Behind every mask is a story.
Michael Oher rose out of the worst poverty imaginable to become a Super Bowl champion. Tom Brady cried when he fell to the sixth round, then spent the next decade becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in history to make every team that passed on him regret it. Michael Vick became a $100 million man, lost it all because of dogfighting, and made it back.
Ray Lewis? Ray Lewis might be the greatest linebacker to ever play in the National Football League. He also might be a double murderer. And just for good measure, he might have cheated his way to his second title.
How do you weigh the legacy of a man like that?
Analyzing his football legacy is a fairly easy task. Regardless of what you think of the man, here are the facts. He is a two-time Super Bowl champion, and was the MVP of one of those games. He has two AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and holds the record for linebackers with thirteen Pro Bowl selections.
He’s one of the most feared tacklers in NFL history, and one of the most impactful players to ever conspire to keep offenses out of the end zone. Baltimore has remained a defensive stronghold throughout a decade of NFL legislation aimed at eliminating Lewis’ side of the ball from the equation, and he’s the lone Ravens holdout through that entire time span.
He also gained the reputation over the last month as an inspirational force, the likes of which haven’t been seen since (must…not…say…Tim…Tebow), well, since long before our time. In November and December, the Ravens looked lost. They beat Byron Leftwich’s Steelers by three, and needed the entire Chargers team to forget how to play football on 4th and 29 in order to sneak out a win against a terrible San Diego squad. As the season ended, you could have predicted a first-round exit and no one would have objected.
However, on January 2nd, Ray Lewis announced that this season would be his last. Suddenly, the Ravens were a different team. Lewis already was known as a terrifying motivator and a galvanizing force, but listening to people like Ray Rice and Dannell Ellerbe tear up at the thought of not playing with #52 made people really understand just how much he meant to football. Even players across the league expressed sadness that Lewis would be retiring, a testament to his impact not just on the greater Baltimore area, but on the NFL as a whole.
You know what happened next; the Ravens improbably beat Peyton Manning in Denver, Tom Brady in Foxboro, and…okay, so beating Kaepernick in New Orleans isn’t quite the same. But still, it’s the best run we’ve seen since the 2007 Giants, and probably a more improbable one at that. Giving Lewis all the credit would be foolish, but it’s hard to ignore the reality that Ray Lewis’ impact goes far deeper than just what he does between the lines.
Unfortunately, the last month reminded people of the bad side of Ray Lewis. For the first time in years, stories of the double murder in Atlanta resurfaced. Suddenly, people like Wes Welker’s wife were scolding fans for rooting for someone with “6 kids 4 wives” and someone who had “paid a family off” to get out of a murder. However unfair and untrue such characterizations may be, they still dominated headlines as the playoffs continued and the Ravens kept winning.
Lewis also alienated fans by continuously leaping in front of anyone with a microphone or a camera and ranting furiously about his will to win, or his faith that God wanted them to win (“no weapon formed against us shall prosper?” Really, Ray?), or that anything that didn’t relate to winning was unimportant to him. It got pretty damn annoying to hear him blathering on, and the question of how he came back from a torn triceps in half the normal time despite being 37 years old didn’t really help his public perception.
It’s very interesting that despite the terrible things that Lewis is alleged to have done, his public image is fairly pristine. Instead of a hated, flawed hero, he’s the determined, consummate winner. The takeaway is that at the end of the day, fans don’t really care if you fought dogs, or allegedly raped a hotel clerk (and I say allegedly with all the sarcasm at my disposal), or allegedly stabbed two dudes in a nightclub. We care if you work hard, play your sport the right way, whatever that means, and most importantly, win.
Ray Lewis has won at every level, and it seems fitting that the last act of his career was a goal line stand to win the Super Bowl. In the end, that’s the way we’ll see Ray Lewis. We don’t see the flaws, whether they come on the field or off of it. We see what we want to see – we want to be fooled. Rather than weighing the bad with the good, the narrative with Ray Lewis will always be that of a winner. The other stuff gets lost in the mix.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Lewis is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and one of the guys we’ll be talking about for the next century, if football is still around then. Hopefully the story behind Lewis’ mask will fade with time.