position.
He's also a motivational tornado, an inspirational force of nature. Whether he's cheering on teammates, conversing with charitable groups or speaking to reporters, he wears his heart and his faith on the outside. (Where you can easily see them, a cynic would argue.)
An installment of the NFL Network's "A Football Life" focusing on Lewis that ran last fall shows his style in action. "We've got to savor these moments!" he tells his teammates at one point. "I couldn't see that when I was 24, 25! That's why God had to incarcerate me, so I could see how great his blessing was for me! So I had to come from a jail cell to the Super Bowl!"
He did exactly that, and much more. And he did so by being perhaps the best example of a rebuilt and re-created image. Manager notes that there are three consistent factors necessary for any public figure to change public perception, and Lewis hit all three perfectly:
1. Winning is redemptive. "The public is forgiving, the public will give you second chances," Manager explains. Lewis won immediately after the Atlanta incident, and while he hasn't been back to the Super Bowl since, he's continued to play at the height of his profession for more than a decade.
2. Rehabilitation begins at home. "He's been the consummate teammate; he's been a family man," Manager notes. "It's authentic. It's believable. Contrition is important … and there's no recidivism. He hasn't been involved with any problems since then."
3. Charity and image are essential. Lewis has been a vocal force for charity, and he's also shown a more deft touch to his public image, as with his humorous NFL ad with Tom Brady this season.
Of course, even if every athlete involved in scandal knows (or is taught) the three steps to redemption, not every athlete has the opportunity, the drive or the personality to be able to pull it off. Consider Pete Rose, whose star is forever tarnished by revelations of gambling while playing, or Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both stained by allegations of steriod use. None of these players has the opportunity to "win" again at their chosen profession, and all three have chosen an adversarial or indifferent stance.
Tiger Woods, by contrast, has the opportunity to win again to get past his own scandal but faces a different challenge than Lewis: deception. America can forgive many sins, but fooling us isn't one of them. Woods painted himself as a family man only to be revealed as anything but. Lewis, by contrast, was always a violent player; while that doesn't necessarily equate to crime, it's a smaller perceptual leap to make.
Indeed, the idea of deception, for some, is why Lewis' top-of-the-lungs expressions of faith fall flat: It appears his jailhouse conversion is a little too convenient. One wonders who he's trying to convince he's a good guy: others or himself.
For his part, Lewis has publicly put Atlanta behind him. When a USA Today reporter asked him about the murders this week, Lewis replied, "You want to talk to me about something that happened 13 years ago right now?"
Lewis is not quite as evasive under more controlled circumstances. In March, he spoke to students at Harvard University, a speech that forms the backbone of his NFL Network documentary.
"The first night I was in jail, a whisper came to me, and it said, 'Can you hear me now?' " Lewis said. "That's when I knew that no matter where I was, by any means necessary, I had to prove to myself, to my family, to my fans. … I gotta get something done. If y'all [that accused him of murder] are that bold to put my reputation on the line, I'm that bold to fight for it."
"I'm always disturbed in my spirit about how people look at me from that incident," Lewis continued in another interview. "Those families that were affected will never know the truth. And that's sad."
But why will they never know the truth? Isn't it within his power to tell them?
"I would like for him to tell one day exactly what happened," Lollar's aunt, Cindy Lollar-Owens, told USA Today.
So much about the most important moments of Ray Lewis' life remains a mystery, and for this reason, so much of his legacy remains inextricably tied to that one night in Atlanta.
There's also the flip side of this, that Lewis was never convicted of any crime. No evidence suggests that he was materially involved in the deaths of Baker and Lollar. How long should Lewis carry the responsibility, in the public's eyes, for their deaths?
But as long as no one is behind bars for the murders – and to this day, no one has been convicted – the questions surrounding that night in Buckhead will persist, especially with Lewis remaining in the public eye. He's already accepted a job as an ESPN analyst, and he'll continue to be a commercial force for companies like EA Sports and Under Armour, among others.
Ray Lewis is doing everything he can to make the Atlanta incident a footnote to his story, not the first line, and he's well on the way. He understands how redemption works in America, and he's worked tirelessly to try to achieve it. Whether he did isn't for him to decide, it's for the rest of us.
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