WESTMINSTER, Md. -- It was the Fourth of July, a happy time, a peaceful time for Ray Lewis. His family was all together at his home on Florida's southern coast, getting ready for a picnic on the beach.
"We were sitting out back of my home in Florida and watching the ocean. I remember the line I said right before I got the text, and it was: 'It's amazing that people can't slow down in life enough to realize how peaceful this really is,'" Lewis recalled last week.
"And looking at the ocean -- the Atlantic -- it's like, wow, this ocean is disciplined enough to never to come past that," he said, drawing an imaginary line in the sand. "It's amazing."
"So I'm going on about that, and I look down and I'm like, what?!"
It was a text from a friend. The words were simple: "Steve's been shot." Then: "Steve McNair is dead."
Waves of numbness came over Lewis, a man who has used pain to define his career, and who has felt a level of personal pain off the field that other men pray they never have to endure. But this was different. Steve McNair, Lewis would find out soon, had been shot in his sleep -- four times -- by a jealous 20-year-old girlfriend. McNair was a married man with four sons. But the shame of that aside, Lewis said he knew then that he had to be by McNair's side -- in body and in spirit.
So, he prayed, endlessly -- for days.
"'Father, whatever it is, man, whatever it is, you know, even in my times when I ask you to make me strong, make his family strong. I don't know what's going on right now,'" Lewis said. "And that's when my mom came in and she saw me, and I just told her that I had to get in my mind and just pray, man. And ask what was it from this, what am I supposed to learn?"
The Baltimore Ravens' singularly ferocious inside linebacker turned 34 in May and is entering his 13th season -- though it often feels as if he's had multiple lifetimes crammed into one career. A first-round pick from Miami for a fledgling franchise starting over in a new city. A unique talent compared to Butkus and Singletary who certainly would be headed to the Hall of Fame. Pro Bowls. Defensive Player of the Year. MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, his defense crowning the greatest season of any defensive unit since the 1985 Chicago Bears.
All of those accomplishments, however, were eclipsed at times by his own transgression: He was charged in connection with a double homicide in Atlanta on the night of Super Bowl XXXIV, when the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans, quarterbacked by Steve McNair.
There was a long, painful trial. No one was convicted of the murders. Lewis' two co-defendants were acquitted. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and paid a $250,000 fine. When he came back to football for the 2000 season, he was a changed man, a man on a mission, determined to rewrite an ugly chapter in his life. Mission accomplished: The Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, with Lewis leading a defensive effort that completely dominated the helpless New York Giants.
In 2006, McNair was unceremoniously shown the door in Tennessee. Lewis had lobbied to bring him to Baltimore. McNair made only 22 starts for the Ravens. It was the tail end of his career. They won a division title together but got bounced out of the first round of the playoffs. It wasn't meant to be.
And now there is this cruel irony, which is not lost on Lewis. He got his life back and won the Super Bowl. McNair lost the big game, his career ended without another Super Bowl appearance, and now his life is over. Two NFL lives -- first the collision of opponents, then the camaraderie of teammates, and now the shattering sadness of real loss.
It hit Lewis hard when he went to speak at McNair's funeral service and saw his friend in the open casket.
"Silent cries, silent cries," he said. "Sometimes men cry silently. But they can't expose it. Because it's the strength to keep it together for everybody else. And I'm looking at these children because I have kids, and I'm saying whatever you need, if you want to take a trip, or if you want to be around somebody that you can call Daddy, I'm right here. I'm right here, man, because I can't tell you what you're feeling. I can't even imagine that. But I can say that if you need me, as a father, as a friend, as anything that you need me, I'm right here. And that's what you get out of that. That's what I told his mom. All of those years that we met, we never knew, that these moments was gonna be these moments. That's my boy. Rest in peace."
Lewis said he's beyond dedicating this season to McNair's memory.
"I dedicate my life to him -- just life, just life, just life. Seasons? Naw that's a lifetime legacy. Seasons, they fade. Lifetime, man," he said.
"I would have a lot to say, but first I would have a true duty, and that is to listen to anything he says. Let me hear your heart, let me hear your pains, let me hear your worries, your doubts, your fears. After you get done with all of that, we got a formula," Lewis said.
He was asked how much his experiences would help Vick.
"I tell people all the time, man, my heart, my heart," he said, pounding his chest. "My heart represents my past, my heart. I used to worry a lot. Life for me now is to tell men, walk with who you are. You've never heard me say walk perfect -- walk with who you are. Be OK with who you are.
"Don't worry about being liked, don't walk through this world trying to be liked, that's being who you are, that's being respected, that's being respected, that's being who you are," he said. "Then you don't have to pretend that you're somebody you're really not."
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.