Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you embrace the eye black, smeared down both of his cheeks, occasionally mixed with tears? Does your heart pump faster when he dances, feet sliding, biceps bulging? Do you nod and say, "Amen" when he speaks? Do you have your name in his cellphone? There are hundreds in the NFL who do, my friend -- rookies, Ravens and even the poor soul he just flattened on the 20-yard line. "I love you," Ray will tell some of them. And they love him, too.
Do you see it in his eyes, his passion? Maybe you roll your eyes because Lewis is doing another news conference in designer sunglasses when it's dark outside. But do you believe? That villains can become heroes? Do you buy into what he's selling? It's simple, really. Either you do or you don't; you're in or you're out. Peyton Manning does, apparently. Manning waited, after one of the most crushing defeats of his career, for Lewis to finish his postgame news conference a couple of weeks ago just so the two could talk.
Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you believe that a man should be judged at his very worst or his very best?
On the Mount Rushmore of the NFL, it could be argued that three of the faces should be Manning, Tom Brady and Ray Lewis. The fact Lewis, a defensive player, is in the conversation is a testament to his physical dominance, longevity and personality. But most of all, it's proof of his resiliency. Consider where he was 13 years ago: in an orange jumpsuit and facing prison time as one of three men charged in connection with a double murder during Super Bowl week in Atlanta in January 2000. Today, Lewis dresses impeccably in three-piece pinstripe suits, mentors younger players and is considered sort of the godfather of the NFL.
In the NFL, his credibility is undisputed. Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to give him bear hugs and use him as an adviser when Lewis retires after Sunday's Super Bowl. Opposing players care what Lewis thinks. They catch themselves stopping to watch Lewis strut to Nelly's "Hot in Herre" in his famous pregame dance.
"There are very few guys who play that well that long," says Houston Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud, one of the few NFL players who hasn't at some point texted or slapped hands with Lewis. "For me, Ray Lewis was the guy I grew up watching, and he was my football idol."
Outside the league, Lewis is a far more complicated and polarizing figure. The Ray Lewis Farewell Tour rolled into New England on Jan. 20, and the AFC Championship Game was dramatic, poignant and cinematic, drawing mixed reviews from its audience of 47 million. It started with Lewis sobbing during the national anthem, his head tilted toward the heavens, and ended with him kneeling on the FieldTurf, overcome with emotion as a crowd of cameras hovered over him after the Ravens' 28-13 win. The Internet blew up repeatedly during these three hours. He's a drama queen; he's a warrior.
At some point that Sunday night, Anna Burns Welker, the wife of Patriots receiver Wes Welker, posted her frustrations on her personal Facebook page. "Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!" She quickly apologized to Lewis, and the post was deleted, but it tapped into a long-standing doubt, a deep-seeded skepticism, an unwillingness to buy into Lewis' rebuilt image. She is not alone.
Ray Lewis is going back to the Super Bowl, ending his 17-year football career on the biggest stage, and it's either captivating or nauseating. There is no in-between.
"There are people who love him, and there are people who hate him," says public relations expert Mike Paul, who's known as the "Reputation Doctor." "And I think the NFL likes that.
"As long as he doesn't get in trouble today, they like that. Controversy sells. He's a controversial guy."
Ray Lewis is a motivator. When he talks, really gets going, it's something that you don't just hear. You feel it. Trent Dilfer, quarterback on the Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV championship team and now an NFL analyst for ESPN, has a hard time explaining it. It's like being on a treadmill, trying to slog through the first few minutes, and hitting an endorphin rush.
"It raises the hair on your arms," Dilfer says. "Your heart rate goes up. When Ray is passionate about something, both in words and actions, you get that same kind of rush."
So consider the rush the Baltimore Ravens were on Jan. 2. Lewis, who'd just returned from a triceps injury, informed the team that he was retiring. The speech, obviously, was strategically planned. It fell just days before his Baltimore Ravens began the playoffs.
"I've only played the game to make my team a better team," Lewis said at a news conference that day. "And now, God is calling. God is calling in so many other areas of life."
His injury, suffered in mid-October, was expected to end his season. On Oct. 15, coach John Harbaugh even said it was a season-ending injury. Lewis was 37 years old, and he had a complete tear. But he worked his way back, and was ready by the time the playoffs started on Jan. 6, sporting a bulky brace on his arm.
The Ravens beat the Colts 24-9 that Sunday, then went to Denver and shook the NFL with a 38-35 double-overtime win against Manning's No. 1-seeded Broncos. Up next was New England, which almost never loses at home. In the days leading up to that AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were supposedly running on fumes. They overpowered the Patriots, outscoring them 21-0 in the second half.
"Sixty more minutes," Lewis said to teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo as they embraced on the field in Foxborough. Then the linebackers said they loved each other.
The postgame scene was everything Lewis is -- dramatic, boisterous and spiritual. Terrell Suggs passed by reporters huddled outside the locker room, shouting barbs and wisecracks directed at the Patriots. Four beefy linemen in Ravens uniforms walked through the tunnel, repeating the words, "God is good."
