NEW ORLEANS – Twelve years ago, Ray Lewis spent an uncomfortable hour at Podium 7 at Raymond James Stadium, squinting into the Tampa sun as he faced a barrage of unwelcome questions. The Baltimore Ravens' polarizing linebacker was testy, curt and defiant, giving answers like "nah" and "next question" and "football, football, football."
At one point then-teammate Shannon Sharpe stood behind him upbraiding the horde of reporters for fixating on the murder investigation in which Lewis had been embroiled in the wake of the previous year's Super Bowl. Five days before he would lead the Ravens to a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants, Lewis' Super Bowl XXXV media day experience was not a particularly pleasant one.
On Tuesday, XII media days later, Lewis sat at a similar podium under the Mercedes-Benz Superdome roof and finally had his day in the sun. The retiring legend was relaxed, eloquent and reflective, even as he faced some tough questions regarding a Sports Illustrated report that he may have used a banned substance during his recent recovery from a torn triceps. He also addressed the double homicide that led to his guilty plea for obstruction of justice and took on tough subjects like catfishing and President Obama's recent admission that he would hesitate to allow a son to play football.
Five days before he'll close out his sublime 17-year career against the San Francisco 49ers, Lewis was the most scrutinized figure inside the Superdome, and he basically owned the room.
"For that confetti to drop on us Feb. 3, it's the ultimate respect you can give back to your teammates," Lewis said, flashing a broad smile. "For me to walk off this field as a champ, knowing that my career is done … I can go fishing – a lot."
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Midway through Lewis' hour-long session, I asked the future Hall of Famer: What did he remember about that media day in Tampa a dozen years ago, and was he indeed having a lot more fun this time around?
"Yeah, yeah man," he said. "Because it's the ultimate. Twelve years ago, I told the guys earlier, I was a follower. I didn't know what it felt like. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to look forward to."
And you were getting a lot of questions that were not, you know, fun.
"Absolutely," he continued. "Now you get to enjoy the ride, because of the journey – the journey that we've been through this whole year, man. To get Terrell Suggs' news [about his torn Achilles tendon] before you even start training camp is devastating to us. And then to have five of our starters – I don't think it's ever happened – have major surgery in a season on defense!
"That's never happened in the history of sports, and I've been watching sports a long, long time. And to have that many people get hurt, but then to have us overcome all of those things, and overcome those things because we believe in each other … Everybody called each other, no matter who was down. 'How you doing?' Every day … Somebody was calling somebody who got hurt, saying, 'No, bro, just keep your faith, keep your mind right.'
"And then just coming back, even when I came back myself, it was just the embracing. And I think that's the beauty of what builds teams. So, to be here now, man, it's the ultimate. Because I keep grabbing Ray Rice, man, I keep grabbing these guys, and I'm like, 'Bro, you will never forget these moments, ever in your life.' But at the end of the day, you'll never forget these moments, but you'll never be able to live through the moments of feeling that confetti drop as you're world champions."
As the session continued Lewis, eyes wide and voice rising with excitement, was at his engaged, animated best. When he talks like this, he comes off as a sincere, upbeat soul, and it's easy to understand why he's one of the greatest leaders the sport has ever known.
Watching him own the moment on Tuesday was a poignant experience, especially when juxtaposing the scene with my memories from that media day 12 years ago. In Tampa, Lewis came off as agitated and tone deaf, at one point suggesting that he was a Christ figure. Questioned about the murder investigation, he spoke his mind unrepentantly, saying, "Yes I got money. Yes, I'm black and yes, I'm blessed. But at the same time, let's find out the real truth. The real truth is [this] was never about those two kids that's dead in the street. This is about Ray Lewis."
Five years before agent Drew Rosenhaus would make the term next question infamous, Lewis tossed it out liberally. Asked if he had anything to say to the families of the murder victims, Lewis said, "Nah." Pressed for an explanation, he said, "Football, football, football."
That was then, and this was superior. On Tuesday, Lewis gave a far more humble and introspective answer to the dreaded murder queries.
"Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions," he said. "I just truly feel that this is God's time, and whatever His time is, you know, let it be His will. Don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story sound right. At this time, I would rather direct my questions in other places. Because I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life and I would rather not talk about that today."
He denied the allegations contained in the SI story on three occasions, saying he had "never" used deer-antler spray and saying the report "was not worthy of the press."
On virtually every other topic, Lewis was open and expansive. He also smiled and looked his inquisitors in the eye, which in a cluster-you-know-what of a setting like Tuesday's goes a long way.
• On what he would tell President Obama to convince him that kids should play football: "You have to understand from a parent's perspective definitely what President Obama is talking about. We all feel the same way. I tell my sons all the time, 'I don't want to see you hurt the way your father had to endure pain.' At the same time, everybody's legacy is defined totally different on this earth, and some people are born to do certain things. And a lot of these great football players that you see here today, they were born to do that. … I don't dictate what my kids do, but I tell my kids, 'If you have a passion for something, go do it, and we'll figure everything else out on the run.' And if I was to share any information with President Obama, that would be it: Never shatter your kids' dreams. If that's what they want to do, then let them do it. We'll figure out a way to make sure that they're safe doing it, but don't ever shatter that. Because what you do, you kind of take away from what they're built to do."
• On his frequent mentions of his relationship with God: "I don't claim a religion. I claim a power. I'm non-denominational. But there is a higher power that I go to. … It's awesome to have that in my life. It's the ultimate when you reap the rewards of what faith is really about."
• On whether he has ever been "catfished," a reference to the recent Manti Te'o controversy: "Listen, listen … " He laughed, then continued, "I may have been catfished once or twice. I have to go way back into my days to think about it. I know the issue, what happened with all this stuff, wasn't really funny. But when I saw the catfish thing and when [Te'o] told the story, I just thought it was hilarious that people would do that to people. And then I did have to reflect, because like I said, I think I've been done once or twice."
• On advising Ben Roethlisberger after the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback faced sexual-assault allegations in 2010: "It ain't what you go through that actually defines who you are. It's your mindset while going through it. And don't ever let people beat you down so much to where you give up on yourself. Everybody here today has been through some sort of adversity. The true definition of adversity of a person that comes through it is your character. Like I told him, 'Whatever you went through, bro, don't let it define where you go next. Let your next steps determine what you do in life.' "
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Late in the session, I asked Lewis, Did you have a moment where you started feeling sorry for yourself this year – where you were like, 'I'm hurt. It's not going to happen.'?
"Absolutely not!" he said, laughing. "I've never been the one to feel sorry for myself."
What was your lowest moment, this year?
"Your lowest moment is always when you feel your greatest pain. When I tore my triceps, and the doctor looked at me and she told me that, you know, I was out for the year. And I said, 'Doc, are you sure?' I said, 'Nah. Doc – there's no way I'm [going] to be out for the year with just a torn triceps. I've been through way worse.' And she was like, 'Ray, you know, nobody's ever come back from this.' And I said, 'Well, you know, nobody's ever been Ray Lewis, either.' "
This is true – there is only one Ray Lewis, and he has come a long, long way in 12 years.
The Super Bowl XXXV version was captivating.
I like the XLVII Lewis much, much better. I suspect he shares that opinion.
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