NEW ORLEANS — The last game of Baltimore’s most beloved gridiron star since Johnny Unitas is hours away, the last time in 17 years the soul and grit of the Ravens will trudge from tunnel to stadium, gladiator-style. Torn triceps, the terrible team he played on just a month ago . . . they all conspired against his fabled ending. Still, he stands. Menacingly — in the middle of the field, in the middle of the controlled mayhem, in the middle of one of the great tales of perseverance and redemption in sports.
And I still don’t have it in me to root for Ray Lewis, whose turbulent ride into the NFL sunset not only brings up conflicting feelings about his legacy but also completely eclipsed the most underrated story of Super Bowl XLVII: his team.
How the Ravens incredibly ended up here deserved more coverage than the stench of deer-antler spray.
Joe Flacco beating Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on back-to-back weeks was a better story than whether Lewis would deign to perform his interpretive “squirrel dance” one final time. But we hardly wrote and talked about that.
Instead it was all Ray, all the time.
He announced his pending retirement via the usual cathartic release on a podium in Owings Mills, Md. — on the Wednesday before Baltimore’s first playoff game. It was a decision at least some in the organization were not happy about, according to two former Ravens and a current team official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Notice that neither Coach John Harbaugh nor management or ownership was at his side at the time.
Some dichotomy, no, the most unifying presence on either team in the big game was also the player primarily responsible for making this run mostly about him.
“I don’t look back; I look forward,” he said this past week, referring to any event, report or fact that portrayed him in less than an illuminating light. “Everything that’s behind me, suppose to be behind me. Everything that’s in front of me, God has predetermined to be in front of me.”
It’s just not that easy. Because any authentic discussion about Lewis’s legacy needs to begin with one premise and one premise only: The past counts.
Now, we can talk about the warrior on the field and the charitable man off of it. We can say great things about what he’s done to turn his life around, speak of the thousands he’s touched — from ailing, anonymous children to the greatest swimmer in the world, Michael Phelps, who said Lewis helped him believe in himself again before the London Games.
But before we get there, we have to go back to Atlanta 13 years ago — even if Lewis can’t bear bringing it up.
“Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions,” he said, refusing to address the stabbing deaths of two men after a confrontation outside a bar after the 2000 Super Bowl that resulted in Lewis pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, testifying against two former friends who were later acquitted and civil-court payouts to at least two members of the victims’ families.
Calling him “murderer” is wrong, slanderous. But he is no more a martyr today than Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar are alive.
Beyond that night, the sense of victimhood he’s created and fueled 13 years later is part of the reason it’s hard to root for him.
He made life decisions about friends that came with consequences, just as he made decisions about getting in touch with a questionable supplement guru to help with his recovery and return. We didn’t invent Mitch Ross and his sprays and his pills and magnet patches; Lewis clearly had a relationship with him that reportedly involves his physical well-being.
If we’re going to canonize Lewis for the person he became after the lowest moment in his life then we also need to understand why he became such a redemptive figure — because many thought him once to be irredeemable.
Between the people of Charm City wanting to bronze him and Wes Welker’s wife calling him a double-murderer last week on her Facebook page after the AFC championship game, there is probably a middle ground reserved for a flawed but indeed redemptive character.
Until Lewis accepts that gray area — that, after everything, he is probably somewhere south of absolute hero and north of heathen, and not squarely on one side of the good-evil spectrum — he is always going to feel persecuted and not understand the real truth:
Ray Lewis is not a victim of the scrutiny he receives; he volunteered for it.
“If you want to say you’re Mr. Religious and all of that, have a clean record,” former Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said this past week. “Don’t say all of that stuff if you know there’s stuff that might come back. Those are the things that, when I look at him, I just think hypocrisy.”
His legacy is extremely complicated, and all the talk of banned substance, squirrel dances and the sanctimonious nature of some of Lewis’s comments about himself, his faith and almost everything but his team this week have made that legacy more complicated.
“At the end of the day, don’t ever let adversity define who you are,” he begins, “Let it overwhelm who you are.”
It sounds good and right, the wisdom of an old NFL linebacker strapping on the helmet and bearing down on a ballcarrier one last time on the final night of this pixie-dusted Baltimore season. But 17 years later, I don’t really know how genuine it is -- how genuine Ray Lewis really is.
I won’t root against him because of that. But I can’t root for him.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.