I’ve never shared a room with Ray Lewis. For that I’m lucky or unfortunate. There seems to be no in between.
Yes, the soon-to-be retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker has taken polarizing to another level, becoming the poster child for the Overreaction Era, a time when every win gets too much praise, every loss too much criticism. People love him or hate him – and neither stance feels appropriate.
Lewis is undeniably charismatic, apparently an emotional and spiritual leader of men not just on his team but around the NFL. That he’s become a purple pied piper is not entirely surprising; there are plenty of young men hungry for a father figure, pro athletes or not.
But Peyton Manning? He has a dad – one who played in the NFL and is very much alive – and a sharp mind. Still, the Denver Broncos quarterback and his wife and young son waited a considerable amount of time Sunday in an empty Baltimore lockerroom after a gut-wrenching playoff loss to pay homage to and take pictures with Lewis. Talk about a sign of respect. It’s almost as if the whole double murder/stabbing incident in 2000 never happened.
Oh, that. Although murder charges against him were dropped, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and reached undisclosed civil settlements with the families of both victims. Yikes. (Quick aside: The situation led a colleague in Fargo to dub Lewis’s over-the-top pregame intro as “The Murder Dance.”) Granted, a person can change plenty in 13 years, but it remains astounding that the public seems to hold less of a grudge against Lewis for his role (whatever that was) in a double homicide than it does against Mike Vick for his role in a dog-fighting ring.
Not without reason, society seems skeptical of everything, burned one too many times by pro athletes and politicians – maybe even family members. Yet Lewis the man and Lewis the football player is being openly celebrated by many during this, his last postseason. And he’s not exactly shying away from it. He did his signature dance not once but twice in his final home game and gave an ESPN reporter a breathless interview after the double overtime win in Denver last week. My second viewing of that interview came when the TV was on mute, and for some reason the lack of sound made the whole thing seem farcical. Why was this 37-year-old man wearing eye black and a head covering and talking excitedly about the mantra he chose and preached to the underdog club: No weapons. No joke.
What to make of this. My plan going forward is to enjoy feeling fascinated because I have no idea which Ray Lewis is the real Ray Lewis, although I suspect he’s everything that’s been made public and more. That’s a rare thing, to be viewed as simultaneously spiritual and dangerous. At least, it’s not the norm for a native North Dakotan.
That’s a part of the story that’s being underplayed, that there plenty of people who don’t see the two sides of Lewis as being in conflict with one another. You do what you have to do, I could see them saying, whether that means fighting to the death or seeking strength in scripture. Most of us are more middling: We go to church on Sunday morning, but do plenty of cussing the rest of the week.
It’s a lot to consider and makes for tremendous theater. You almost forget there are real people involved and that some of them are no longer with us.