Inspiration, preacher, evangelist: Meet Ray Lewis, the man who bounced back from a murder rap

It happened 12 years ago but the events of that night still cling to one of America’s greatest sportsmen.

Talking to Ray Lewis about it at a smart London hotel this week, we called it ‘the situation’ or ‘the case’. Or just ‘Atlanta’.

Atlanta. It was Lewis’s Chappaquiddick. The tragedy he has never been able to shake despite an ongoing stellar career and a wealth of inspiring charity work.
Two men were murdered. He was at the scene. Or close to it. No one was convicted.

“What you learn quickly in this world,” Lewis said, “is that if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, trouble don’t care who you are.

“Trouble don’t have no name on it. That’s why so many people find themselves in it so quickly.

“I will live with Atlanta my whole life in the perception of how people want to look at me. That’s why I don’t live to please people. I don’t live to be liked. I live to be respected.”

Atlanta. Lewis was easy to spot there during Super Bowl week in January 2000. He wasn’t playing. He was a young man then, 24 years old. He had come to party.

Contemporaneous reports said he wore a full-length white fur coat and rode around town in the back of a 40-foot Lincoln Navigator limousine.

The night of the game, a group Lewis was with became embroiled in a violent brawl outside a smart club called the Cobalt Lounge.

At the end of it, Lewis and his companions fled in the limo. Two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, lay dead. They had been beaten and stabbed.
Eleven days later, Lewis and two companions were indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges.

Then, the murder charge was dropped. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. He was given a year’s probation and the NFL fined him $250,000.
A year later, Lewis won the Super Bowl in Tampa with the Baltimore Ravens. Not only that, he was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player.

He cut a sullen, bitter unrepentant figure that year. Questioned by the media about Atlanta, Lewis refused to engage.

It has been hard for the public to shake that image, even though many idolise him as an intimidator, the heart and soul of the Ravens team for close to two decades.

I was in Tampa. The stories about Atlanta were fresh and vivid then. So this week, I told him I had always found him rather sinister.

Does he now, 12 years on from their deaths, have any sympathy for the families of Baker and Lollar?

“Why wouldn’t you?” Lewis says. “I have sympathy for a lot of people when it comes to death and stupid deaths and people getting involved in stupid things.
“The difference is that if you take me out of the equation, that is just two dead black brothers on the street. That’s it. That’s the sad part about the whole thing.
“At the Super Bowl in Tampa I was so pissed off that people would not give a damn about the people affected. They don’t care. All they want to do is write.
“That’s a family. If you all want to talk to me about the story then you are opening up wounds afresh.

“You have to be careful about how much you share with people. If you pray to God you don’t have to try to convince people too much.”

Atlanta. Lewis says it did not change him. Not immediately. He said it took time. “That is what wisdom is,” he said. “Learning things over time.”

Gradually, he stopped moving with the same crowd. He stopped going out late. He stopped drinking what he called ‘heavy alcohol’.

And he began to live by a simple creed. “The people around you – either they are helping you or they are hurting you,” he said. “There ain’t no in-betweens.”

Meeting Lewis now, it is impossible not to be enthralled by what he once was and impressed by what he has become.

He has played at the top level of the NFL for 16 years, a remarkable achievement in a brutally physical and attritional sport.

For five of his 16 seasons as a linebacker, he led the league in tackles. Last season, he became the first player in NFL history to achieve 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career.

But he is to be admired for other things, too. He has set up the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation to help deprived families.

There is no doubting the sincerity of his involvement in his charitable work nor of the extent of it.

The reason for his presence in London, for instance, was to pay a surprise visit to the London Warriors.

Based in Croydon, the Warriors have players who have been taken out of gang culture and persuaded to use sport to change.

Lewis was not paid for his visit. He wanted to do it. “I found out when I got there that they are exactly who I am,” he said.

He knew all about deprived, difficult childhoods. Born in Bartow, Florida, he had one himself.

“Mum would walk in my room sometimes and say ‘I can’t feed you tonight’,” Lewis said. “’Okay, I got it’,” I’d say. ‘Feed my brothers and sisters. I will survive’.

“I started to weightlift or train because I got tired of seeing my mum with black eyes. The guy she was with just loved to beat her.”

He talked to the Warriors players for more than an hour the first night he was here.

He talks now with the articulate force and intensity of a preacher, an evangelist, a man who wants to warn others away from the dangers he once faced.

“One kid asked me ‘when does the grind stop, when do you feel that you made it?’” Lewis said.

“I am 17 years in and I am 37 years old and I am still grinding. There is no stopping.

“I don’t know what point you are looking to get to but you will always have the next step, next step, next step.

“That’s the thing that sports is able to give you: next step, next step, next step and if you use it right, it can step you right out of the situation you are in.

“With a lot of kids, talent overrides morals nowadays because they have figured out that if they can run a fast 40m and jump a high vertical leap, they can make a lot of money.

“So they think they don’t have to work on these other things that ultimately define them as a man. They think they don’t need those. I tell them there are no short cuts. Period.”

Lewis talks with great feeling, too, about others he has encountered and helped through his foundation.

A Baltimore patriarch called Papa Bill who died of cancer last week after Lewis helped him to reunite his fractured family.

And the kid Lewis had been planning to visit before the end of last season but who died on the eve of the Ravens’ narrow AFC Championship defeat to the New England Patriots which cost them a chance to return to the Super Bowl.

“I spoke to his mom on the phone and she was screaming ‘my only son is gone’,” Lewis recalled.

“I appreciated the game so much that day but I appreciated life even more. That’s what I tried to relate to my teammates, that win, lose or draw, don’t ever discredit life.

“In the locker room, I said to them ‘for you to be in here crying right now because of the loss of the game but I got a different story that means you can’t cry over no game’.

“Nah, we are bigger than that because there is real pain in this world.”

There was real pain in Atlanta, too. Whatever happened that night outside the Cobalt Lounge, Lewis has done much that is good in the second act of his American life.

“Before I was a football player,” Lewis said, “I was a man. I was a son. Now I love for people to meet me because they say ‘oh, you’re so different’.

“In America, they say once you go through something like Atlanta, you never bounce back.

“Your name never resurfaces. You kind of fade away. But I claim that to be a totally bogus lie.”

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