Lewis to end career on the greatest stage of all


AMERICAN FOOTBALL:More than 70,000 people will attend Ray Lewis’s retirement party. Another 100 million or so will watch it on television. When the final game of one’s NFL career happens to be a Super Bowl, it is never going to be a low-key affair.

Lewis would not have it any other way. Every athlete dreams of walking away a champion but not all of them revel in the spotlight like the Baltimore Ravens linebacker. At 37 Lewis no longer dominates opponents as he once did but his capacity for capturing attention might be stronger than ever.

All eyes have been on Lewis since he announced this season would be his last. After 17 seasons, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and 13 trips to the NFL’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl, Lewis is recognised as one of the greatest linebackers of all time. As such, his retirement was always sure to garner plenty of publicity, yet his timing was also particular. Lewis informed team-mates of his decision four days before their play-off opener.

That game, against the Indianapolis Colts, was in Baltimore and Lewis wanted the opportunity to bid a proper farewell to the home fans. In doing so he ensured that Baltimore’s entire post-season run would be re-cast as the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour. Appointments with Indianapolis, Denver and New England were preceded by endless tributes and accolades. Team-mates and opponents lined up together to sing number 52’s praises.

Any of those games could have been Lewis’s last but the Ravens kept on winning – eventually setting up an appointment with the San Francisco 49ers at Super Bowl XLVII. Now he would have the chance to finish his career on the greatest stage of all.

But then the narrative took an unexpected twist. In an article published by Sports Illustrated on Tuesday Lewis was linked with doping – alleged to have obtained a supplement, made with deer velvet extract, which contained the banned substance IGF-1. The accusation came from Mitch Ross, who claimed to have supplied Lewis with the supplement and advised him on how it could aid his recovery from a torn triceps injury suffered in October.

Lewis dismissed the allegation, asserting that Ross, the owner of Sports with Alternatives to Steroids, was simply trying to drum up cheap publicity. “It’s just sad that someone could have so much attention on a stage this big where the dreams are really real,” said Lewis. “I don’t need it. My team-mates don’t need it. The 49ers don’t need it.

No credibility

“Nobody needs it because it just shows you how people plan things and try to attack people from the outside. The guy has no credibility. He’s been sued four or five times over the same BS.” This was, in Lewis’s words, “the trick of the devil”, trying to distract people’s minds away from what truly mattered.

His Baltimore team-mates offered their support. “We’re not going to pay it any mind,” said his fellow Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. “We know it’s all feathers in the wind.”

More cynical observers noted that trouble has had a habit of following Lewis around. After all, his previous Super Bowl appearance - in January 2001 - arrived less than a year after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder trial.

Only Lewis, along with the handful of others present, truly knows what happened outside Atlanta’s Cobalt Lounge nightclub on January 31st, 2000. Then 24, Lewis had flown into town to sample the Super Bowl festivities as a fan. In the small hours of the morning after the game he was with a group that became involved in a fight outside the club. It finished with two young men – Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar – stabbed to death.

Lewis was initially charged with murder, along with two of the friends who had been with him that night – Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting.

Charge dropped

The charge against the player was dropped, however, when he made his obstruction of justice plea and agreed to testify against his fellow defendants. Lewis was handed a 12-month suspended sentence but, despite his testimony, Oakley and Sweeting would later be acquitted by a jury.

Nobody was convicted of the two men’s murder. When members of the deceased men’s families initiated civil proceedings against him, Lewis twice chose to settle out of court.

The image Lewis seeks to portray these days is not that of the flawless being but rather the reformed sinner – one who turned his life around. Asked this week how he had changed since the 2001 Super Bowl, Lewis spoke of a transition from “follower” to self-proclaimed spiritual leader of his team. His is an overtly religious message, Lewis proclaiming in an interview this past summer that the murder allegations were part of God’s plan.

If Lewis is no longer the athlete he once was then he is not a passenger. Lewis has not missed a single defensive play throughout the play-off run. His 44 tackles over the past three games are the most for the team. The man in second place, Corey Graham, has 26.

Tomorrow Lewis will have one last chance to remind us of just what a player he has been against a San Francisco offence that has scored 73 points over the past two weeks. Success might not change the way he is perceived but it would certainly make for a more enjoyable way to ride off into retirement.

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