When news broke late this afternoon that Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis would be retiring at season's end, I asked my two sons (ages 14 and 13) what the first thought was that came into their head when I mentioned Ray Lewis.
James, the older one, said, "Best middle linebacker ever."
Sammy, the younger one, said, "He's a beast!" (To be fair, Sammy also called Howard Chen, the Rockets' diminutive Tweet reader on CSN, a beast when he met him last week, so his definition of that term is obviously fairly broad.)
My point is this:
When the book on Ray Lewis is finally finished being written, I think the most amazing thing about his legacy (and it's post-January 2000, it's about as spectacular a legacy as you'll find) will be the fact that he somehow made everyone -- fans, the media, the league -- largely ignore or forget (or in the case of my two sons, barely even know about) the fact that he was a party to the stabbing murder of two people outside a bar in Atlanta back when the Super Bowl was there in 2000.
Lewis, originally indicted on murder charges, pled down to a misdemeanor for obstruction of justice charge when he testified against a couple of the other defendants, who were eventually acquitted. But the damage, at that point, was done, both to Lewis and in the NFL's mind to the league, which is why then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue levied a league record $250,000 fine against Lewis.
From the ashes of that incident, its aftermath and the huge financial penalty, a phoenix rose over the next decade. One year after the Atlanta Super Bowl, Lewis was winning Most Valuable Player of the next season's Super Bowl, a 34-7 drubbing of the New York Giants that capped a season in which Lewis was the young leader of the stingiest defense in league history.
Over the next ten years, no player would become as identifiable with the city in which he played than Lewis. The stories of Lewis's commitment to the Baltimore community were legendary, with numerous examples like this one (courtesy of ESPN.com):
Once while driving the streets of Baltimore en route to the Ravens' team hotel on a Saturday afternoon, Lewis witnessed a drug pusher give a kid a packet. The kid ran to a car, gave the passenger the packet, and then returned to the pusher with money. Lewis got out of his car, and berated the pusher.
"How can you do this to a child?" Lewis asked the guy. "You were a child once? Who corrupted you? This is not the way to go."
Lewis invited the pusher to join him for a weekly workout he led at the Ravens practice facility for police officers. The pusher showed up with a handful of friends and started to turn his life around.
One of the most productive players to ever play the middle linebacker position (12-time Pro Bowler, two-time Defensive Player of the Year), Lewis evolved into one of the most revered players in the league, not only in his own locker room but in others as well. I remember doing my weekly radio show with Arian Foster last season, and the week before the regular season game with the Ravens, I asked Foster about Lewis.
Unbeknownst to me, the two had struck up a relationship the season before, and Foster's talked more about Lewis as a de facto big brother than he did as a thumping middle linebacker.
This Sunday, Lewis will likely take the field in Baltimore for the final time of his career, and from there the countdown will then begin to what is a surefire, first ballot Hall of Fame induction, and the book will close on one of the most complex legacies of any NFL great ever.
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Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.