- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"The question was what direction was he going to take?" says Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "Some athletes, if they get out of a situation like he did, say, 'You know what? I got a free pass to just do it again.' Others learn from the lesson, and it makes them a better person. He jumped on the [right] track in a hurry."
Much of that can be attributed to the power of Lewis's personality: as big as his 6'1", 250-pound body and, when it's on, just as winning. His outsized energy and openness inspire devotion even from those seemingly hurt by him. "He's an extraordinary man," says Ravens coach Brian Billick, after an off-season in which Lewis pointedly and publicly declined to give Billick a vote of confidence. "The most naturally dynamic leader I've ever been around."
"Ray has a huge heart and will help anybody in need if he's able," says Tatyana McCall, who met Lewis at Miami and has three sons with him. "I would be remiss if I didn't say I was proud to be the mother of his kids. It's not always easy, but I am very proud."
In march, Cheri Blauwet, a Paralympian, traveled with Lewis to Ethiopia on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to help in the creation of a sports program for land mine victims. Lewis was there for two weeks and plans to return after this season; he's donated $67,500 for the expansion of a rehabilitation center for amputees and pledged a similar amount for the next phase of construction. Blauwet's friends and family had warned her of Lewis's reputation: This is a man who, even before Atlanta, had been investigated three times for assaults on women, though no charges were ever brought. "He pretty much turned that reputation on its head," says Blauwet, a wheelchair marathoner. "He was incredibly gentle, introspective. Every time a child would pass within his field of vision, there would be a comment or an act that was very genuine, and he treated the people working with him that way. I got numerous lifts up stairs and onto airplanes. He would say, 'Hey, babe, let me give you a lift.'"
Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary had been retired for a decade when he met Lewis in 2003. Renowned for his singular on-field intensity, Singletary had been convinced he'd never again feel that passion. But during his first week as Ravens linebackers coach, he was standing in the end zone in practice when it came time for a goal line stand. The defense came alive. Lewis started screaming, "You ain't getting nothin'! You ain't!" and a stunned Singletary found himself thanking God, tears streaming beneath his sunglasses. "I was seeing everything I missed," says Singletary, now assistant head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "Only a few guys play the game with their hearts and their souls. A lot of guys don't know what you mean by that. You don't know it until you hear it, and then you see it and you go, There it is."
Yet it's that passion--the obvious relish Lewis takes in football's brutal essence--that makes it easy for those who only see him on TV to believe him guilty of murder. Early in the morning of Jan. 31, 2000, Lewis and a group of acquaintances, including Oakley and Sweeting, exchanged words outside the Cobalt Lounge with another group that included Baker and Lollar. Within minutes Baker and Lollar had been stabbed to death. Lewis's panicked group piled into his stretch limousine and sped off, gunfire blowing out one of the tires. Lewis told everyone in the car to shut up about what they'd seen, and during his initial interviews with police he gave false information. The limo driver at first told police he saw Lewis strike one of the victims, then recanted. Lewis maintains that he saw no one being stabbed and had acted only as a peacemaker.
Sunseria Smith was in Hawaii, on the phone with her son, when the police came to the house where Lewis was staying. She heard her son yell, "What are you doing?" and then, "Mama, I didn't do nothing!" before the phone dropped. When she visited Lewis at the Fulton County detention center for the first time she put her hand on the glass separating them and said, "Is there any blood on your hands?" Lewis told her he had nothing to do with the crimes. "And I said, 'That's all I need to know,'" Smith says.
The prosecution's case against Lewis fell apart quickly, and the murder charges were dropped. Lewis pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, was sentenced to a year's probation and testified in the case against Oakley and Sweeting. As he walked down the courthouse steps in June 2000, Ray turned to Sunseria and said, "Mama, you have a changed man." In '04 Lewis settled civil suits with members of both victims' families for roughly $2 million. He addressed the families during mediation for the settlement, at once expressing sorrow and raging over his certainty that he'd been prosecuted solely because he was rich. Still, some family members will never be soothed by the settlement or Lewis's perceived transformation. "I hope he can actively feel what it means to have a loved one taken away, the way my nephew was," says Lollar's aunt, Thomasaina Threatt.
"The saddest thing?" Lewis says now. "Take me out of that equation, you got two young dead black kids on the street. The second sad part is, because of the court system and the prosecutor's lies, I got two families hating me for something I didn't have a hand in, and the people who killed their children are free. The people who killed their children could be having dinner with them and they'd never know. Because all they know is the big name, Ray Lewis."
Hero to villain, good to bad, is a very quick walk in America. The reverse is much more difficult; the fall is always easier to believe than the redemption, if only because nobody wants to be played for a sucker. Yet suddenly Cindy Lollar-Owens is willing to try. She helped raise Richard Lollar in Akron and for six years has been a persistent voice blaming Lewis for the deaths of her nephew and Baker. In 2001 she stood outside the stadium in Tampa where Lewis would win his Super Bowl MVP award, holding a photo collage of her nephew. More than once when Baltimore played in Cleveland she passed out fliers there demanding justice.