“That’s not a front, that’s his alter ego, his persona,” said Earl Little, former Cane and an NFL defensive back for nine years. “That stuff even gets the opposing team jacked up. I played him twice a season and he still brought tears to my eyes.”
At UM, Little roomed with Lewis and Marlin Barnes, his best friend since boyhood in Liberty City. They’d hold pushup contests for pizza and considered each other brothers. When Barnes and a female friend were bludgeoned to death by her ex-boyfriend, Lewis reacted by punching a hole through a wall and disappearing for three days.
“We were kids who had to grow into men right then,” Little said. “Ray was so upset that he didn’t go to Marlin’s funeral, and people had a problem with that, but I understood. His emotions can overwhelm him.”
The next day, Lewis was drafted 26th by the Ravens.
He and Little still talk several times a week. Before the Denver playoff game this year that Baltimore was supposed to lose, Lewis texted Little: “Earl, we got this.” Before this year’s Super Bowl: “Thinking of Red” — Barnes’ nickname.
To the relatives of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, Lewis is a coward who left two young men dying in the street as he ran away in his limo wearing a bloodstained white suit and telling his friends “don’t say nothing” to the police. To the victims’ families, he’s still running. When he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, someday, they’ll wait to see if he visits the Akron cemetery where Lollar and Baker are buried, 18 miles from where Lewis will be enshrined.
“That’s the sad part,” Joe said. “Whenever you hear Ray’s name, they’ll always bring up the death of those individuals, and he has to carry that forever.”
Lollar and Baker were stabbed in the heart and stomach during a fight outside the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta after a Super Bowl party. Lewis and two friends were charged with murder.
McCall believes Lewis tried to be peacemaker and became “the fall guy.”
“I warn my sons, ‘If you associate with the wrong people, you are the one who is visible, who is recognized, and if you are not forthcoming, you will be blamed,’” she said.
Lewis has steadfastly declined to explain exactly what happened.
“Because of the sympathy I have for the families … I live with it every day of my life,” Lewis said.
The 15 days he spent in jail, the shackles, the trial — all a blessing in retrospect, Lewis said. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, got 12 months’ probation and agreed to testify against his friends, but the case fell apart when the limo driver recanted his testimony, and they were acquitted. One of them wrote a rap song calling Lewis a rat.
“As Lewis walked down the courthouse steps in June 2000, he cried, “Mama, you have a changed man.”
He was a reviled man, too, booed, heckled and insulted whenever the Ravens went on the road. Lewis, who paid millions to the dead men’s families in settlement money, saw the gauntlet of abuse as a path to spiritual growth. He said he was “persecuted and crucified” and his critics loathed him even more for comparing himself to Jesus.