Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis enters the field during the Baltimore… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore…)
NEW ORLEANS — On a glittery stage in a giant football arena, a smiling Ray Lewis is speaking to dozens of journalists about playing this Super Bowl for a higher power.
"Rings fade, they tarnish, but the relationship I have with Him will never die," he says. "My ultimate goal is to leave a great name, so that one day when those skies finally spread, I'll hear those famous words, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' "
At the same time Tuesday, at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Akron, Ohio, a somber Greg Wilson visits Jacinth Baker's grave. He says he has done this three times a week for the last 13 years. He trims the grass, waters the flowers, and prays over the remains of a nephew who was one of two men stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub in unsolved murders linked to the Super Bowl preacher.
"Ray Lewis is so cold-hearted, I can't believe he's so cold-hearted," Wilson says in a phone interview later in the day. "I pray that when he and his friends close their eyes, they keep seeing that murder over and over. I hope it beats them up until the day they die. Then once they die, they are going to burn in hell."
This is supposed to be the week that the NFL and its marketing partners, through the narrative of the final game of a future Hall of Fame linebacker, trumpet the power of forgiveness and redemption. This is, instead, a week that reminds us such gifts cannot be conjured or purchased, but must be earned.
The cameras on Sunday's Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will spend much time focusing on the Ravens' Lewis, whose 17-year career will end with him dancing, praying, kissing the turf and hugging everyone in sight, football's great role model completing an astonishing image rehabilitation 13 years after being charged with a double murder.
"There's no greater feeling than to be sitting here right now . . . a surreal feeling," Lewis says from his Superdome perch at media day.
The cameras will not be in the family room of Greg Wilson, whose nephew Baker, along with Richard Lollar, were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub on Jan. 31, 2000, an incident for which Lewis would plead guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor.
"If I see Ray Lewis on TV, I just keep flipping to something better," Wilson says. "I don't want to see him. I don't want to see other people glorifying him. He and his friends took something away from my family."
Lewis' jersey has been the NFL's hottest seller. His recent pregame hug from Commissioner Roger Goodell has been one of the NFL's hottest images. He's become a tear-stained inspirational guru whose journey has grown to such mythical proportions he is even referring to it as if he were a helmeted John Wayne, calling it "my last ride."
"To go out with that confetti coming from the top of this building, to hear those famous words that 'The Ravens are Super Bowl champs,' there's no greater legacy," Lewis says. "When I leave this building tomorrow, I leave this building on my own terms."
Wilson, a mechanic who helped raise his nephew, wonders why Lewis is allowed to define those terms after being involved in a murder case that still contains much ambiguity.
Baker, 21, and Lollar, 24, were stabbed after being involved in an early-morning brawl with Lewis and two companions. Baker's blood was found in Lewis' limousine. Witnesses said Lewis threw a punch and coached his group to be quiet. Murder charges were filed against Lewis and the companions, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting.
The case then fell apart. Witnesses changed their stories. Lewis agreed to the obstruction charge in exchange for testifying against Oakley and Sweeting, but his testimony wasn't enough and they were acquitted.
While Lewis reached a financial settlement with both families to avoid a civil trial, the criminal case remains unsolved. Wilson believes Lewis could solve it if only he were the person he claims to be. "He says he's a changed man, but he hides behind that Bible," Wilson says. "If he was really true to the Bible, he would tell the truth."
For Lewis, his truth has vastly changed in the last 13 years. One year after the murder, he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, but his public image was so tattered that his photo was not put on a Wheaties box with teammates and Disney World wouldn't pay him to shout its name. Since then, he has been a model citizen, community leader and endorser of national products while softening his steely stare enough to become a media favorite.
During his hourlong media day interview session Tuesday, he is asked about the murders only once.
"What you want to report about, honestly, this is not the appropriate time for that," he replies. "The sympathy I have for that family, what me and my family have endured because of all of that . . . nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. I just truly feel this is God's time."