You can imagine the anticipation gazing through a tunnel of smoke with 71,379 people ready to erupt upon your arrival.
And then it happens.
“13-time Pro-Bowler. Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Linebacker #52 Ray Lewis.” The P.A. announcer exclaims as Ray Lewis shoots through the haze, accompanied by Nelly’s “Hot in Here,” and performs his renown “squirrel” dance to perfection–even with a torn right triceps.
It was an average game for the legend, as the Ravens defeated the Colts to prolong Ray’s “last ride,” as he put it. But nonetheless, it was an unforgettable day for all those lucky ones in attendance–fans, players, and coaches alike.
Greatest of all time? This is a very weighty phrase that if thrown around lightly can instantly kill the credibility of the one saying or writing it.
It can easily be argued that Ray is the greatest middle linebacker of all time. Along with Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, there’s no question #52 has a case to be at the top of this list. His numbers and accolades carry a reputation of their own: 13 Pro Bowls, 10-time AP All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP, and easily a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
However, for a second, let’s focus on the growth of Ray Lewis the man, not so much the football player. I believe it can also be argued that over the course of his 17-year NFL career, Ray Lewis has had one of the greatest maturations of all time.
What’s interesting in all of this publicity surrounding the career and last ride of Lewis, and deservedly so, lies the fact that we don’t hear anything about the past. No, we don’t see the images of him in an orange jumpsuit in Georgia before he agreed to a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice after being initially indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges from an Atlanta homicide in 2000. These charges were all acquitted, and the incident seemed to quickly recede, as Ray proclaimed his innocence and eventually won back his reputation via the court of public opinion. We don’t hear about his struggles with women, or his six kids of four different mothers.
No, these images are distantly in the rearview mirror, due in large part to the change that has taken place inside of Ray. A change that has propelled him to vow to be a better example and father figure, as well as mobilized him to take part in countless community-building and charity actions, including one in Ethiopia to help create a sports program for land mine victims.
So just why do we love Ray Lewis? I think some of it is definitely the dominance on the field, the captivating dance, and the exhilarating speeches that could make any red-blooded human ready for war.
All of these certainly make Ray Lewis the fascinating figure he is, but I believe that in addition to these captivating aspects, we love him because we can relate to Ray Lewis off the field. Is he perfect? By no means. But, then again, neither are we. I’m not even saying he is the best role model. But, we live in an imperfect world in dire need of grace from above daily, and I think somewhere along the line of his storied career, Ray has begun to grasp that and live it out.
Unless he’s talking about being blessed and fortunate for the opportunity, his press conferences have shifted from being about #52 to being about his gratitude towards the fans, teammates, coaches, and the organization. Most importantly, he’s shifted his focus towards his family and being the father that he never really had to his sons. He speaks more of God and his goodness than the trials and adversity he’s been through. After the Ravens defeated the Colts in Lewis’ final game in Baltimore, he paraded around the field in a shirt with “Psalms 91” on the front, which points to God being our refuge and fortress in time of need.
And as we eagerly watch this last ride of #52 patrolling the middle of the field this postseason, we’re already rehearsing what we can tell our kids and grandkids about him. We can only hope that Ray Lewis III, who is now starting his career at the University of Miami, makes our memory of his father a bit clearer and continues to learn from his father’s mistakes, as he grows in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
Because we know his father, Ray Lewis, will be there every step of the way.
By: Philip Matthews