Ray Lewis is pacing inside the tunnel that leads to the football field, his helmet off, his tongue out, his face splashed across the giant end zone video screens. On this day, the Baltimore Ravens are playing the Cincinnati Bengals and the all-pro linebacker is dancing, screaming and throwing his arms to the sky as he is introduced before a frenzied crowd of nearly 70,000.
Some three and a half hours later, the player who is a whirl of intensity on the field dresses slowly and meticulously in an almost empty locker room. Lewis puts on lotion and cologne, slips into a long black coat and hangs a diamond-encrusted cross around his neck as a group of reporters waits to record his thoughts on the just-finished game.
"My passion on the field is totally different than my passion off the field," says Ray Lewis, who is one of the NFL's most aggressive players and the Ravens' unchallenged leader.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
The two game-day faces of Ray Lewis don't seem to mesh, nor do other images of the ninth-year veteran. The football player who is so often described in the rawest, most emotional terms on the field is rational and studious off of it. The man who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with a double murder in Atlanta in 2000 is one of 32 finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, an NFL honor that recognizes off-the-field community service as well as playing excellence.
The football player -- the man who will take the field against the Indianapolis Colts tonight -- is easy to define. Defining the man is more difficult.
Lewis, 29, was named the NFL defensive player of the year in 2003, becoming the sixth player in NFL history to win multiple times. He was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. According to assistant coaches' film reviews, Lewis set a franchise record a year ago with 225 tackles and led all linebackers with six interceptions. This season, according to coaches, he leads the Ravens with 174 tackles.
"My passion on the football field is simple," Lewis said. "I believe, by any means necessary, not the win or loss of a game, but just the true opportunity that God has given me to say, 'I put something in you, and that is dominance. I gave you a dominant gene.' . . . I will not let a man, I won't let anyone dictate how I am going to go out and play, whatever circumstance."
Lewis is the unchallenged leader of the Ravens, watches hours of game film on his own at home each week and regularly consults with coaches about the team's defensive game plan. He has the respect and loyalty of his teammates. Yet many of his actions seem calculated to ensure that he is always in the center of the spotlight.
Lewis is very involved with his charitable foundation, which assists at-risk youths in Baltimore. Last week he helped host a gift drive for 200 Baltimore area children, and last month he provided Thanksgiving turkeys to 440 families.
Yet, there are those who remember Lewis most for an incident that took place outside of an Atlanta nightclub hours after the Super Bowl ended in the city in January 2000. Lewis and two other men were charged with murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men, but the charges against Lewis were eventually dropped. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was placed on a year's probation; he also testified against his co-defendants, who were both later acquitted.
The Atlanta murder case -- which came two months after Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth was charged in the murder of his pregnant girlfriend -- focused the NFL's attention on off-field violence by its players. Lewis, who was fined $250,000 by the league but was not suspended, rarely talks about the incident now.
"If you understand the way God works, you won't ask yourself why people don't understand me," Lewis said. "I'm not here to please man, by no means. . . . I'm not here to be liked. You ain't got to like me. . . . I want God to view me a certain way. If you don't like the way God views me, I ain't here to please you."
Since the Atlanta killings, Lewis has solidified his reputation as one of the league's most dynamic and aggressive linebackers who exults in the controlled, sanctioned violence of a professional football game. "My passion on the field is totally different than my passion off the field," Lewis said. "When we speak about controlled rage, controlled rage on the field because it's a contact sport. It's a battle every time you step on the football field."
During pregame warmups, Lewis stalks around the end zone, dances to the music pouring from the stadium speakers, pounds his chest. After he makes a tackle, he'll kick his leg out or flex his right arm and point to his biceps.
"He's a full-speed guy from the time he comes out of the tunnel warming up till the end of the game," New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards said. "He sets the standard for that defense, and he makes those guys accountable. The way he plays, his passion for the game. . . . Does he talk about how good he is? Yeah, but he backs it up, too."