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.