Ray Lewis symbolizes NFL – not just Ravens

The news of Ray Lewis' latest injury was barely 24 hours old back in October when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stopped for a minute to talk about a man who had caused both joy and heartache in the league throughout 17 seasons.

"I love Ray," Goodell said as he reached into his pocket to get his cell phone and show the exchange of text messages he had earlier in the day with Lewis, who had suffered a torn triceps on Oct. 14 against the Cowboys. Goodell had checked in to see if Lewis was doing OK. Lewis, a man who scorns pity, gave a typically resounding reply of yes.

"I really do. I love the person he has become over his career and what he means to our league," Goodell said.

The story of Lewis, who announced Wednesday that he plans to retire when the Baltimore Ravens' season ends, is a complicated tale of accusation and absolution. He was connected to one of the darkest moments in league history – a double-homicide in the hours just after a Super Bowl was played – and has become a symbol of the game's greatness. Exactly a year after the murders, Lewis led Baltimore to a title as the face of perhaps the greatest defense in the history of the game.

Hero? Villain? A man of great talent who was nonetheless filled with faults? Yes, Lewis is all those things. So after Lewis revealed that this would be his final season whenever the Ravens' playoff run ends, he left the football world to consider a legacy with more extremes than a summit of Mount Everest.

And more magnetic than the polar ice caps.

Lewis is a star who transcended his team. He's symbolized the Ravens, first and foremost. But he also symbolized the game, from its violent nature to its parable about overcoming adversity. When fellow players, be it Ravens or Bengals or whomever, were going through trying times, Lewis was always just a phone call away.

"Ray is a smart guy. He's been through a lot. He understands," former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson wrote in his book "Ocho Cinco". Johnson specifically discussed getting advice from Lewis after once expressing a strong desire to leave the Bengals.

"He told me to be careful about this," Johnson recounted. "He didn't tell me, 'Go ahead, run your mouth.' Ray sees the big picture about the NFL and he can explain it from both sides. He understands where I'm coming from and he understands where the team is coming from. He sees it all."

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Lewis developed that vision in the aftermath of the incident that almost cost him his career. On Jan. 31, 2000, Lewis and two companions were involved in an incident in which two other men were stabbed to death in the early-morning hours after St. Louis had defeated Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. Lewis was eventually jailed for a month, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, paid a $250,000 fine to the NFL (at the time the largest fine in the history of the game) and reached an out-of-court settlement with the child of one of the victims.

The story consumed the NFL for the next year. Lewis was ripped from all sides, accused by some of being a murderer. He was also accused of being a snitch, even though the others charged in the case were never convicted.

Through it all, Lewis did his best to maintain his dignity, stayed dedicated to his craft and, eventually, gave back to other players in times of need.

[Photos: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis through the years]

Or as Lewis put it in Johnson's book: "I understand and I give my time because I owe it. I owe it, owe it and owe it. I look at it this way: If God gives you the ability to do something great, sometimes he takes you through the ups and downs, the highs, the lows. A lot of the time, if you go through those things, it's not even for you. A lot of the time, it's for you to pass it on and educate somebody else. That's what I have learned, even in this business.

"Whatever decision you make in life, make them, but understand the consequences that come with the decisions. That's the kind of thing I try to educate guys about."

Lewis, who became evangelical in the aftermath of the homicides, did the same thing with players like Plaxico Burress, helping Burress deal with his jail time for an incident in which he shot himself. He counseled countless other players, staying up all hours of the night and morning, whether it was to talk about money problems or family issues.

"Guys need to understand their responsibilities," Lewis said several years ago. "A lot of us, we come from broken homes, like I did. We don't have strong male figures in our lives to give us direction. If someone becomes that person, you have a lot of people going to him, looking for help. That's my responsibility to them. I understand and I take it."

That kind of help is largely unseen by fans, but noticed by people like Goodell. Where Lewis could have become a symbol of the reckless side of the game, he worked hard to rehabilitate himself. In the process, he earned the respect of Goodell, who knows better than most that peer example works better than a strong hand.

In the process, Lewis has made one of the darkest moments in league history a tragic footnote to a career spent largely in service of others.

"Ray has meant so much to our game," Goodell said back in October. "He gets it."

Jason Cole co-wrote "Ocho Cinco" with Chad Johnson.

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