Ravens star linebacker Lewis a caricature of contradiction
NEW ORLEANS — On its day of days, its own unofficial national holiday, the NFL is dealing with Ray Lewis fatigue syndrome.
There will be 92 players on the field Sunday night when the favored 49ers and whiz-kid quarterback Colin Kaepernick go up against Lewis' resilient Ravens in an intriguing Super Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that matches a San Francisco rip-and-run offense unlike any seen before against a playoffs-proven Ravens defense that has been one of the NFL's best for a dozen years.
But from the moment the Ravens stepped off their plane Monday at Louis Armstrong International Airport, it seems as if Super Bowl XLVII has been about one very contradictory person: Lewis, the 17-season linebacker who will play in his second and final Super Bowl and his 249th and final NFL game.
Good thing, too, because the NFL hierarchy might not have made it to 250 games, especially after a week of Lewis standing at podium after podium, answering question after question about, of all things, deer antler extract and the possibility he took an illegal fast track to recovering from a torn triceps to, yet again, his role in the unsolved deaths of two men in a suburban Atlanta nightclub in 2000.
Lewis is such an omnipresent face hovering above all things Super Bowl that he eclipsed the run-up to the so-called Harbowl, the first championship matchup of two head coaching brothers, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.
“I feel like a sideshow compared to what is going on over there,” teammate Dennis Pitta said, gesturing toward the scores of reporters gathered around Lewis at a news conference.
Yet for all the reverence and respect accorded him by both teams — some teammates put him on a higher-than-high pedestal to which perhaps no other player could ascend — Lewis is as perplexing and as polarizing as any NFL player of his generation.
His on-field credentials are unmatched for a current-day player: two Defensive Player of the Year awards, 13 Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP. And as menacing a force as he is on a defense that is the NFL's third best since Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2000 (the Steelers are the best during that time), his ability to motivate and focus his teammates might have no equal.
From his pregame sideline histrionics in which he resembles a fundamentalist preacher to his so called squirrel dance and his on-field displays of deep religious conviction, Lewis routinely becomes the dominant and most-watched player on the field.
“I consider Ray to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, linebacker of all time,” former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin told reporters Tuesday.
To some, though, he is as much a thug as he is a televangelist — his football ability aside — and a person who should not be revered but, perhaps, reviled.
While Lewis has partly redeemed himself in the public eye after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in the nightclub deaths — he is seen as a giant in Baltimore — others in football aren't as eager to anoint him as an on-field deity, one held up as a role model.
“It's definitely all about him,” former Giants receiver Amani Toomer said in New Orleans. “It reminds me of the WWE. … (He) has become a caricature of himself.”
Anna Burns Welker, wife of Patriots receiver Wes Welker, was critical of Lewis in a Facebook posting, writing falsely that he has six kids from four wives and was acquitted of murder.
“What a hall of (fame) player. A true role model,” she wrote, later apologizing.
Attending four different news conferences in New Orleans, Lewis would not go into details about his role in the Atlanta deaths, just as he wouldn't when he last played in the Super Bowl a dozen years ago.
A lengthy USA Today article recently disclosed how the families of the men stabbed to death that night — Lewis later testified against several men he was with — still haven't gotten over the deaths and how they hold Lewis accountable for his unexplained actions.
The closest Lewis came to addressing the subject was Monday, when he said, “I live that every day. You maybe can take a break. I don't. I live with it every day of my life, and I would rather we not talk about it.”
A day later, he said reporters were unqualified to ask him questions about the Atlanta deaths.
But while the NFL went through all this at another Super Bowl with Lewis, the league was blindsided by allegations in a Sports Illustrated article that Lewis was given deer antler extract, containing a possibly banned steroid-like substance, while healing from the torn triceps that sidelined him for 10 weeks and temporarily put his career in doubt.
Lewis denied using the product and called the man who says he gave him the product a “coward.” That man, Mitch Ross, said Friday he never saw Lewis use it.
Lewis' teammates shrugged it off.
“He's been going for 17 years. You have to be doing something great like that for people to come at you,” running back Ray Rice explained. “He's been doing something right for 17 years.”
But it was yet another controversy during Lewis' Hail-to-Me farewell tour — one he embarked upon, he said, because he wanted to give his adoring fans and fellow players the chance to pay him public respect one last time.
If he lacked a sense of false modesty, so be it.
“On the field isn't about humility. I don't get paid to be humble on the field,” Lewis said. “I get paid to hit people in the mouth. That takes on its own attitude.”
There are many in Ravens-despising Pittsburgh that probably can't bare to watch such a contradictory man receive the praise heaped upon him by men such as Irvin.
“Ray had a horrific mess and a horrific situation where lives were lost, but Ray took that horrific mess and turned it into greatness,” Irvin said. “He's one of the greatest to play this game. … He's been incredible.”
Lewis says he won't be judged on Sunday, at least not by what he considers to be the ultimate authority.
“I truly feel this is God's time and, whatever his time is, you know, let it be his will,” Lewis said. “(So) don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story right.”
Especially when there never truly is a right or wrong answer to the riddle that is the dramatic and enigmatic Ray Lewis.