NEW ORLEANS — Ray Lewis has made 13 Pro Bowls and been named All-Pro seven times. He is a two-time defensive player of the year, and he won Super Bowl MVP honors in the Baltimore Ravens’ only championship season.
But who is Ray Lewis?
To his teammates, he is a leader, an inspiration, their heart and soul.
To Ravens fans, he is a hero.
To the relatives of the two victims of a notorious murder - a case in which Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice - he is something else.
And a “Sports Illustrated” story released Tuesday casts Lewis as a drug cheat, though he denies he ever used a banned substance to hasten his recovery from a torn right triceps.
So who is Ray Lewis?
“I wake up me every day,” Lewis said in answer to the question.
Lewis, 37, will end a 17-year career Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII. He announced Jan. 2 that the postseason - however long it lasted - would be his swan song.
Now, he has a chance to walk away a champion, something only a handful of the game’s greatest have done. Otto Graham, Michael Strahan, Jerome Bettis and John Elway are among those who quit on top.
“We want to send him off the right way,” Ravens safety Ed Reed said.
Lewis, who has 1,336 tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions in his career, will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame after the mandatory five-year waiting period. Football has no citizenship criteria like baseball does, and Lewis is one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.
“What makes him special is that he has always wanted to be the best there ever was,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think there are guys who want to be good, but I heard a quote from the head coach of the Celtics, and he said, ’Don’t let good get in the way of being great.’ What he meant by that was don’t be satisfied with being good.”
But how will Lewis be remembered? That is a harder question and likely depends on who is asked.
His image has undergone a remarkable rehabilitation in the 13 years since Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, were stabbed to death in Atlanta only hours after Super Bowl XXXIV. Lewis was there celebrating with friends after the Rams beat the Titans when a fight broke out.
Lewis initially was charged with two counts of murder before striking a deal to turn state’s witness against Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, neither of whom was convicted.
In the Ravens’ last Super Bowl appearance, a year after the double murder, Lewis was asked about the case 35 times in 158 questions. He revealed little. He was asked about it only once Tuesday, though the families of the victims have been outspoken about their anger toward Lewis.
“This is not the appropriate time for that, because the sympathy I have for that family or for what me and my family have endured because of all of that, nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions,” Lewis 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 (or) 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 it today.”
Lewis has made the most of his second chance. He has become a face of the NFL, appearing in league promos and getting hugs and verbal bouquets from Roger Goodell. He has appeared in commercials for Reebok, Under Armour, Old Spice and EA Sports. He reportedly has a deal with ESPN as a studio analyst for next season.
Forgive and forget?
Lewis will do his Squirrel dance before Sunday’s game. He will cry afterward.
And he will leave us wanting more, one way or the other.