A version of this story, excerpted from Lewis' autobiography, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game and Glory, appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 26 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
SOME FOLKS HAVE IT HARD.
Some folks have it harder still.
For me, the hard part was mostly in what I didn't have. I didn't have a father. I do now, but I didn't then. The man I now know as my father, Elbert Ray Jackson, is a father in DNA only. He claims the title, but he didn't earn it. He looks like me, moves like me, but he never took the time to know me, never played the part. He left the day I was born. He came back a couple years later -- stayed long enough to father my twin sisters, Laquesha and Lakeisha, but not long enough to pick me up or change my diaper. Far as I ever knew, he was gone the next day, the same deal all over again, and as I write this I think of the cycle of abandonment that's colored my family. Every twenty years, there's been another link broken, another hard road laid, going back four generations. My son Ray Lewis III is nineteen years old; I am thirty-nine; my father is fifty-nine; his father, my grandfather, is seventy-nine; and my great-grandfather is ninety-nine. And the only one who's grown up with a father is my son.
And then on the other side of all that was my mother, Sunseria Smith. Oh my God, my mother had it hard, and it only got harder once she started having kids, but it was because of her strength that my younger brother and sisters were able to get by. It was because of her resilience that we had a chance. That I had a chance. Really, everything I do, everything I am -- it's because of this good, sweet, proud woman.
My mother was fifteen when I was born, on May 15, 1975. She was a runaway -- only she ran no further than my great-grandmother's house in Mulberry, Florida, about a half hour south of Lakeland, where she'd been living at the time. She ran because she was pregnant and her mother didn't want her to have the baby -- to have me. This right here was one of the great ironies of my life. My grandmother was a God-fearing woman, and she raised her family in a churchgoing house-hold, but she chased after my mother with a coat hanger and tried to pin her down. She believed in the sanctity of life, my grandmother, but she was a full-blooded Indian woman who also believed that her fifteen-year-old daughter was too young to have a child. Guess you could say it was a conflict of blood and faith. My grandmother was a firecracker, with her own principles, and her daughter was not about to have a baby on her watch. No, sir. She did not play, that woman -- in fact, this same scene took place a bunch of times, with other members of my family, aunts and nieces and cousins, but my mother was the one who lit out on her own and followed her heart.
My mother knows her mind. I'll say that. To this day, she expects things done a certain way, likes things just so. As a boy, this was made clear to me. I could not leave a dish in the sink. Everything had to be in the right place -- from the rugs to the furniture to the picture frames. I could not go outside to play after supper. I could not have friends over, or leave the house in the morning without tidying my room. As I got older, as my baby sister Kadaja joined the family, and my baby brother Keon soon after that, I helped out around the house more and more. My mother worked three jobs, so a lot of the babysitting, cooking, cleaning was on me. I didn't complain then and I am not complaining now, because it was a blessing to be able to do for my family in this way. It's just how it was. Most days, my mother would come home from working the night shift at the hospital at two or three o'clock in the morning, dog tired, hoping to grab a couple hours sleep before heading back out the door. Her feet would be swollen, and it was my job to comfort her, even in some small, little-kid way. We used to keep a beige bucket by the side of her bed, and I would fill it with warm water and pour in some Epsom salts and rub her feet while she went to sleep. Then I'd go back to my own bed and lie down for another while, until it was time to wake my mother so she could get to her next job. I'd have to get my brother and sisters up and ready for school, then get my own behind to the bus stop. I was eight, nine, ten years old. This went on and on, for years and years. End of each day, it was the same deal, in reverse. I'd hurry home before the others, pick them up from school, the nursery, and get everybody started on their homework, on dinner. In between shifts, whenever she could find the time, my mother would prepare meals for us -- meals that I could reheat, rework as the week went on. Pork and beans, wings, mashed potatoes, anything that could last us two or three days, until she could get back to it. When I was old enough to work the stove, she had me boiling weenies, making eggs.
I never questioned how things were. They just were, you know? This was how we lived, how we managed. The only piece I ever questioned was my name. My family tree, it was messed up, made no sense to me. There was no way to recognize the different branches, put them in the right spot, find a little piece of shade beneath one of those branches that I could call my own. My twin sisters had my mother's name -- anyway, they had the name Jenkins, which was the name of my blood grandfather on my mother's side. My mother went by McKinney, which was the name of her stepfather, Gillis McKinney, a man I grew up knowing as my maternal grandfather. My baby sister had another name -- my brother, too. We were a mismatched set, and I wanted to know who was who, what was what, who had the same name as me.
One day, my mom took the time to explain it all to me -- some of it, at least, and here it helps to know that we never talked about my father. He wasn't a part of our lives, wasn't even a part of our thinking, but there was no way to have this conversation without bringing him up. Come to think of it, this was the first conversation I can remember where we talked about him at all. My mother said, "Baby Ray, I will never say one bad thing about your father. Ever. Never. He's your daddy, after all."