The locker room opened, and Baltimore native Michael Phelps waited near Lewis' stall, scruffy-faced, giddy and in fan-boy mode. He was trying to talk to Lewis -- Phelps has 18 Olympic gold medals, you know, and should be able to get a word in edgewise -- but Suggs' booming voice kept interrupting him.
Every few minutes, Suggs shouted, in a preacher voice, "AND THE RAVENS ARE GOING TO THE SOOPAAH BOWL!"
Phelps was trying to tell Lewis how he and his mother were watching the game from the suites, sitting near Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and in the first half they were quiet, but then they were like forget it, we're not going to be quiet anymore.
"And the windows were all open," Phelps told Lewis, "and we're all yelling and screaming and hooting and hollering and going crazy ..."
Lewis smiled and soaked it all in. The personality of the Ravens' locker room has his giant mitts all over it. They pray together before and after each game, with a different player leading them every time. They play with passion and emotion. They play with a chip on their shoulders, as if they're the only 53 in the world who believe.
The Ravens are a team of continuity -- many of their key players have been together for at least five seasons -- but Lewis is the only one who was on the team the last time Baltimore won a Super Bowl, on Jan. 29, 2001.
That was around the time Lewis met Phelps, who was just a teenager at the time. Phelps says Lewis is one of his best friends. He says Lewis helped motivate him last summer in the London Olympics.
"He probably helped me put some things into perspective," Phelps said. "Without getting into details -- what we talk about I have never said to any other soul on this planet -- I'm just very fortunate to have somebody like that and somebody as powerful as him in my life. I can never thank him enough."
Ray Lewis is a sinner. He won't deny that. He was 24 years old when he went from NFL Films to Court TV. It was January 2000. Lewis went to Atlanta to partake in the Super Bowl festivities, but then a fight broke out after a party, and two young men -- Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar -- were stabbed to death.
Thirteen years later, so much about that night is still unknown, but it is clear that Lewis was there, he was involved in an altercation and was not being truthful. He and two of his companions were indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges. The murder charge against Lewis later was dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to a year's probation.
The NFL fined him $250,000. He eventually paid financial settlements in civil lawsuits filed by a couple of members of the two families. He was playing again in the fall of 2000 as the Ravens' defensive machine churned its way to the Super Bowl. Cindy Lollar-Owens went to that Super Bowl in Tampa and held up a giant easel with Richard Lollar's picture on it in protest.
Lollar-Owens, Richard's aunt, helped raise him in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. When Lollar-Owens talks about her nephew, she uses some of the attributes that are so often mentioned with Lewis. Richard Lollar was a worker. She said he sold papers when he was 8, when he was so little that the customers would melt at how cute he was. He was a leader. People listened to him, she says. He was stylish, like Lewis. Richard Lollar was a barber who had dreams of being an artist.
Lollar-Owens turned on the TV the night of Jan. 12 and saw the end of the Broncos-Ravens game. Lewis got emotional in the CBS postgame interview. He started to quote a Bible verse. "No weapon formed ... shall prosper," he said before embracing Manning. Lollar-Owens is convinced Lewis was talking about Richard.
"Just the way he was crying," Lollar-Owens said. "I think right now it's probably hitting him. See, it's 13 years. But it feels like it was just yesterday."
Lollar-Owens has been crushed with media calls in the past week, but she checks her caller ID and makes a point to try to call everyone back. She wants to talk about her nephew. She wants him to be remembered this week. Lollar-Owens will talk for 45 minutes, as long as you want, about what it's like to see Lewis doing commercials, winning football games, living his life. She said she hates that Lewis has "been put on a pedestal."
She heard that Lewis is retiring in part to watch his son play football. It makes her think of Lollar's 12-year-old daughter in Atlanta, who was born after Lollar died.
"She looks so much like him," she said. "It's sad, you know? I don't know what else to say."
Ray Lewis is a friend. The contact list on his cellphone is loaded with football names, big and small, teammates and rivals.
One of his best friends is Ray Rice, a young running back for the Ravens who lockers next to him. Rice needed a mentor when he entered the league, and Lewis, he says, "taught me how to be a pro." Thomas Jones, a decorated running back who made five NFL stops and retired after 2011, became fast friends with Lewis at the 2000 rookie symposium.
To get a grasp of how long Lewis has been in the NFL, consider some of the newbies at that symposium. There was Jones, LaVar Arrington and Tom Brady. Lewis spoke at the symposium, on the heels of his Atlanta arrest and 15 days in jail, and he talked about choices and mistakes.
Jones was so moved by Lewis' words that day that he stuck around after it was over just to talk to Lewis. They'd see each other for years after that on opposing sidelines, and share a hug before a game. "Hey man, let's compete today," Lewis would say. Minutes later, Lewis was ready to rip Jones' head off.
