It's now clear, with last week's retirement announcement by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, that we will forgive a man nearly anything if he can show us something pure. Because isn't that what we come to sports for? Ultimately, don't we bring our sons and daughters to the stadium—even now—because few other endeavors are better able to flesh out abstraction, reveal a core truth? Look, we say during the Olympics or the Super Bowl: Teamwork. Sacrifice. Dedication. Hard work. Look: There's a man, long after he was pronounced great, desperate to be better still.
"That's why I play," Lewis said six years ago, when he already was a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "When I walk away from the game, my name will be remembered.... I will be the best to ever play this game."
Early on, Lord knows, it was easy to dismiss him as too troubled to last. Sports kept providing seemingly better role models across Lewis's 17-year career: the U.S. cyclist, the thick-necked sluggers, the golf god, the coach up there in Happy Valley. Each of them rode on the side of angels—until he didn't. The idea of sports teaching life lessons grew sillier with each passing fall, but when Sunday came, you still found your eyes turning to Baltimore. Ray Lewis hit the field dancing, went for the ball like a starved dog, ranted like a preacher amped on Red Bull. He emanated intensity so fierce that new teammates and coaches couldn't help but be awed.
Purity, of course, is not to be confused with simplicity. Ray Lewis was the ultimate "yeah, but ... " athlete. He arrived in Coral Gables at 18, determined to be the best player ever produced by Miami, and ended up embodying everything people loved and hated about the U—all that swagger, all that dominance. He then became the head and heart of the Ravens' rise, impossible to contain on the field, a gathering disaster off it.
Raised by a single mom, fatherless and furious, Lewis cut a classic swath to manhood: six children by four women, accusations (both dropped) of physical aggression against two of the mothers, a courtroom tussle over child support and then, on the January morning after the 2000 Super Bowl, an arrest in the killing of two men outside an Atlanta club. The murder charges dissolved quickly, and Lewis has always maintained that he acted only as would-be peacemaker that night. But he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, was sentenced to a year's probation and paid a $250,000 fine to the NFL. He testified against the accused (who were eventually acquitted), settled civil suits with members of both victims' families for roughly $2 million in '04 and, during mediation, expressed both sorrow and the belief that he'd been prosecuted only because he was rich.
It was, in short, a terrible résumé, and the fact that Lewis won the Super Bowl MVP award a year later seemed like a mockery of karma; you couldn't help but feel the man had gotten away with something. Yet his transformation from Court TV thug to today's establishment darling has been breathtakingly smooth. At a time when Tiger Woods remains commercially radioactive, Lewis stars in an oh-so-cute TV ad answering a little girl's questions. ESPN offered him an analyst job hours after he announced his impending retirement, and, as NPR.com noted, the image-obsessed NFL put 10 stories about him on its home page—none of which mentioned the 2000 killings. Then, in one final gesture of image rehabilitation, commissioner Roger Goodell showed up at the Ravens' wild-card game against the Colts on Sunday to give Lewis a warm, camera-ready embrace.
You can explain this in one of two ways. The first is that the NFL and its media partners are a soft and forgiving lot. Lewis made a very public turn to God after the 2000 trial, and if that will forever be viewed skeptically by some, he hasn't been in trouble since. The second possible explanation is that the NFL can sense that, even as half of America's eyeballs rolled when Lewis said last week that he was retiring to spend more time with his children, his appeal has never been about anything that happens off the field.
Simply, we loved watching him play. In spite of our supposed better natures, we found something irresistible and increasingly rare in a league that thinks of itself as "entertainment." Like Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary, his competition for alltime-best middle linebacker, Lewis seemed hardwired to football's essence: its kinetic fury, its wide-ranging intelligence. Headhunters such as Pittsburgh's James Harrison could match him for toughness but missed the point. Cheap shots, hurting opponents, were never Lewis's thing. It's as if, whenever near a football, he transmuted all the pain and ego that rumbled through his off-field life into competitive joy. The game brought out his best qualities—the rarest of which made Singletary cry when he first saw it.
"It's his passion," said Singletary, a Ravens linebackers coach in 2003--04. "There's so many guys who just play. Only a few guys play the game with their hearts and their souls."
On Sunday, Lewis did it again. After missing 10 games because of a torn triceps, he strapped a Robocop brace on his right arm and led Baltimore to a 24--9 win over Indianapolis. It was his last game in Baltimore, and he danced and played young, throwing his 37-year-old body about, making 13 tackles, scrambling after one missed interception as if the ball were solid gold. Even fans who hate him—and there are plenty—will have to admit that he was great right to the end. There's a lesson in that, too.