LB, Baltimore Ravens (Retired after last season) | Photo Credit: AP
When Ray Lewis was in this position the last time, he was 25 years old and still caught up in the intense controversy of a double-killing the previous year in which he initially was implicated. He was the central figure of Super Bowl week, not just because he was the dominant middle linebacker of his era but because he still was answering questions about his involvement in the case.
The Ravens were playing the Giants that week, and Lewis offered no insight into what happened in the early morning of Jan. 31, 2000, when two men, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis and two of his associates, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were charged with murder.
Murder charges were dropped against Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and testified for the prosecution. Nevertheless, the other two men were acquitted.
Lewis' coach at the time, Brian Billick, warned reporters not to retry the case during Super Bowl week.
On Monday, a dozen years after he went through withering criticism over the killings, Lewis was a far more composed presence as he stepped before the microphones for his first Super Bowl news conference in advance of Sunday's game against the 49ers.
With most of the anger and controversy surrounding his case having dissipated over time -- although not with the victims' families, who have criticized Lewis in recent interviews with The Buffalo News and Washington Post -- Lewis believes he now is understood for what he is all about. No, he did not directly address the slayings, nor the comments from one of the victim's uncles, who told The Buffalo News, "It's sickening to see him. It's sickening to see his face . . . It's disgusting to see America grasp him like this."
Lewis believes most people view him differently. "I don't know anybody that's ever lived a perfect life," he said. "But I have seen people who have gone through things before, and realistically, most of the time when that happens, when you find someone who has gone through adversity, you really find out what their true character is.
"I think for me, people really now are taking time to find out who I am and are really learning how it is. My character is simply just to make this world a better place, to encourage people that no matter what you're going through, it's not really what you're going through, it's your mind-set while you're going through it."
While it is not a sense of vindication -- he's not looking for that, even though his name has been cleared of the killings as far as the public record is concerned -- Lewis does believe he has emerged from the controversy a better person. He believs others now see that, too.
"When you see all the support that I'm getting right now, I'm in total awe of the respect that people have," he said. "For someone who has been through adversity but found his way out, I'm really trying to show what my true character is and how I am as a person."
Lewis was chided last week on Facebook by the wife of Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, who wrote after the Ravens beat New England: "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. Yah. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!"
Anna Burns Welker later apologized for her post.
"Sometimes people just say silly stuff and they say it out of emotion and sometimes you need to let the game take care of it," Lewis said. "We lost last year , but I didn't hear one [Ravens] teammate say anything about nobody's character because we had respect for that team. They won it fair and square. I don't have any hard feelings against her at all. People make mistakes and say foolish things sometimes."
Lewis likely will face more questions about his past throughout the week. But he said he's focused on one thing.
"I told my teammates I'm going to give it everything I have, starting today," he said. "I'm sitting in my room, studying, studying, studying.''
"We're here to win a game," he said. "There's only two teams left right now, and we're going to have to finish. That's one thing about the 2000 [Super Bowl]. There were so many guys dialed in, so focused. That's what I'm trying to spread to the team. Why are we here? We're here to win."