Before The Last Ride Of Ray Lewis

In 2004, FOX Sports featured one of its strongest editions of the underrated “Beyond the Glory” series on what seemed to be a defiant Ray Lewis.

Like many young, hot-blooded men seeming to act without direction, Lewis was angry about an absent father. Like many players who once tasted the sweetest championship nectar, he was angry about a team not returning to the Super Bowl because of a stalled offense. Most of all, as someone almost completely exonerated in the legal system, he was angry about a night gone terribly wrong.

That episode, and the entire series itself, has nearly been scrubbed from memory. Try to find clips of it online right now, and you’ll lose patience. You’ll wonder where that Lewis, responding to a world still convicting him at every turn, has gone.

Instead, with inspiration-laden retrospectives by football media and a YouTube search that can turn into a motivation-heavy rabbit hole, you will find one of the most transformed American professional athletes of the last 20 years.

There is not one athlete that has ever undergone a public makeover in the manner that Ray Anthony Lewis has. George Foreman went from a larger version of Sonny Liston to the center of the most lucrative naming rights sale of an actual athlete we’ve ever seen. Muhammad Ali was always brash and bold, even as Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky. Mike Tyson’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-The Hangover story also took him from raging against Russ Salzberg to a vaudeville tour with stops on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

And in those respects, those men, and many other athletes and entertainers, had to step outside of their worlds to prove their worth to the world.

The difference here is that once-defiant Lewis looked within. He was on the cover of Madden 2005, and curse be damned, it was the reminder that he was still cut from the cloth of Huff, Bednarik, Nitschke, Lambert, Butkus, Singletary and many other Hall of Fame middle/inside linebackers. He became the face of Baltimore’s own Under Armor, and even if the company has featured many other great athletes since, none are as synonymous with the brand as is Lewis. Every endorsement speaks to the intensity his game threw at your TV screens, and even his bizarrely hilarious Old Spice ads reminded you that he was quite the special football player.

Many speak of a reverence for Ray Lewis in a way that few American athletes have ever attained. The nonstop motor, uncanny intelligence and the unyielding passion made him one of the most revered players in the history of football. And yet, it’s not a stretch to believe that the Ray Lewis we got to know over the last two decades was truly born in the darkest hours inside that Georgia jail. Dark hours with only his thoughts, his fears and his God.

No matter what many people believe about sports and faith (or organized religion, to be honest), one of those connecting points Lewis’ fans have with him is that his connection to a higher power is as genuine as it gets in the public eye. “I’d like to thank God” is one of the biggest clichés in entertainment, always stated after some arbitrary positive moment like winning an award or scoring the game-winner. With Lewis, however, the belief in the presence of God in his life is so strong, you wonder if your church’s pastor is even doing it right.

The career accomplishments you have read, watched, heard and thought about are well-earned. Ten-time All-Pro selection, including seven to the First Team. Thirteen-time Pro Bowler. Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year. Super Bowl champion and MVP. The defining face of a franchise, city and era.

And there are some who prefer to remind the legacy holders of a missing and bloodied white suit, the jailer orange jumpsuit in its place, the settlements and tears of contrition.

How anyone chooses to view Ray Lewis depends on how much you believe in redemption. That the people who covered his football career are openly discussing his post-career prospects tells you that the trial gave him a new life. That some others choose to remind us of the murder trial in Atlanta in 2000 to counter the reflections on his career speaks to their reluctance to accept his atonement. Either way, anyone who has ever taken a moment to watch Ray Lewis play football will watch for his final walk through the tunnel, his final tackle, his final scream … his last ride.

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