Lewis knows Super Bowl tragedy, triumph
"Ray might not understand that he is not going to be understood by the majority of the people because he has a greatness about him. And sometimes greatness brings about fear," says Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
His penchant for hard work generated a trip to the Super Bowl and a reputation as one of pro football's best linebackers. His willingness to stay true to his friends may have cost him a more endearing image.
He also gained infamy through his involvement in a much-publicized tragedy in Atlanta after the 2000 Super Bowl. Lewis was charged with murder, along with two friends in his limousine, when a street brawl left two young men dead outside a nightclub. For that -- even after a plea bargain produced a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice -- Lewis expressed bitterness.
"All I'm guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people," he said. "But I feel like what I'm most guilty of is being successful."
As an athlete, he's been ultra-successful. An All-American linebacker at the University of Miami, Lewis was drafted by the Ravens in the first round (No. 26 overall) in 1996 and became the NFL's leading tackler in only his second pro season.
"He's motivated, has great instincts, runs like hell and makes a ton of plays," Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said of Lewis in 1998. "And if you lose a guy like that, you lose a bit of the team's soul."
In 2000, the Ravens didn't lose Lewis, who spent 15 days in an Atlanta jail and many more wondering how his court case would play out. While many in the media assailed his character before and after the trial, the team -- coach Brian Billick in particular -- manifestly supported him.
With the shadow of the Atlanta murders following him, he led Baltimore to Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, where he was the MVP in a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants.
He was born Ray Jenkins on May 15, 1975 in Lakeland, Fla., to Ray Jackson and Buffy Jenkins. His father was 19, his mother 15. His father had his son's name changed to Ray Jackson when the boy was an infant. When Ray was a child, his father abandoned the family and Ray grew up in a single-parent home. When he entered Lakeland's Kathleen High School, he took the name of the man his mother was dating at the time, and became Ray Lewis.
When Lewis was a junior, his mother remarried and moved away from Lakeland. But he decided to remain at Kathleen High School, and moved in with his grandparents, who lived nearby. Starring at linebacker and running back, he helped Kathleen High win city and district titles. As a senior, he won the Class 4A state wrestling championship at 189 pounds, a first for the school.
"The way I play the game is like a dog," Lewis said on draft day. "You take food away from a dog and run from him, he's going to come and get you."
Small for a linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he averaged 10.1 tackles in his rookie NFL season, tops on the team, and he has led the Ravens in that category every year since. Fast, aggressive and intense, he has been the NFL's top tackler twice -- in 1999 as well as 1997.
He signed a four-year contract in November 1998 for a reported $26 million, which made him the league's highest-paid linebacker. "My concern is being the best middle linebacker," he said. "When Ray Lewis is done playing, I want people to say that guy was the best."
His path took a sharp turn on Jan. 31, 2000, just hours after Super Bowl XXXIV, when a fight broke out in the early morning outside a trendy club in Atlanta's Buckhead section. Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, died of knife wounds, and Lewis was jailed. Eleven days later, a grand jury indicted Lewis and companions Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting for the murders.
Lewis lied to the police when first questioned, saying he didn't know the co-defendants. The limousine driver, Duane Fassett, told police that "he [Lewis] struck the guy from the mid-chest and up," and "I saw him throw one punch." Fassett said Lewis ordered the other limo riders to keep quiet. He also indicated that Oakley and Sweeting had said, "I stabbed mine."
The case went to trial in May, and Fassett backed off, testifying only to seeing Lewis drawing his hand back but never saw him throw a punch.
Some witnesses at the scene had given conflicting accounts about what had transpired, and only one -- a professional con artist -- said Lewis was directly involved in the violence.
On June 5, a plea bargain was struck, and murder and aggravated assault charges against Lewis were dropped in exchange for his testimony against his companions. He pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to a year of probation.
Lewis' testimony didn't help the prosecution in the four-week trial, which ended in acquittals for Oakley and Sweeting.
As the case went on, the player's image drew contradictory portraits. Some who knew him well were stunned at the charges, describing Lewis as good hearted, hard working, intelligent, a person who took care of his mother financially and talked to youngsters about the dangers of drugs.
Others, though, pointed to Lewis' rough side. Twice while in college, women accused him of striking them, though police never charged him. Single, Lewis has fathered four children, three by Tatyana McCall, a former Miami student who later became his fiance. McCall took Lewis to court over child-support payments in 1997.
Tragedy has been a constant companion. While in high school, two pals were murdered in separate incidents, and one of his closest friends, Miami backup linebacker Marlin Barnes, was bludgeoned to death with Barnes' girlfriend in 1996. Lewis was so distraught that he didn't attend Barnes' funeral service. Instead, he stayed outside and walked around the church.
After the Atlanta murders, the media often focused on Lewis' past and his choice of friends. Shortly after Lewis was charged, Clint Wright, his middle and high school principal in Florida, said he'd be eager to talk with Lewis. "I'm going to say the same thing I said to him in high school: 'Make sure you make good choices. If you hang with dogs, you'll pick up fleas.' "
At the start of the 2000 season, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Lewis $250,000 for conduct detrimental to the league, a penalty aimed at the obstruction of justice.
The whole ordeal seemed to sharpen Lewis' focus on football, and his fiery play fueled the Ravens' defense. Though the team's offense often sputtered, Baltimore stifled opponents, limiting them to a 2.7 yards per rush and setting a record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165, a 10.3 average). Lewis was voted the NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
The Ravens swept through the playoffs, allowing only 23 points in four games. In the Super Bowl, Lewis had five tackles and four passes defensed, and the Giants' only touchdown came on a kickoff return.
"You have a buzzsaw coming at you from all different directions," Lewis said. "Without disrespecting anyone else, I truly believe this is the best defense in history."
The game gave Lewis a joyous ending to his year of tumult. "The thing about the Man upstairs," Lewis said, "he doesn't put you through tragedy without bringing you through triumph."
In the season after winning the Super Bowl, Lewis made 162 tackles in leading the Ravens to a 10-6 record and another playoff berth. In 2002, he missed 11 games because of a shoulder injury. Healthy again in 2003, he won his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after amassing a career-high 225 total tackles - 160 solo and 65 assists - and a career-best six interceptions in helping Baltimore win the AFC North Division with a 10-6 record.
Lewis made 146 tackles in 15 games in 2004 and again was a first-team AP All-Pro selection. A year later, a hamstring injury caused him to miss the final 10 games of the season. Recovered in 2006, Lewis helped the Ravens to a 13-3 record and the AFC North title, leading the league's top-ranked defense with 164 tackles.