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The long, strange ride of the Ravens’ Ray Lewis

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.”

Lows, highs

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.

“His grandma raised Ray, and she didn’t stand for any nonsense,” said Ernest Joe, Lewis’ coach at Lakeland Kathleen High, recalling how McKinney took Lewis to Greater Faith Baptist Church, where he memorized scripture and was ordained as a junior deacon, and made him join junior ROTC.

“He enjoyed being at church and quoting God’s word — that is nothing new, and you can’t fake it,” said Irving Strickland, Lewis’ teammate and now coach of the Kathleen Red Devils.

When he was little, Lewis “kept to himself,” said his aunt Rita, but football brought out the passionate, evangelizing side of him. At Kathleen High, he wanted to play defensive back because that had been his father’s position, but Joe needed a speedy linebacker and tailback. Lewis played both ways and led the team.

“He’d get ’em in a circle and get ’em wound up,” said Joe, who played with Lewis’ father. “One time during the skeleton drill he tackled a kid so hard I had to shut down practice. That was a 911 hit.”

Lewis also set out to break his father’s wrestling records and did, winning two state titles. A mural of Lewis takes up a wall inside Kathleen’s gym.

He planned to go to Florida State, but didn’t have his SAT score in time. Miami had a scholarship and he took it, heading to the big city to play for head coach Dennis Erickson and linebackers coach Randy Shannon. In his first start as a freshman, he made 17 tackles, and announced he would become the best Hurricane in history.

Lewis began dating McCall, a studious girl from small-town Florida.

“We were both overachievers, dreamers, and he was — I won’t say arrogant — very confident,” said McCall, a Ph.D. candidate in business. “We both had a void in our childhood; my father was an alcoholic.”

They were both very religious, and felt guilty when McCall got pregnant at age 17. They argued in her dorm room, and an RA called campus police, which McCall says was unnecessary. A year later, police were called again to investigate Lewis, accused of roughing up another pregnant girlfriend. In 1999, he was investigated for battery on a woman at a Baltimore nightclub. None of the women pressed charges.

“He is not a violent person, which I realize is hard to believe given what he does for a living,” McCall said. “He’s a sensitive person who made youthful decisions. Life is trial and error. The great thing about Ray is that he applied what he learned from the bad and became a better person.”

They were briefly engaged in 2000 but never married. The NFL lifestyle was an impediment.

“We are co-parents teaching strong values, which sounds contradictory because we have three kids out of wedlock,” she said. The oldest, Ray “Ray-Ray” Lewis III, will be a freshman football player at UM in the fall.

The UM years

At UM from 1993 through 1995, Lewis adopted the swagger of former Hurricane Jerome Brown, and motivated teammates with his call-and-response sermonettes.

“It’s game time. Any dogs in the house?” he’d yell in the locker room.

“Woof! Woof! Woof!”

When Lewis took his act to Baltimore, and added his squirrel dance, fans either loved or hated it.

“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.

“Ray is a guy who turned everything over,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s surrendered everything to become the man he is today and he’s a different man than he was at 22.”

But still the same tackler.

Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber recalled how elusive Lewis was when the Giants lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl 35. In the huddle, Barber screamed at his offensive linemen to contain Lewis.

“I said, ‘you don’t have to block him,. Just put a [bleeping] hand on him. Just touch him. Because if you touch him maybe we have a chance.’ We never did.

“He could run sideline to sideline, cover anybody. He’s not that player anymore, but he still has the intensity,” Barber said.

Barber and former Miami Dolphins defender Channing Crowder both rated Lewis among the three top linebackers in NFL history. (Both consider Lawrence Taylor No. 1.) Crowder praised Lewis for his ability to adapt to and neutralize today’s faster, high-flying, video game-like offenses.

“Could Dick Butkus play this game now?” Crowder asked, chuckling. “Ray can.”

The last dance

Lewis is still a magnet for controversy. During Super Bowl week, a report surfaced that he used a banned substance in medicinal deer antler spray to accelerate healing of his torn triceps. Lewis called the allegation “a trick of the devil.”

He also made the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time in seven years with his hands clasped in a prayerful pose.

For Lewis, Sunday marks his last dance, last time he will gather teammates for a pre-game pep talk that turns into a shivering, transporting manifestation of his will, like he’s speaking in tongues.

If the Ravens win, Lewis will kneel on the 50-year-line and ascend into heaven. At least, that’s what SNL comedian Kenan Thompson predicted when he impersonated Lewis.

Lewis, who has homes in Highland Beach, Orlando and Baltimore, has other plans. TV work is on his agenda. He wants to start a national ministry; he keeps a notebook in which he writes sermons. He wants to expand his charitable foundation, which raises money for the needy in Baltimore, Lakeland, Ethiopia.

His top priority is to be present in his children’s lives. He recalled the times he waited on the front stoop to be picked up by his father, who said he was coming but broke his promises.

He wants to go bowling with them, help them with their homework, sprint and lift weights with them, tell Bible stories, pass down his hard-won wisdom.

“I know I couldn’t split my time anymore,” Lewis said. “God is calling me to be a father. It’s OK to be Daddy. My children have made the ultimate sacrifice for 17 years. I’ve done what I wanted in this business and now it’s my turn to give them something back. That’s what excites me the most.”

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