I said, "Okay, but whose name do I have? We don't know no Lewises."
She said, "I'm 'bout to tell you, if you let me finish."
I didn't know much, but I knew to stay out of my mother's way when she got going on a story.
She continued, plain talk: "Your father, he's chosen not to be in your life, so you're gonna have to figure that out. There is no one to teach you how to be a man. I can't teach you to be a man. That one's on you. But when it comes to your name, that's a whole other story."
That whole other story went like this: My mother was a good-looking young woman, stunning -- hazel eyes, hair down to her freakin' butt, a smile to light up the night sky -- just crazy beautiful. I look at pictures from when she was thirteen, fourteen years old, and I'm knocked out. My father was, too. That's why he'd come around in the first place. He was just a couple years older, but he used to babysit my mom when she was little; he knew our family; he took notice as she grew up -- kept comin' round, long past the time she needed minding. Let me tell you, it was hard not to notice my mother. Those pictures don't lie. She turned heads. Folks around town, they knew who she was just by the way she looked. Folks the next town over, they knew who she was, too. The boys, they lined up just to talk to her, to be near to her. So when she finally got around to telling my father about me on the day I was born, the day he turned tail, there was this other young man next in line, and he stepped up and helped my mother with her hospital bills. Wasn't like he was fixing to hang around, wasn't like there was any kind of relationship between them, but the young man had taken a shine to my mother, said it was his privilege to help in this small way. And it was. To him, it was a small kindness; to my mother, it was big beyond big. He was a military man, and here he'd done my mother this great good turn, so she reached out to him a second time. She asked him to sign the hospital paperwork, where it asks for the name of the baby's father-and happily, mercifully, he agreed.
That young man's name was Ray Lewis, so my name became Ray Lewis. Just like that. My mother hardly knew this man, but it was a way to honor him.
I was a way to honor him.
I didn't meet him until many years later, when my own name was becoming well known. I'd been having some success on the football field and on the wrestling mat in high school. And this man, Ray Lewis, found a way to reach out to me, tell me who he was. He'd had no contact with my mother since he'd helped her out just after I was born, but he introduced himself -- said, "My name is Ray Lewis, son. I used to know your mama."
I made the connection right away -- said, "Thank you for giving me your name, sir. I will make it great."
One more thing, about my name: the story behind it tells what it meant to grow up without a father, to represent the fourth generation of men in my family to grow up without a father, to grow up in a house with three sisters and a brother, everyone with a different name. My mother, with a different name. All these other men -- two of them my stepfathers, even -- all of them with names of their own. And me with the name of a kind stranger who just happened to be there on the day I was born.
That kind of thing, it leaves you wondering who you are, who you're meant to be, how you fit. Anyway, it left me wondering. And my father left some pretty big footprints in and around Lakeland. Even though he didn't come to see us, he was still in touch with the friends he left behind. When I started playing football in high school, he knew. When I started wrestling, he knew. Word kept coming back to him, the kind of noise I was making on the field, in the gym, and after a while he must've started thinking some of that noise was meant for him. I was his son, after all.
So the man went out and changed my name -- to his. Without even telling me, without reaching out, he hired a lawyer and changed my name to Elbert Ray Jackson Jr. The papers came in the mail one day, telling me what he'd done. No phone call. No heads-up. Nothing. He just sent them over, thinking we would accept this change like we'd seen it coming. My mother showed the papers to me, and I went off. Really, I was furious. I marched those documents out of the house, like the papers themselves could pollute the air, infect our lives with the stink of this man who'd left us for nothing.
My mother, she'd never seen me so upset ... I never let my anger show the way I let it show here. I'd grabbed a book of matches from the kitchen and set all those official papers down on the driveway, flattened them to the asphalt with a stomp of my foot.
I can't be sure, but I think I was crying -- tears of rage, mostly. Tears of fury.
My mother walked over to where I stood on the driveway, saw I was fixing to light a match -- said, "Baby Ray, what you doin'?"
I said, "I'm gonna burn these papers, Mama. I will never live a day in that man's name." And my mom, she just kind of sidled up next to me on that driveway as I set a match to those papers. There was nothing to say, really. She put her hand on my back, and we stood there watching those papers burn -- didn't take but a long moment for the fire to burn all the way through, and in that long moment I could see the whole of my life in the thick black smoke that curled to the sky. I can still see that plume of smoke. I close my eyes and there it is, and as it reaches up and up and disappears I can see myself shaking the hand of the man whose name I do carry, the man whose name I've chosen to celebrate.
I can see me talking to him. I can hear my voice.
Thank you for giving me your name, sir. I will make it great.
From I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory, by Ray Lewis, with Daniel Paisner. Copyright 2015. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.