His production is unquestioned, but after Ray Lewis overcame a past rife with legal trouble to become one of the most marketable athletes on earth begs the question of whether he was a more successful player or self-promoter?
Never a fan of the Miami Hurricanes anyway (thanks mostly to Michael Irvin), Lewis seemed to embody everything I hated about them, even my rational side knew his flamboyance and individualism was simply the direction in which all sports were moving.
He was overly vocal (I hate the cliche defensive leader who thumps his chest and yells all the time), preened for the camera and worst of all, he produced at a high level for a team I hated.
Fans don't need much more reason to not like a player. The word and term "fan" doesn't come from the word "reasonable."
He led one of the most dominant defenses in league history in a season where it legitimately seemed like a sound offensive strategy to simply punt each time they got the ball. That defense swarmed and attacked as if there were 14 purple jerseys on the field, and they had that ninth gear only previously seen in Tecmo Bowl's flawed AI.
Lewis was also accused of involvement in a double homicide, stemming from a fight outside a nightclub Super Bowl weekend in 2000. A year later, Lewis would be named MVP of the Super Bowl, and plead guilty to obstruction of justice for his alleged involvement of the murders.
The two sides agreed a fight broke out between Lewis and two other men, but no one could provide enough evidence that the group brawl that resulted in the deaths of two people was murder.
A witness said they stopped to dispose of Lewis's bloody shirt, something that has yet to be found, and the blood of one of the victims was found in the 40-foot limousine Lewis and his entourage used as a getaway vehicle.
Lewis also settled a civil suit brought by the daughter of one of the victims killed that night in Atlanta. Reports indicate she was paid $1 million.
Lewis spent the remainder of his career, which he's said will end after this season, playing in the shadow of that night. Vilified by opposing fans, worshiped by Ravens fans, all held together by the fact he was one of the best defensive players ever to play the game. While his ability waned in his later years, as they do for all players, Lewis maintained his grip on the media, even getting Sports Illustrated to proclaim him "God's Linebacker" in a 2005 cover story that discussed what Lewis feels was a bigger plan for him. He's a "King charged with fostering a national ministry on the order of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."
He certainly knew how to incite a crowd. Turning toward spirituality, he was able to gloss over his double homicide charge and allegations of paying for the legal defense of his two friends (who were found not guilty of the murders, leaving the crime unpunished to this day) all in the name of his production on the football field.
Lewis will be remembered in his career far more for the two Defensive Player of the Year awards he received as the tip of a very sharp defensive spear hurled at opponents over the 2000s than for the two murders he was once accused of committing. He'll be doubly remembered for the showmanship he produced as well as the leadership he gave one of the more consistent franchises in the NFL since it moved from Cleveland to Baltimore just as Lewis's career began.
Coming off a triceps injury that derailed him for half of this season, Lewis may play in his final game Sunday when the Ravens host the Colts in an AFC Wild Card round contest. The odds heavily favor Lewis's Ravens, instilled as seven-point favorites over ChuckStrong Colts.
The win or loss may not even have anything to do with Lewis, but even if Baltimore wins, odds are good it will be his last home game. They could host the AFC Championship game in the event Cincinnati and Baltimore both win two playoff games. But a career mired in legal trouble from the start looks to conclude with no more than four more games being played.
It's pointless to suggest anything other than Lewis being a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction in 2018. He'll be on ESPN at least until then. For the only thing Lewis did as well as stop opposing offenses was to boost his brand.
And he did all of that in spite of a double-homicide charge.