Getting right with Ray Lewis

For years, Ray Lewis projected an intense, fiery professional image. His new job requires a more relaxed approach but no less passion. USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images

The times I loathe myself the most are when I'm so cocksure of something, so bulletproof screwed-down certain, that I don't make room for the possibility that I might not be just wrong, I might be loud wrong.

Take, for instance, Ray Lewis.

Despised him. Didn't trust him. Didn't matter that I didn't know him.

Didn't care that he was a 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker. Never liked the dance. Never liked all of the God speeches. Remember what he said after last season's Super Bowl win? "When God is for you, who can be against you?" What did the 49ers do to piss off God? Never saw any reason a man needed black paint all over his face to play football. It's not faceblack. It's eyeblack.

So when ESPN announced in the offseason that he was joining us on the "Monday Night Countdown" crew? Stuck on the "Monday Night Football" bus with him? Hell on wheels.

I suppose, secretly, I was nervous. I'd criticized him plenty in his 17-year career. Is there anybody in America you'd want mad at you less than Ray Lewis?

And then we met.

Turns out I was a fool. Ray Lewis is not the man I thought he was. He is friendly, open and honest. He wants to laugh -- at himself first and second, and maybe you third. If he's read the things I've written about him, he's not letting on.

You spend 10 hours with a guy every Monday, you get to know him. He plays Words With Friends. He studies photography. His kids light up his phone.

He has his bodyguard -- as though he needs one -- pull soldiers, Marines and sailors out of the crowd, just to meet and thank them.

I've never been around anybody who pours passion out of his every cell like this man. Until Lewis came, we'd watch the game in the MNF bus. Now, we watch the game and we watch Ray.

The yelling. The jumping out of the chair as if it were suddenly made of snakes. The trying to pull his face off with anguish. And this isn't even during a Ravens game. This is Vikings-Giants.

"Rick, man, that is BASIC!" "Oh, no! No, that's TERRIBLE!" "What's he doing!? Man, what is he DOING???"

The other night, he was in the stands watching his son play safety in a high school game. He's tried not to miss a single football game, volleyball game, dance recital of any of his six kids since he quit the NFL after last season. His son and his teammates were falling for the same trick over and over. Lewis' brain was about to fall out of his ears. Finally, he ran down, jumped the fence, gathered them up and explained what was happening.

He can't help but try to fix things. During one on-field postgame show, he saw how we all were freezing, and the next week bought us all battery-powered heated gloves and heated vests. Wrapped them up and everything.

Right across from me, every Monday night, was one of the great leaders football has ever produced. So I started asking him questions.

After a big Jets fight: "Ever fight on the field, Ray?"

"No. Never. I always said, 'Meet me afterward. We'll deal with this then.' And they'd never show up. Except once. He came. He saw me walking toward him. He turned and walked the other way."

After Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant walked off the field because he didn't want cameras to catch him crying: "Ever cry on the field, Ray?"

"I used to. Used to get mad, too. But after losing in the 2006 playoffs (to Peyton Manning and the Colts), I was driving my family home, just mad. All of a sudden, my mom grabbed my arm and said, 'What's wrong with this car?' I didn't know what she was talking about. She said, 'Nobody's talking. Everybody's scared to say a word. That's because of YOU. You made everybody in this car miserable. I NEVER want to see you act this way again. You play the game, you do your very best, and when it's over, it's OVER.' That changed my life."

Maybe that's why, minutes after the Ravens lost in the 2011 AFC title game to the Patriots, Lewis gathered all of his disheartened teammates and barked: "Don't EVER drop your head when it comes to a loss, dog. Because there's too much PAIN outside of this that people are really going through ... Let's understand who we are as men. Let's make somebody smile when we walk out of here."

After we saw a piece on a player who'd grown up without a father: "Has your father ever re-surfaced, Ray?"

"He did. I was 33. You only get one chance at life, man. You can be bitter and pissed off all you want but time don't stop for nobody. I wanted to make sure he knew that I forgave him."

And two weeks ago, on Dec. 7, Ray Lewis was the best man at his father's wedding in Tampa.

"He's a very sophisticated dude," says Steve Young, another bus citizen. "I would've loved to play with him."

I'm about as different from Ray Lewis as a man can get. He ascribes everything that happens to God's will. I ascribe none of it. He rarely drinks. I keep entire breweries in the black. He's a player at heart and I'm a writer at heart and almost never do the twain mix. As he says, "I always thought writers were nothin' but dangerous."

And yet, somehow, we've become close. We laugh at our failures. Knuckle our successes. Help each other through. He is a good man. And maybe I'm not the man I thought I was for judging him.

There's no reason you should believe any of this, of course. No company is going to let you rip a fellow employee. So I guess I'm only writing it as a memo to myself:

Throwing a person under the bus is not nearly as fun as becoming friends ON one.