What it was like to cover Ray Lewis, a man who contained multitudes
So, a few (hundred) words about Ray Lewis. Tried to write this last night be it go garbled in a computer upgrade. Feel free to soak it in or ignore it, much like one of Ray Lewis' speeches.
I spend 11 years at the Baltimore Sun and dealt with Ray Lewis semi-regularly for about six of those years. I wrote about the Ravens off and on as a feature writer for a spell, then was around the team almost every day the last three years of his career as a beat guy and columnist.
He is, without a doubt, the weirdest, most fascinating, full-of-shit, athlete I've ever covered. Which might seem like I disliked him, but that's not remotely correct either. He was such a rich subject to cover, I was grateful for him 99 percent of the time.
For starters, it's important to remember, beneath all the histrionics, why he's going into the Hall of Fame tonight. He was a breathtakingly good player. There have been faster linebackers, and there may have been tougher linebackers, but I don't think anyone in the history of football has ever been so fast to the ball AND when he arrived, so capable of delivering devastating violence.
You have to remember that the NFL of the late 90s and early 2000s isn't not the NFL you see today, where it's a strategic chess match that's over-officiated and pass happy and homogenous. Ray Lewis saw football as this weekly test of who was a tougher man, and every snap he saw it as his mission to snatch up someone's manhood and humiliate them (shoutout to Eddie George). It's would feel weird to celebrate that so unapologetically today, we find that mentality barbaric and tone deaf, but that's exactly where we were 20 years ago. The game was brutal and angry and no one really cringed much when you (or Ray Lewis) talked about how it was akin to war, or gladiators strapping up for battle.
I've never forget being in Heinz Stadium the night Lewis broke Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder. One of the most violent things I've ever seen. I once stood on the sidelines of a Ravens/Steelers playoff game and it almost made me sick to my stomach how violent it was up close. I don't think people have any idea, watching on TV. It felt and sounded like a literal car crash on every play. You wonder why a lot of Hall of Famers walk with a cane or have trouble remembering their careers? I understand why in a visceral way.
People not from Baltimore have a hard time grasping why Ravens fans were so shamelessly willing to stick with (and embrace) Lewis after Atlanta, but if you want to understand it, you ought to think about the psychology of the city through the prism of having an NFL team. That helps explain the love for Ray Lewis.
When the Colts left, the NFL basically sneered at Baltimore and said "You're never going to get another team. You're not worthy." Paul Tagliabue literally gave an interview where he said Baltimore would be better off "building a museum" downtown than a stadium because, more or less, it wasn't going to happen. So stealing another team's franchise -- especially when that city got to keep its uniforms and its history, unlike Baltimore -- was easy to justify. Maybe it wasn't just, especially for the Browns, but it planted the idea that the NFL never wanted a franchise in Baltimore and wasn't worthy of having one when Jacksonville got one instead in the expansion process.
Enter Ray Lewis. Here was this magnetic, energetic, half-crazy person who not only played into the idea that people didn't like him, he fed off of it. He liked being the anti-hero, even though he craved people's love more than he would ever admit.
The idea that Ray Lewis "murdered" someone has always been both a pretty lazy and intellectually dishonest argument, to be honest. No one who actually followed the trial would believe Lewis committed an actual murder, which is a weird thing to "yada yada yada" past if you're trying to pin a murder on someone. Details! Who needs em!
What Lewis clearly *did* do, and what he probably should have answered for, is obstruct justice. The fact that his white suit and mink coat just disappeared into thin air that night is something he's never really come clean on, in his book, in interviews, in anything. Whether or not he pressured his limo driver into testifying he never saw Lewis throw a punch in that brawl outside the nighclub — because if he threw a punch in a brawl that resulted in a homicide it was possible he could be an accessory to that murder -- is another thing that's mostly been left unchallenged. The driver eventually testified to the fact that Lewis did not participate in the fight. There was never evidence to dispute it.
What's often lost in looking back on that event is any nuance regarding how it went down. I've never been entirely comfortable with this idea that two men who started a brawl by smashing a champagne bottle over someone's head, are particularly sympathetic characters in this narrative, regardless of whether they "aspired to be an artist" or "worked as a skilled barber," as we heard often after the fact. A jury -- with 10 African American women on it -- took all of six hours to determine Oakley and Sweeting acted in self defense, despite the fact that a celebrity (Lewis) testified against them. I've actually never seen either Oakley or Sweeting quoted since that incident, only Lewis — in interviews with The Baltimore Sun, with ESPN, with Yahoo, with several other places. The idea that he's never talked about it, or never been pressed on some of the details doesn't quite hold up to facts, to be honest.
Lewis has been asked, it's just that most of his answers quickly devolve into typical Ray Lewis word salad. The best way to describe the way Ray Lewis talks, I think, is to imagine a cross between Samuel Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction and Malcom X giving a speech, and then it's run through Google Translator and turned into Urdu. Then it's translated back into English for your consumption. No one has ever said a truer thing about Ray Lewis than when Joe Flacco told me 90 percent of what he's saying, if you actually listen to it, doesn't make any sense.
I think the one fair point Lewis HAS tried to make over the years about the incident, and it's often ignored or lost in translation, is that the reason he was asked over and over if he wanted to say anything to the families has more to do with the fact that he's Ray Lewis than it does with evidence he stabbed anyone.
Those families blame him more than they do Sweeting and Oakley, which is their right, and you can understand their pain, but it doesn't quite hold up to the facts that Lewis (because he's a celebrity) bears more responsibility for what happened than the people who actually bought knives and got involved in a deadly brawl. Ray Lewis is not some mafia don, pulling the strings to get revenge on people he'd never met. It doesn't mean he bears zero responsibility for what happened, but it also doesn't make him a murderer.