His passion isn't fake, friends say. How can it be with 2,050 career tackles, 14 Pro Bowls and a lifetime of death glares?
Here's what Ravens center Matt Birk knows: That four years ago, he arrived in Baltimore from Minnesota, and wasn't sure if Lewis would know who he was. Lewis passed by Birk when he was weighing in, said hello and congratulations, and it was great to have him there. That in the NFL, there's something called an "old-guy day," when veterans with creakier bones can skip a practice, and Lewis, in Birk's four years in Baltimore, has never taken one.
"I have a problem with trying to judge what's in somebody's heart," Birk says. "I mean, I get it. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion. It's kind of the same thing with like a Tim Tebow. Whatever you do, there's going to be people who don't like you or you rub the wrong way for whatever reason. That's OK. I'm not going to speak for Ray, but when you're in the public eye, you just have to be true to yourself and don't worry about what others think.
"The guy plays his heart out. Every single Sunday."
Ray Lewis, in many places, will never be forgiven. In almost every article written about him, the word "murderer" appears in the reader comments at the end. There is an "I hate Ray Lewis" page on Facebook, and in the description box is the phrase, "Apparently, if you're Ray Lewis, murder isn't a crime." The page has 537 likes.
He had 17 tackles earlier this month in Denver, and was booed after every one of them.
"People think he's gotten away with something," said sports psychologist Jack Stark, who evaluated Lewis at the 1996 NFL combine.
"At this point in his life, he's very spiritual and focusing on his family. I think some people think that's kind of a phony cover-up for a guy underneath who was on the edge at times in the past, particularly in his early days."
Stark was working with the Miami Dolphins back in 1996, when Lewis was entering the draft. Stark evaluated roughly 100 of the best college football players in a series of interviews and psychological tests at the combine. He sat with Lewis for about an hour, much longer than most of the potential rookies, because Lewis was willing to open up.
When Stark was finished, he was convinced of two things: Lewis was the most passionate and impressive athlete he met that week, and he was a huge risk to wind up in trouble. Stark said he knew Lewis came from a tough neighborhood, and when he got back with those friends and hung out with them, he opened himself up to potential trouble.
"I looked at him and shoved my chair back from the table," Stark said. "I told him, 'If I'm a coach and I take one player, I want you on my team. But I've got one concern.' And he said, 'What's that?' I said, 'You scare me. I've got concerns about you getting in trouble. And I've got to tell you, I would build in some safeguards to make sure you have a good support system. I know you come from a tough neighborhood, and you've been through a lot.'
"He said, 'I understand it. I get it.' He acknowledged it."
Ray Lewis, to some, is a beacon of hope. James Lippitt sent the Ravens an email this past November. He was worried about his 16-year-old son. In October, Jeffrey Lippitt was behind the wheel of his Pontiac G6 in a heavy rainstorm near Leeds, Utah, when he braked for an accident and spun into a semi. Jeffrey suffered minor injuries; his 20-year-old sister, Anne-Monique, was rushed by a medical helicopter to Las Vegas.
Anne-Monique slipped into a coma, and her brother was traumatized and inconsolable. As James, a high school English teacher in Las Vegas, was grading papers one day, he felt a strong urge to reach out to the Ravens for help. James grew up in Baltimore, and shared his love of the Ravens with his son, who loves Ray Lewis.
Within an hour and a half after Lippitt sent the email, the phone rang with a Baltimore area code, and James' heart started pounding. It was a representative from the Ravens, who said Lewis was excited to meet Jeffrey. So the father and son traveled to San Diego for the Ravens' game against the Chargers on Nov. 29, and Lewis, who was still injured, pulled the boy aside on the sidelines, wrapped his arms around him and whispered in his ear.
He told Jeffrey that it was time for him to be the big brother now. He told him to lean on God, and God would be there for him. Jeffrey typed the words into his phone so he wouldn't forget them.
"Oh, I look at it constantly," Jeffrey said. "Basically, I have it down by memory now.
"It really did help, especially him saying that God doesn't make mistakes. Sometimes, I don't know what the reason is here and now. But He has a reason for it, and things will get better."
James Lippitt has noticed a difference in his son. He's more upbeat and motivated. Before, Jeffrey would be so sad that he couldn't go to school. He's on the swim team, but he wasn't motivated. Now he wants to be a captain and make it to the state meet.
"I've seen wonderful growth," James said, "and I think Ray Lewis has everything to do with it."
He pauses when asked about his daughter, a college student who hasn't come home. Thursday was Day 102 since the accident, he said, and she's not improving. Her brain is damaged and her condition is called "persistent vegetative state," he says. Anne-Monique is in long-term acute care.
When things get too hard for Jeffrey, he scrolls through his phone and looks at Lewis' words. Sometimes, he'll read them to his dad. They will watch the Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, and for three hours, maybe they'll forget.
In Akron, the hometown of Baker and Lollar, they can't forget. No one will forget Ray Lewis.