Despite two Super Bowls, Ray Lewis remains a polarizing figure.
Because of a deadly night in Atlanta 13 years ago, fans either love him or hate him. There's no middle ground with this talented NFL middle linebacker when it comes to his popularity. For Lewis it's extremely unfortunate because his entire legacy will be tarnished by some bad decisions he made with a couple of knucklehead friends that Super Bowl weekend in Georgia in 2000.
Is the criticism fair?
It depends on whom you talk to about this controversial case.
The families of the two men who were stabbed to death that night may not be in any mood to hoist champagne glasses to celebrate Lewis' second Super Bowl victory for Charm City. His supporters, like former teammate Shannon Sharpe, may say the criticism has been unfair. You're either with Lewis or against him in this highly emotional saga, and both sides present impressive arguments.
But however you view it, Lewis got what he wanted.
He hoped to retire on top with another ring. His dreams came true, but it was close. We all watched the San Francisco 49ers bungle four plays inside the Ravens 10-yard line with fewer than two minutes to play. A touchdown likely would have given quarterback Colin Kaepernick a Super Bowl victory, but instead we watched some awkward play calling that led to a Ravens' goal-line stand.
People in Baltimore love No. 52. He's a god in the city. He can do no wrong. If you bring up the past, you'll get into a heated argument with a Baltimore resident. It's their position that Lewis paid his debt to society and that's that. "Stop bringing up the negative" is what you're likely to hear. Lewis is their man and nothing can change that. He brought two world titles to Charm City, and that's all that matters.
Lewis has done wonders with his image. Years after the double murder, he regained a few national endorsements. Madison Avenue was willing to put his face back on various products and TV commercials. It seemed all was forgotten. Lewis himself has worked hard to repair his persona, and he must be commended for that. He hasn't had any encounters with law enforcement since that night in Georgia.
By all accounts Ray Lewis is a religious man.
He speaks about God and the Lord in every other sentence. When he was riding on a military vehicle in the Ravens' victory parade through the streets of downtown Baltimore, he was taking pictures of the crowd with his smart phone. His smart phone had a crucifix on the cover.
Religion is his life now.
But critics say it's a bit too much.
Does he beat you over the head with his religious beliefs? In every interview he seems to overwhelm you with biblical references.
Does the image match the person? I don't know. Many have questioned his new outlook on life.
Should a man with six children by four different women be the poster child for the church? It doesn't seem like a good fit to me, but that's what he wants you to believe.
I'm not a super religious guy, but I do believe in God. I won't, however, bring up religion in every single conversation we have. I won't go overboard in trying to convince you I'm a good person and to have faith. If you live your life by the church, then more power to you. I support you, but I don't want to hear about it every five minutes. Some things are meant to be private most of the time, and I think Ray's religious beliefs fall into that category. Stop trying to convince everyone you're religious.
We get it.
Lewis is trying to run away from the past, but we all know the past is a big part of who we are. We can never escape what we did or didn't do in our youth. It shapes who we are and who we become in the future. You can't get away from it no matter how fast you are. Your past will always follow you, whether you like it or not.
I was working in a Baltimore television newsroom in the days that Lewis' double murder case unfolded. I remember the confusion and questions once the calls started coming in. I was one of the first TV reporters to descend on Lewis' suburban Baltimore County home after the charges against him were announced.
We were all there. Reporters and photographers camped out next to the long driveway leading to his home.
It was a strange experience. Lewis' house was empty for days, and when there was movement, no one on his property came out to talk to us. Many of us couldn't believe Lewis has been accused, along with Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, of stabbing two men to death.
How could this happen?
The district attorney in Fulton County thought he had a rock solid case, but as we'd soon find out, the case was poorly handled.
Lewis was the lead story in Baltimore and across the country. We covered every angle. The TV station I worked for quickly dispatched reporters to Atlanta. Reporters wanted to speak to then-Ravens owner Art Modell.
It was continuous media coverage.
And since Lewis had not yet been crowned the city's Golden Boy, a lot of the coverage was pointed and direct.
Modell and GM Ozzie Newsome stood by Lewis. They did so as Lewis' world appeared to be crashing down around him. The Ravens were a new franchise in the city then, and this wasn't the kind of publicity they needed after a controversial departure from Cleveland.
But they had Lewis' back, and in the end, he need that as much as he needed top flight legal representation.
One of the best things Lewis ever did was hire noted Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland. He is one of the best, if not the best lawyer in the country. Garland is a genius when it comes to criminal law, and he shredded the prosecution's case bit by bit. He is one of the reasons Lewis isn't sitting in prison right now, and Lewis probably knows that more than anyone.
What most people don't know or remember about out the case is that no one was ever convicted in the stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker.
Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the case. His two co-defendants were acquitted. The prosecution's case fell apart as quickly as they initially announced the charges. That means the killer or killers of Lollar and Baker are still walking around out there.
Something is wrong with that.
Many questions still remain from January 31, 2000.
There are questions about bloody clothes, questions about Lewis' other friends who were with him in the limousine shortly after the stabbings took place. Those people have yet to offer their public accounts of what happened that night. Who are they? What did they see? Where are they? Why have they remained silent all these years?
Surely, they have a lot on their minds and would like to get it off their chests, right?
I'm not suggesting they know something or could change the outcome of the case, but it would be nice to hear their perspective. Double jeopardy prevents prosecutors from re-filing murder charges against Lewis and his two co-defendants, but have we heard all the details from that night?
The families of the two men killed want answers.
They might be prevented from discussing the case because of settlements agreed upon in the civil suit against Lewis, but do they deserve more information? I think so.
Fulton County prosecutors have remained mum on the Lewis case for years. It seems almost inconceivable they didn't get one conviction in this case. From the outset they seemed confident, but ran up against a competent and talented attorney in Garland.
They were no match for his courtroom skills. They couldn't compete and if you watched the trial, then it was clear from the very beginning.
Lewis thought he had moved on from the tragedy, until the Ravens earned a berth in the Super Bowl.
That's when all the questions began to resurface.
Reporters wanted to know how he felt all these years later about his experience with the criminal justice system. He was forced to relive the nightmare.
All of a sudden, some people had their doubts about him, again.
I'll give him credit for handling the situation the Ray Lewis way. If he was asked about the double murders, it only took him a couple of seconds before he turned the conversation into a discussion about his faith and religion. He didn't seem interested in answering questions about Lollar and Bake recited the bible instead.
Supporters argue Lewis has paid his debt to society. They point to the fact that Lollar and Baker may have had their own brush with the law. In fact, he was the only one to plead guilty to any aspect of the criminal case. Everyone else walked away without any convictions or plea deals.
That alone provides fuel to the fire for Lewis' critics.
I wonder how Ray sleeps at night. No one knows because Lewis isn't talking.
In this age of "I want to be on TV," there's always a chance someone will come forward with more chilling details about what happened that violent evening in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.
One day, someone will provide more information about the double murder that changed Lewis' life forever. And that's a day Lewis may not be looking forward to.
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