There is the suit we always see. And the suit we will never see.
The other is white, all white, with maybe the red stain of blood.
The one in purple and black, metallic gold and white bears the No. 52.
“You always have to know where 52 is at,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said as he approached the AFC Championship Game with a staggering degree of fear and respect for the Baltimore Ravens linebacker.
That suit long has come with inspirational pregame speeches and a pregame dance, The Squirrel, so delightfully menacing, so audaciously uplifting, that even octogenarians along Chesapeake Bay will want to lay out Brady on the Gillette Stadium turf. The way the man walks and the way he talks, there is real gravitas in his former coach Brian Billick's calling him “the greatest individual leader on a football field I've ever seen.”
“The brotherhood,” Lewis answered on a teleconference Thursday when asked what he will miss most about the game. “There is nothing greater than the brotherhood. It's what I preach in my locker room. I understand we're in an age where social media is taking over, but I try to get my guys to really understand how close your locker room has to be.”
“Understand who your brothers are. Understand who the men are that you are fighting with. That's the thing you'll remember the most. The wars and battles, they are going to always take care of themselves, and that's competition, most of us have been in that our entire lives. But what we will always remember the most are those locker rooms, what they felt like and the commitment and sacrifice guys made.”
The heartbeat of an entire NFL franchise beats under that suit. It's remarkable, really. No one athlete probably has had so many instantaneously run to and run from Ray Lewis. That is what he has meant to the men on his side of the football and to the men on the other side of it. At 37, completing his 17th season, it is true that he doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline speed that he once had. Yet to the end, he attracts with magnetism and repels with fear. After Lewis has made a playoff high 30 tackles through two games, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that to these final moments, he remains a top NFL linebacker.
“He's so consistent, so durable and tough,” Brady said. “He's so instinctive. He doesn't give up hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles. He's great in the pass game, great in the run game. He blitzes well. He's a playmaker, so they give him an opportunity to make those plays. You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up.”
The man in the purple and black, metallic gold and white suit would not allow torn triceps during the season to end his career. No way. No how. It is no coincidence that his team is 5-5 when he is out and 7-1 when he is on the field. He is part Lawrence Taylor and part Bobby Fischer, and if that sounds silly, it should not. When you face the quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Lewis says, it is a great chess match. And as innate as Lewis is as a search-and-destroy tackler, few prepare and plot the defensive game like No. 52.
“He is an instinctive player, always has been,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
On the face of it, nobody seems more different than Lewis from Brady and Manning. Yet as he talked about Manning and his family waiting to embrace him after the Ravens stunned the Broncos in double overtime last weekend and about a hug from Brady last year after the AFC title game, you begin to understand their similarities. “It is all about knowing you competed against one of the greatest warriors of all time,” Lewis said. “It's about a deep respect.”
Before the Ravens took the field last Saturday, as Lewis spoke to his teammates, he was moved to quote Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against us shall prosper.” The man in the purple and black, the metallic gold and white suit is a Christian man, a man deeply involved in charitable works, especially the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation with a mission to provide assistance to disadvantaged youth.
Yes, this is his suit, and it is a grand suit. When Lewis pulls it off for the last time, probably after a loss Sunday to the Patriots, maybe after the Super Bowl in New Orleans, he will reportedly be an analyst with ESPN and possibly a part-time adviser to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. He undoubtedly will be in demand as a motivational speaker.
Yet for many, especially the families of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, Ray Lewis will always be the man in another suit, the all-white suit, stained in blood, a suit that never was found. He will always be the one sitting there in Atlanta in January 2000 after Super Bowl XXXIV when Baker and Lollar were stabbed to death, barking to those in his limo to “Keep your mouths shut!” He will always be the one initially charged with two counts of murder who struck a deal to plead guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor that cost him a year's probation and a $250,000 fine from the NFL yet allowed him to become the man he became.
The man in the white suit admitted that he gave misleading statements to police and agreed to give testimony against two of his companions. Lewis never directly linked Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting to the stabbings. They would be acquitted. To this day, the murders have gone unsolved. Lewis has avoided talking about the case in recent times, but in 2010 he did tell the Baltimore Sun, “No day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal.” To that extent, he did reach a financial settlement with the Lollar and Baker families in 2004.
There is no denying that he tried to lie to save his own hide, to save his football career. Beyond that, it is impossible to know if he tried to break up the fight or threw a punch. Time and the lack of evidence blur absolutes, but the wisdom is that he did not stab anyone. To some, fair or not, Lewis will always be a murderer.
There is the suit we see, the suit we do not see, and Ray Lewis must wear them both. For those who find that an unsatisfactory resolution, there is some solace to be found in the words of former teammate Shannon Sharpe, who told the Baltimore Sun, “Not only did it have a profound effect on the player he became, but it had a profound effect on the person he became.”
And few would argue that he hasn't become a better person.
On his retirement, Lewis said, “At the end of the day, with all of the men that I've been around, to one day look back here and listen to men say, ‘He was one of the people who helped changed my life,' is probably one of the greatest legacies to be remembered for.”
That he changed his own life over 13 long years might be an even greater one.