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On Ray Lewis and the Occasion of His Retirement

By now most of you know that I’m not a Ravens fan. The simple version of that is that when I came here as a kid in 1988 there was no football in Baltimore. I rooted for the team I grew up with, the Steelers, and the team that was local, the Redskins. To this day those are my teams, in that order (although I’ve also developed a genuine fondness for the Bills). I don’t have native love for the Ravens and never will.

I will admit to celebrating quite a bit when they won their Super Bowl twelve years ago. It was good for the city and so, for a time, I wanted to embrace them. Such desires were retired permanently when they unceremoniously dismissed Trent Dilfer. I didn’t like the way they handled that and I didn’t like Brian Billick. Any chance I had of becoming a fan — which was admittedly slight from the beginning — ended there.

Still, I don’t wish the team ill will. I’m not a John Harbaugh fan (I’ve been known to call him a “blockhead”) and I think Ravens fans overrate Joe Flacco‘s talents, but overall I try to be fair.

All of which informs this: I’ve had a complicated relationship with Ray Lewis.

To even the most casual observer of the NFL and football as a whole it is impossible to not notice that Lewis is a transformational figure. An all-time great who essentially redefined the middle linebacker position for his era. Indeed, linebacking in the NFL can be broken into “pre-Ray Lewis” and “post-Ray Lewis” blocks the same way that receiving can with pre- and post-Jerry Rice. Every generation gets a handful of guys who define greatness for their time. Ray Lewis is one of them.

All that and yet…I don’t feel as though I can fully embrace the man.

It’s hard to say why, exactly. It’s definitely not because of his much-publicized run-in with the law. A murder charge is no joke but I don’t think any of us have ever known — or will know — what role Lewis truly played in that affair. Being present when some bad shit goes down isn’t the same thing as delivering a fatal blow. I’m not excusing him and I’m not damning him. I’m simply saying I don’t know enough, and if I don’t know enough then I shouldn’t pass judgment.

No, I think my struggle with Lewis has more to do with a deep-seated wonder about his true self.

The man can talk, and the man can motivate. Part of me feels like he does it too well. So well that at times I felt like he all too easily — perhaps willingly — became a caricature.

Take any good salesman or religious evangelist. The best of them can seem to make magic. To not only transform one thing into another but to also make you believe that you can do the same and are somehow flawed if don’t close the deal, right here and now. The motivation, of course, has less to do with the benefit that accrues to you when you believe than it does with making the man doing the talking richer for having made you believe.

Which means you have to wonder, “what’s his real agenda?”

Maybe Ray Lewis never had any agenda. Maybe he’s pure of heart and I’m just thinking too much. But, again, I don’t know enough. If I don’t know enough then I shouldn’t pass judgment.

What I do know is that I saw a lot of Ray Lewis over the years and much of what I saw impressed me. Much of what I saw also led me to skepticism. I can’t say for sure that I believe the Ray Lewis we see being rightly being lionized for his work on the football field is the full picture of Ray Lewis the man.

In a lot of ways it doesn’t matter. If the question is one of how we remember his contributions to football then the answer is, again, “all-time great.” It can mostly stop there. I am, however, quite curious to see what the next chapter of his life holds.

He’s still a fairly young man. He’s past his prime for athletics but just entering it for manhood. How he faces that challenge has all the potential in the world to be far more fascinating than anything he did on the field, and it matters more for him than most athletes because of the bar he himself set. He said he was more, or at least acted like it. Is he?

Here’s to him for all the joy he brought Baltimore football fans, and here’s to what I have a hunch will be a fascinating Act Two.

16 comments to On Ray Lewis and the Occasion of His Retirement

  • Andrew

    I’ve met my share of bad salesmen in my life. Horrible experiences, nails-on-a-chalkboard type conversations. Most of the ones I know can’t seem to ever turn their too-fake charm off, so they just sound like they’re lying through their teeth all the time. And some of them do lie through their teeth all the time, too.

