By the time Super Bowl XLVII finally rolls around, the celebration of Ray Lewis' redemptive football career figures to be one of the few stories that won't inspire the same reaction in football fans as rancid meat.
The rest of the media chatter during the NFL's 14-day respite/cash-grab in anticipation of the championship game concerns mainly soap opera nonsense, which is tedious.
Yes, the fact that the Harbaugh brothers are coaching against each other in the biggest game of both careers is a cool narrative. As are Colin Kaepernick's emergence as the San Francisco 49ers' game-changing quarterback and Joe Flacco's coronation as one of the game's elite signal-callers.
Fascinating, one and all, but when you get right down to it, they're fluff.
Neither Jim nor John Harbaugh strikes me as the type to let familial relations blunt how they approach a game of checkers, let alone a Super Bowl.
In a league so obsessed with film and preparation, Kaeptain Comeback's arrival and Flacco's talents are old news to anyone who might impact a game plan. So what we're really talking about is window-dressing to help sell the matchup.
On the other hand, Ray-Ray's phoenix-like rise from a murder rap and subsequent prison time to become a positive influence on a league full of millionaire men-children is the real deal.
Not only does it have substance and implications that extend beyond the comparably trivial world of professional football, but it also seems to be having a direct impact on the field. If you've seen the Baltimore Ravens play recently, it's pretty tough to deny the team is drawing something positive from Lewis' alleged farewell tour.
Whether you believe it's divine intervention of the football gods or a bunch of monsters desperate to knock themselves silly in an effort to send their heart and soul out a winner, the Ravens are playing inspired football at the moment.
That's good, because they'll need to play even better to beat the Niners in New Orleans. San Francisco poses the most daunting postseason challenge to date for B-more, and that means the Ray Lewis' farewell tour is a critical piece of the X's and O's.
Consequently, it deserves to be in sharp focus as the pregame hype chugs along.
(Quick aside: If the Brett Favre abomination proved anything, it's that these guys aren't done until they're officially done and, if Ray pulls a 180 after this ride, do we have another case of false inspiration? Paging Manti Te'o.)
But beyond just football, Ray Lewis' story could be a profound social commentary, but only if told correctly. Which makes it a shame that the tale has been whitewashed for presentation on the biggest stages.
If you watched any of the pregame studio shows before the AFC Championship Game, you invariably heard tributes to Lewis and the tremendous man he's become.
On NFL Network, Warren Sapp, Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner and Michael Irvin all took turns heaping deserved praise on the linebacker, both for his exploits on the field and, even more so, for the shadow he casts off it. I didn't watch on CBS, but me thinks former teammate Shannon Sharpe had some kind words for his buddy, too.
Nor were these lovefests the first (or the last) of their kind.
A quick Google search turns up example after example of Ray Lewis' triumph through faith and determination over some vague, ominous ordeal from his past. Noticeably absent from those examples is any detail or even specific reference to precisely what that ordeal was.
Instead, you hear/read stuff like "what he went through," "the mistakes he made" and other brow-knitting euphemisms.
A different Google search turns up several examples that shed light on the double-homicie in January of 2000, in which Lewis was implicated and his role never clearly resolved. Of course, those examples are not published by the major players in the space and certainly not by ESPN.
Unless the story is about someone apologizing for bringing up the incident...and Lewis' six children by four different women.
Again, that's a shame because it's neutering the story, robbing it of the very thing that makes it valuable. Even the most charitable interpretation of the events in 2000 lead to four inescapable facts:
- Two men were stabbed to death (self-evident).
- Ray Lewis was involved in either the murder or sheltering those who were involved (one of the victims' blood was found in Lewis' limo).
- Ray Lewis intentionally muddled up the investigation (he pled out to obstruction of justice, admitted to giving police a false statement and the suit he was wearing was never recovered).
- Ray Lewis testified against his theretofore friends as part of a plea bargain (self-evident).
You might try to debate No. 3, but to do so is laughable.
Several observers have called the man the most dynamic leader they've run across and virtually everyone mentions this as his defining characteristic. Yet we're to believe he was simply along for the ride and at the mercy of his posse during the most pivotal night of his life?
Seems pretty absurd to me. But then, some people will believe anything.
At best, Ray-Ray was in the wrong place at the wrong time, panicked and tried to cover his rear. At worst, it's something much more sinister, but what truly happened is beside the point.
Folks, let's be honest. If you're outside a club in the wee hours and decide,"Hey, let's get into with that guy over there whose neck is roughly the size of my thigh and is rolling 10 deep," well, chances are slim that you're a force for philanthropy.
That doesn't mean the two men deserved to die, but it does mean it's probably inaccurate and potentially irresponsible to couch the crime as The Massacre of the Innocents.
Unfortunately, with all the horror in the world, we've got more tragic fish to fry.
Really, though, what exactly happened is beside the point because it's clear something horrible did happen: Ray Lewis was involved and, once the dust settled, he managed to bring light out of a good bet for the darkest night of his life.
He preaches to his flock, both inside and outside the NFL, imparting wisdom borne of a vivid life lesson. By all accounts, he is active in the Baltimore community and seems to be generous with both his time and money when it comes to those less fortunate.
But he is not a saint, even in these final weeks of his career.
Those who believe in the twin principles of forgiveness and redemption should insist that Lewis' narrative include his sins—not exclude them.
For how can you achieve redemption when there is nothing from which you must be redeemed? How can you be forgiven if there is nothing for which to forgive?
I don't know whether Ray Lewis is a good or bad person. I've never met the man and I've seen enough circumstantial evidence to support either conclusion. I do know that even considering the question means his whole story should be told because I know what my answer would've been in February 2000.
If you want to tell the story of Ray Lewis the legendary linebacker, then that early morning in Atlanta doesn't need to be part of it. It's appropriate to define Ray Lewis the football player strictly by what he did on the gridiron.
But if you want to celebrate Ray Lewis, the man, then the double-homicide cannot be glossed over, because that is where the story begins.
Without it, there can be no redemptive end.