God’s linebacker one game from salvation

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In one of the three different Old Spice television commercials starring Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker emerges from the shower with his body lathered strategically with foam and explains to the audience that he plays “for-real” football rather than fantasy football. “It takes a lot of hard work, a pinch of luck, body muscles, some salt and this – Old Spice Swagger Body Wash,” says Lewis before he clambers aboard a mechanical Raven waiting at his window, heads off into the night sky, and, for no reason in particular, zaps a planet out of his way.

Aside from demonstrating that some people will do anything for a buck, the ad also illustrates how Lewis has undergone a rehabilitation quite unlike any athlete in recent American history. When he leads the Ravens into their clash with the New England Patriots this Sunday in what may be his last ever game, he does so as one of the true faces of the league.

Over the course of 17 seasons in a sport where the average career lasts just three campaigns, Lewis had proven himself to be one of the greatest linebackers of all time and among the best players ever. That kind of standing brings with it a whole portfolio of commercial opportunities. However, unlike all the other past and present stars drawing down millions of dollars from endorsement deals, Lewis was once charged with two counts of murder following his involvement in a double homicide.

On the night of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in 2000, he and his friends got into an altercation with another group of men outside a club called the Cobalt Lounge. In the ensuing fracas, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were stabbed to death and, afterwards, Lewis and his entourage fled the scene in the NFL star’s hired stretch limo. Inside that car, Lewis instructed everybody else present to forget what they’d just seen and, in subsequent interviews, with police he supplied false accounts of what exactly happened.

Even against that incriminating background, Lewis was, somehow, eventually found guilty only of a single count of misdemeanour obstruction of justice and sentenced to one year’s probation for his role in the debacle. Nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for the murders of Baker and Lollar, but in 2004, Lewis paid millions of dollars to their families to settle civil wrongful death lawsuits. If involvement in that kind of incident usually tarnishes a reputation and damages the commercial appeal of an athlete forever, it has proven to be merely a blip in this case.

Since that awful night, Lewis has changed his ways and turned his past transgressions into his calling card. We know this because in every interview he sings the same redemption song about a man learning from his own costly mistakes while all the time maintaining he was only arrested in Atlanta because he was famous. Predictably enough for this narrative, he found religion on his road back to respectability. Indeed, he became so devout that more than one media outlet dubbed him ‘God’s Linebacker’. Quite a title yet hardly a stretch given that he’s been known to bless some of his teammates with holy water before they take the field on Sundays.

“God has done something in my life – and not just for me to see it,” said Lewis in the course of one of his church sermons on his travails. “See, I had to face, face-to-face, my four-year-old child, who couldn’t understand why his father was in shackles. I had to face that I couldn’t touch my mother for the first time in my life. And God asked me a question. I was in jail 15 days, and He asked me: ‘How long are you gonna cry?'”

Spiels like that have turned Lewis into a revered figure, somebody his peers on opposing teams regularly text for advice and counsel during their own times of trouble, and he is the only Raven ever to have a street in Baltimore named in his honour. All of this at least in part explains why, at several points in today’s broadcast, the cameras will cut to Lewis and linger on him in a way normally reserved for quarterbacks or coaches.

Aside from the fact he is about to retire, they will do this too because he is the team leader and the most vocal character on the field. Nothing better for the television crowd than catching the forever-animated Lewis shouting and roaring at teammates and opponents, as he sets about terrorising the other team’s quarterback. Which he does a lot.

Of course, that he hasn’t quite been the most influential member of the Ravens’ defence for a few seasons now is conveniently ignored. Lewis is bigger box office, more famous than all the rest so he must still get the spotlight. Whether they win or lose, the microphones will be thrust under his chin faster than anybody else’s too. That’s because he’s also guaranteed to give good quotes. They might not necessarily make a lot of sense but they will be entertaining. Witness his eulogy at the funeral of his former teammate Steve McNair a couple of years back.

“He left a legacy,” said Lewis when addressing McNair’s sons from the altar. “The same way when Jesus left, because he had to sacrifice for all of us. Y’all father put out one heck of a sacrifice, young men. Every time y’all walk out the door, hold your head up high. Because he left something that a lot of men can’t father.”

McNair was shot dead while blind drunk by his jealous 20-year-old lover in a secret apartment he used to rendezvous with her, just six miles from the palatial family home where he was raising four boys with his wife. His death prompted a slew of tawdry revelations of the double life he led. Comparing one more cheating athlete to Jesus Christ? Only Lewis, a father of six children by four different women, could do it and get away it. Nothing sums up his bizarre standing in American sport better than that.
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