    Horrible, horrible people.

    Ray Lewis doesn’t fit in that category anymore than any other pro athlete or zealous celebrity. Of course you can never really know these people’s “true agendas”, but that’s sports – I find arguments over clubhouse cultures and so on frivolous, since you can never really know. But Lewis is more Quentin Tarantino than L. Ron Hubbard.

  • Big Ben's Motorcycle

    i say this straight and dry. if you like the steelers you simply cannot judge ray lewis. the same way i can’t truly judge hines ward. if i wrote a post-hines epitaph it would probably contain the same code words yours did haha.

    believe me, he aint my favorite raven. easily the most important though.

  • Big Ben's Motorcycle

    okay “dry” is pushing it

  • neal s

    @ Big Ben’s Motorcycle: What code words? And what judging? I think I made it pretty clear how highly I regard his contributions to the game. This post stems from curiosity about what his next act will reveal about who he is.

  • ballmer bruce

    Ray Lewis:

    1.Was one of the greatest football players ever.

    2.Made some terrible choices early in life.

    3.Hope his actions for the rest of his life mirror number 1 and not number 2.

    That is all. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • Sean

    Why is a Steelers and Redskins fan writing for a Baltimore sports blog?

  • Sean

    Neal, how do you feel about Ben Roethlisberger who has been accused of sexual assault, twice? Ray Lewis may be a polarizing figure for what happened that night in Atlanta but when you criticize a player on another team for questionable acts, you open yourself to these kinds of question because most teams have players that have had some stuff go down in their past as well….even on the team you root for.

  • dan the man

    Seems to me his next act will be commentating on ESPN and raising his family and being an ambassador for Baltimore and for the NFL. What else should we expect of him?

    It was a great career and he’s a once-in-a-generation type player.

    Does Ray Lewis love himself some Ray Lewis? Probably, but I don’t know that that speaks to any kind of agenda. Because he always put as much effort into his teammates as he has himself, and that’s what separates him.

  • neal s

    @ Sean: I’m not convinced you actually read the whole post, based on this comment, but your question about Roethlisberger is more than fair. To answer it: Yes, I lost a lot of respect for him based on those accusations. When it comes to individuals on the Steelers who I really love and look up to the guy I’d point to is Troy Polamalu, not Ben.

    But, truthfully, the point of this post is not about who we do or don’t pass judgment on, or why, but rather to seek to bring some sense of the bigger picture into how we evaluate athletes when their careers come to a close.

    We’re rooting for a team and for a game, and in a lot of ways I think it’s OK to separate that out from anything else. Yet these are still people, and that aspect of it fascinates me. Which is why my point about Ray Lewis is that I’m truly eager to see what he does next, because I’m truly interested in seeing how he takes the 17 years of history he established as an amazing football player — and football figure — and weaves it into another life.

  • neal s

    @ dan the man: Well said, and I can’t say I disagree with any of it. I guess I just feel like retirement for Ray Lewis is more interesting, and comes with more potential pitfalls and expectations, than for most players. He set a very high bar and I want to see where that goes.

  • ballmer bruce

    At the end of the day, Ray is a man with strengths and frailties just like any other human who has ever walked this Earth except for one.

    As with any other man, I wish him a happy, peaceful and productive life going forward.

  • dan the man

    Meanwhile, even if the Ravens get stomped by Peyton this weekend, I already like Caldwell’s spin on the offense looking ahead to next year. He has Joe moving around more and therefore Joe is better because that’s what Joe’s comfortable doing. Sometimes I think it was always that simple. We’ll see.

  • dan the man

    Apologies to any old school Baltimore Colts fans, but that was the Greatest Game Ever Played. Absolutely crazy.

  • the ravens hurry up offense is a total gimmick

  • Big Ben's Motorcycle

    is that an attempt at an insult based on ayanbadejo’s tweet? just trying to clarify here.

  • yes entirely based on tweet

    but insult isn’t the right word

    I would choose “observation”