By Jason Keidel
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Mike Francesa recently synopsized Ray Lewis, wiping some of the faerie dust from his career as the NFL’s linebacker nonpareil since he was drafted from Miami, The U, a conveyer belt of a program that produced prodigious and loquacious players since the 1980s. And it seemed to spawn a continuing debate in the five boroughs and beyond.
What should we feel about Ray Lewis?
Linebacker is a precious position in NFL history because they’ve been so visible, vibrant, and important. Growing up a Steelers fan, I was blessed to see the best set in history – yes, better than the 1986 Giants – with Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Andy Russell behind the Steel Curtain. But with recent NFL rule changes gelding the more violent players of defense, we are less likely to see dominant linebackers, at least as we understood them over the past 40 years.
I’m too young to recall Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, or Dick Butkus. But I was there for every snap of Lawrence Taylor, and, to paraphrase the celebrated political barb, Ray Lewis is no Lawrence Taylor. But the fact that we struggle to find a few more at Lewis’ level speaks to his gridiron greatness.
Then there’s the matter of murder trials. Say what you will about his role in the death of two young men in Atlanta 13 years ago, he only pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. But it leaves an opaque legal and public relations trail that has hounded him ever since the Super Bowl night that left him in an orange jumpsuit, jousting with well-heeled lawyers, and ultimately testifying against the men he “partied” with before that bleak dawn.
Based on the 300-plus columns I’ve posted for WFAN/CBS, you know I don’t pull any punches on football miscreants. I was one of maybe five writers in America who smashed Joe Paterno from the jump, at my professional peril. (I’ve saved the savory emails calling me every vulgarity in the catalogue.) And I would have easily doubled Michael Vick’s prison sentence for his unparalleled brutality toward animals. And I certainly would not have allowed him to rejoin that most privileged membership we call the NFL. And as a Steelers fan, I literally gag at the thought of defending a Baltimore Raven.
But I can’t sit here and brand Ray Lewis a killer, at least not in any legitimate legal context. Sure, rich men get better legal representation and kinder verdicts. But we must make due with the inequities and iniquities of our legal system. And this is not an O.J. Simpson situation, where everyone but the 12 mopes in a jury box knows the truth.
We want perfection from our athletic icons, to be equal helpings of savage and stoic. But in the absence of a perfect duality, we’re resigned to measure each man by how much malfeasance we’re willing to take. No doubt an athlete’s deeds can cast a long shadow over our memory. Ray Lewis may not have committed a murder, but he almost certainly knows who did. One of the victims’ blood was in his limo, which is impossible to ignore. And the suit Lewis wore that night was conveniently lost.
A recent piece in USA Today, dedicated to Lewis’ role in the double murder in Atlanta, focusing on the families of the murdered, certainly dunks a toxic Gatorade on Lewis’ bronze bust. And even on the field you could understandably tire of his histrionics, from his spastic pre-game celebration to his endless, evangelical posturing on the sideline, preaching the Book of Ray to a fawning congregation. His throaty assertions seemed to grow as his visage shifted from eternal crook to Canton immortal.
But it says here, in a strict athletic sense, that if you’ve been so good for so long a little latitude is in order. He’s not on the Mt. Rushmore of defensive deities spanning the last century. But in the context of his contemporaries, it’s hard to fathom a more important player on his side of the pigskin. There’s no right or wrong way to recall Ray Lewis, whether you love, loathe, lament, or ignore the man.
And now Ray Lewis could exit the game against one of his most menacing adversaries: the Patriots, who also are filled with contradictions. They are led, as always, by Bill Belichick – the uber-demanding coach who has nothing to say, the feared strategist and sophisticante who stalks the sideline in his hobo chic wardrobe. Tom Brady, the pretty but gritty boy who is a maddening hybrid of narcissist and field marshall, bounced the mother of his child to marry to an underwear model. Even the ornery coach was stained by the brush of infidelity.
If we dig deeply enough, it seems the dirt of Original Sin sullies our most exalted athletes. My hero, Muhammad Ali, was serially unfaithful and assaulted Joe Frazier with unforgivable, ethnic stereotypes.
But the narrative this Sunday is impossible to ignore, from Brady and Belichik trying to purge their past Super Bowl failures to Lewis’s magical ride through the crucible of cold, playoff football. He is not just an old man limping and leaning on his younger brethren for victory. He can still bang, despite a knee brace covering his torn triceps This is a big game, even by each man’s stratospheric standard.
No matter what the Ravens do this weekend, we will remember Ray Lewis. And that is proper – as are the myriad was to remember him.
Your thoughts on Ray Lewis the man, the athlete? Let Keidel know in the comments…