What's complicated about Ray Lewis, and what I think Robert Klemko got exactly right in his piece, is the spell Lewis cast over the entire Ravens franchise and the bubble they let him live in. You know the whole protocol you're supposed to follow with the royal family, like how you can't make direct eye contact with the Queen or stand in front of her? That's how the Ravens came to feel Lewis should be handled. Whether he demanded it, or whether the Ravens encouraged it, was never clear. But it absolutely existed. To ask him a question on a day where he was "not available for interviews" was considered a huge affront. You were risking your "privileges" being taken away.
Here is a complicated, fascinating Ray Lewis story. I was once writing a feature about cornerback Cary Williams. During the course of our interview, Williams revealed that life was pretty tough for him growing up in Miami because his mom was put in a mental institution and child protective services took he and his brother away from his father because he was physically abusive to them. The fact that Williams -- who was adopted by his older cousin -- made it to the NFL was remarkable. But at one point he mentioned Ray Lewis heard about his story (he has no idea how) and sat down next to him and opened up about the physical abuse he'd suffered as a child. It seemed like a really moving thing, and Lewis hadn't done it for publicity, he just knew they shared those awful scars. It meant the world to Williams.
I had to talk to Lewis about it, so I chased him down in the hallway after his weekly Q&A (not wanting to awkwardly ask about child abuse in a press conference) and Lewis spoke to me for a few minutes. But I was told, in blunt terms by a Ravens PR staffer, what a huge breach of etiquette this was, and how wrong I was to attempt it without getting clearance first. (The Ravens could be, and were, super helpful about any PR request that did not involve Ray. People literally feared him and talked about his moods the way Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt do with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.)
What's hard to explain about Ray Lewis is, he could be utterly phony and a raging ego maniac, and he could also be kind and friendly. The truth is, he contained multitudes, as Whitman wrote. He really did work a lot privately with the Baltimore police to try and talk kids out of the drug trade, and would sometimes hope in cars right after games and go out into some of America's most dangerous neighborhoods just to meet people, to preach his usual brand of Ray-ism. He went on rants about crime dropping in Baltimore when he played -- an anecdote that would definitely be part of his greatest hits if there was one -- but he did try to help steer kids away from crime. He did significantly change his life after Atlanta. Some of it was to elevate the Gospel of Ray Lewis, but regardless of how genuine you thought it was, he helped a lot of kids through his charity. He wasn't particularly good at business and got in several murky financial messes, but he was good at giving speeches and reaching out to sick kids and calling strangers he would hear needed his help. Again, it was complicated.
Football-wise, the spell that Ray cast over the franchise is complicated too. Think about, for a second, the fact that an NFL team won a Super Bowl in a year in which they went five consecutive games without scoring a touchdown. That's insane, and yet that happened in 2001, and it (understandably) infused Ray Lewis with the belief that he was the greatest defensive player in history and that he could do anything, that his vision of football was the one true way to play, and drifting away from that was not only foolish, it was an affront to him, the man who recused the franchise.
Trouble was, the NFL evolved and Lewis didn't believe the Ravens should evolve with it. People hammered Flacco a lot for the Ravens safe and boring brand of football, but the truth is, every time the Ravens tried to break free from the mentality that you run the ball, control the clock and let your defense win the games, Lewis would subtly undermine it. Sometimes he was right! Trying to win games through the air with Kyle Boller and an aging Steve McNair at quarterback, plus a series of high profile flops at wide receiver, was foolish when you had Jamal Lewis in your backfield.
I'll never forget one night, as a young reporter, being tasked with listening to his weekly radio show to see if he broke any news. I think it was 2007. The Ravens had just lost to the Bills in a game where Boller was awful and Lewis, when asked about the late-game play-calling, threw Brian Billick under the bus.
It was a pretty cold moment, considering the way Billick rode for him at the Super Bowl, intentionally picking a fight with the media to try and take the pressure off Ray for a day as he faced a barrage of questions about the trial and the plea deal. But that was Ray Lewis too. He was so convinced his way was THE WAY and that football was a test of who was the better, stronger, more prepared man, he hated seeing the Ravens try to become something else. I used to joke with friends that the Ravens were like one of those tribal societies that insists on hunting with forged weapons and gathering while the rest of the world begins farming and exploring ideas like mathematics and philosophy. Why change when you are the strongest and baddest warrior in the kingdom? (You'd be resistant too, if someone asked you to cede your power to Kyle Boller.) The belief he was right, and he could do anything, superseded any loyalty Lewis might have felt toward Billick, who was fired when the team went 1-8 after Lewis' comments.
To me, Lewis is a great example of how futile and false it is make athletes into simplistic heroes or villains. Most Ravens fans understood this about him by the end, that he could be both a franchise icon, a blowhard, a liability in pass coverage, and flawed but proud reflection of a city that has always felt slighted by people who happily look down on it with classist contempt and smugness.
Some players rolled their eyes at his motivational freestyle — where he seemed to make up fables on the fly, never sure where he was going — and some players would follow him to the gates of hell.
I used to love slipping outside the press box and into the stadium when he'd make his entrance onto the field because, as corny as it was, dancing to Nelly's "Hot In Here" is was fun to feel the rumble of the crowd, feeling it vibrating in your chest.
He was the magnet people were drawn to. He was half-crazy and fearless but no matter how you felt about him, you couldn't take your eyes off him.