Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Ray Lewis

In Football, Long form on January 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Ray Lewis’s playing career could end Sunday. Crim Del Harris examines Lewis’s accomplishments, shortcomings and his legacy in Baltimore.

Ray Lewis will likely play his last game in Baltimore Sunday. The locals will rush to claim him as one of their own, a native son of Baltimore. They are wrong. Ray Lewis, the greatest middle linebacker of the 21st century, was never Baltimore. He was a greatness that knows no geographical boundaries. Ravens fans never cheered for Lewis because he represented the spirit of a city. They cheered for him because they never got to cheer for Tom Brady. They cheered for him because it was better than cheering for Corey Dillon.

In truth, many fans had stopped cheering lately. Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts will likely set decibel records in Baltimore that will mask an inglorious end to Lewis’s playing career. Two steps slow and seemingly forever behind in coverage, the linebacker often resembled a rooted oak conspicuously decaying in the modern NFL.

Lewis’s slow feet were not the only problem. The Ravens defense has been stuck in arrested development for several years now, masked only by the individual greatness of certain players. It was hardly noticeable until this season, yet the signs mostly pointed back to Lewis.

The Ravens have developed only three above average linebackers since 2002 – Bart Scott, Adalius Thomas and Jarrett Johnson. The rest has been a parade of mediocrity named Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan. The franchise also failed to develop top flight pass rushers, with the exception of Terrell Suggs. Bad luck, bad player development and bad scouting all played a role, but Lewis should carry some blame as well. The Ravens rarely drafted light and quick defensive ends because the team needed wide bodied defensive linemen to keep offensive guards and centers off the increasingly slower linebacker. They also never took an inside linebacker high in the draft. An understudy is never needed if the lead refuses to leave the stage.

More frustrating to most Ravens fans, however, was the football evangelist show the team and Lewis built and perpetrated across the league. It often felt like a huckster’s act, a distraction as the artful Dodger picked the knowing fans backpockets. Every tackle for a loss was punctuated by Lewis jumping on the pile; every offensive touchdown saw the scoring player greeted first by Lewis as he returned to the sideline. All were done in the name of football, not self promotion.

The motivational speeches topped the list of Lewis’ increasingly wearying act. A primetime Ravens game meant a conveniently placed camera. It has gotten so bad that after Lewis tore his triceps versus the Dallas Cowboys this season, the Ravens filmed Lewis giving an emotional pre-game speech on the field before every game. The team then played the speech on the jumbotron 20 minutes before kickoff. Imagine listening to a JV basketball coach bang their clipboard against a metal locker while frothing at the mouth, but instead of snickering you have to pretend to be inspired. We had to pretend. The pretending made it less sad.

The shame of it is the words and the speeches now slightly obscure what an amazing player Lewis was in his prime. Forget 2000 when he brought the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Instead, remember 2003 when he won Defensive Player of the Year, and led a team quarterbacked by Boller, Anthony Wirght and Chris Redman to a 10-6 record. Remember 1997 when he tallied 156 tackles on an awful team. Remember how he almost singlehandedly beat the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football in 2002 or how, with nothing left in the tank, held Brady to 23 points in the playoffs last season.

The duality of Ray Lewis means all those empty words distract from Lewis’s greatness as a football player. But without those words, an excellent middle linebacker would have never become Ray Lewis: motivational and spiritual icon.

*A quick word on the murder charges. Lewis as an unrepentant criminal never gained traction in Baltimore. Most of it is due to the parochialism of local fans. Some of it is because he never provided a second offense. The religion and charity work might have had an impact for some, but I never encountered anyone who changed their opinion of him because of those factors.

Fans seem able to separate morality from athletic excellence especially well when it comes to football. Maybe the violent nature of the game temporarily removes mores. Maybe we’re just immoral. I’ve never seriously thought about that night in Atlanta when watching Lewis on the field the same way I never think about the charges against Ben Roethlisberger when the Ravens play the Steelers. It sounds cold and impersonal, but I think it’s necessary. Otherwise, sports becomes religion or politics, less enjoyable versions of the same game.

Baltimore will likely see Ray Lewis’s last game in Baltimore Sunday. That will lead to a rush to claim him as the city’s own, a native son of Baltimore on par with Ripken, Phelps, Unitas and Robinson. Again, that is a false creation.

Ray Lewis, the man, has never really belonged to Baltimore. He does not live here during the offseason. His multiple business ventures in the city have mostly met with failure. You might see Phelps at a Canton bar on a summer night or Ripken at an open gym in Harford County. Lewis always seemed more likely to be working out in the swamps of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. or Miami. He always seemed a member of a much larger and more glamorous tribe than Baltimore.

Ray Lewis the icon will always belong to Baltimore, though. Lewis made himself into a mythological figure through proclamations of greatness much in the same way a seaport city near the nation’s capital proclaims itself equal with Boston and New York. Baltimore, like Lewis, is a shell of what it once was. Its steel spine has emigrated overseas; its name has become synonymous with death and decay. Yet the city stands proud and defiant, shouting itself hoarse until others believe it worthy.

Carl Sandburg once wrote a poem about Baltimore that he mistakenly titled after a city in Illinois. In it he wrote:

“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. / And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again. / And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. / And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. / Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;”

The defiance and anger and confidence of the great American city is what made Ray Lewis one of the greatest football players ever to take the field. It is what made a skinny kid from Bartow, Fla. idolized by Baltimoreans of all walks of life who were ever told they were inferior. It is what made Ray Lewis Baltimore, even if he never was a native son.

On Sunday, Ray Lewis will walk out of the tunnel for likely the last time at M&T Bank Stadium. The music will play, Lewis will dance and the fans will stand and cheer. At the last moment, right before he runs out to greet his teammates, Lewis will pause as he has done countless times in his 17-year career. He will lift his head to the heavens and will sing a song so course and strong and proud to be alive.

Ray Lewis will sing of Baltimore one last time on Sunday. And I can’t wait to watch.

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