The impression Ray Lewis makes on people is not unlike the impression he makes on opponents. The impact leaves them breathless, either in awe or anger.
Whether football fans are dancing with Lewis or spitting at him, he captivates. The maniacal middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens will undoubtedly suck up most of the air inside the New Orleans Superdome during Sunday’s Super Bowl when he smites the San Francisco 49ers with his fire-and-brimstone tackles and running commentary.
Lewis will be preaching the gospel according to Ray, which is open to interpretation by those who adore him and those who wish he would shut up.
Call him hypocrite or ham, but call him Hall of Famer, a force so furious he was one of the few defensive players named Super Bowl MVP, when he led the Ravens to their first title in 2001.
Killer, liar, thug, father of six kids by four women — Lewis has heard his critics. Leader, pillar, giver, the devoted dad he never had — Lewis has his believers.
Lakeland country boy, University of Miami playboy — which is it? Or is Lewis too big to fit in any jock box, as big as the life-size No. 52 bobblehead doll in his Baltimore basement, so big that he refers to himself in the third person and christened all his children with derivations of his name, big enough to be parodied on Saturday Night Live — and laugh at himself.
Lewis turns stadiums into his own personal pulpit, and he will do so in his last game Sunday, gyrating, flexing, homing in on his target like a cruise missile, weeping, falling to his knees in prayer in hopes of one final breathtaking victory before he scrapes off the black war paint for good.
“You could draw up a lot of storybook endings, but how else would I rather go out than to be on the biggest stage ever, giving everything I’ve got for my teammates, touch that Lombardi trophy,” said Lewis. “It’s the ultimate.”
Lewis, 37, was charged with killing two men on the night of the Super Bowl in 2000. A year later, he was hailed as Super Bowl hero. He was fined $250,000 by the NFL in 2000. Today, Commissioner Roger Goodell wants Lewis to be his advisor. Such polarizing extremes are deceiving, say those who have known Lewis since his youth in Central and South Florida.
“It’s complicated, he’s complicated, we are all complicated,” said Tatyana McCall, mother of three of Lewis’ sons and his former girlfriend at UM, in explaining how she, her boys, the three other mothers of Lewis’ children and their kids have gathered in New Orleans. “It’s awkward, it’s never simple with Ray, but we make it work because he’s got plenty of love for everybody.”
Lewis’ long-absent father is at the Super Bowl, and Lewis, who refused to take his father’s last name, has reconciled with him. His mother, who gave birth to him at age 16, is with him, as are his siblings, aunts, former coaches and teammates.
“Everything is complete. Any time you can finish a career with your whole family by your side, that’s how you should do it.,” Lewis said. “Everybody has a past. What counts is what you do with your future.”
The one person who is missing is Lewis’ grandmother, Elease McKinney, 72, a diabetic retired schoolteacher who is terminally ill in a Tampa hospital.