Ray Lewis: A 21st Century Athlete

January 02, 2013 | Brett Dickinson

As Ray Lewis stepped to the podium at approximately 12pm on January 2, 2013, he spoke in front of a crowded media area and current teammates, alike, to hear the news that he will retire after this season. In that moment everyone realized this is the end for a Baltimore Icon and an NFL legend.

But that is not what defines Ray Lewis; he is the embodiment of the 21st century professional athlete.

Ray Lewis was a highly touted prospect as a youngster.

It all started at the “U”, NFL University (Miami), surrounded by a group of future NFL draft picks; Lewis was mentored by Warren Sapp, a future Hall of Famer in his own right. He was the starting Middle Linebacker for one of the most prestigious “football factory” schools, which led to becoming a first round pick by a new franchise (well an old franchise looking at a new identity).

Ray Lewis was dominating on the field.

Lewis will be remembered as the greatest Middle Linebacker of all time. Though many will argue otherwise (Dick Butkus, Mike Singeltary, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert), no other player at the position has been as highly decorated (12 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP). It is also noted that he did that while the NFL evolved its rules to accommodate an offensive game.

Ray Lewis had issues off the field.

Lewis endured personal success since day one with the Ravens and the team knew they had something special. But then there was the Super Bowl in 1999, where outside an Atlanta night club, a man was murdered and Lewis had some level of involvement. I am not going to speculate on what actually happened (I have my personal opinion but that really does not matter) but his reputation took a hit. Lewis went to court on perjury charges, for lying about his whereabouts during the incident, missing a good portion of the following offseason. If this was today, Lewis would probably have served a yearlong suspension; imagine the 2000 season without Ray at the helm.

No athlete at the time was more frowned upon in the sports world and for just cause at the time. A man lost his life and that could have been avoided if Lewis took the mature actions to prevent it from happening. Hanging around with his “boys” almost cost him his career; a topic all too familiar with many athletes today.

Ray Lewis used on field performance to jump start his redemption.

Look at the 2000 offseason and Lewis is the talk of the sports; for all the wrong reasons. Was he the proper person to be the face of Art Modell’s franchise? Veteran players, like Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson and Rob Burnett, stood by Ray and built him back up as the leader of the team. Then they started to play on the field, and his impact was greater than any defensive player has ever been displayed in the history of the sport. The Ravens won games without scoring touchdowns, as the defense carried the team for long stretches of the season. That 2000 team will always be remembered as the greatest defense of all time (at least here in Baltimore).

Ray led that roster of men to a Super Bowl victory and paraded through Baltimore. And in that moment, he had his redemption; a symbol of how sports are reflected upon in this country. Objective followers went from calling him “murderer” to “hero;” which shows this country’s love for a winner.

Ray Lewis became a charitable figure in the community.

He went on to continue building good will in Baltimore, turning around the focus of his life. Ray looked to develop programs to help those in need, contribute to charities and represent himself as a humbled man. He became much holier in his speech, respecting God and his blessings on earth. Lewis’ efforts not only in Baltimore but in the entire state of Maryland, as well as his home in Florida, have been recognized with great appreciation.

Ray Lewis became recognizable by all sports fans.

After continued success on the field, Lewis became the spokesperson for Old Spice, with some of the most entertaining commercials by an athlete, EVER. He continued the success in the national media, being nominated by ESPN (in an article) as the player to most likely to thrive in any era of football. He recently took on the Madden 2013 commercials with funnyman Paul Rudd, and they seem to be his last shining moment as a star.

Ray Lewis became the adamant professional.

Everyone knows of Lewis’ leadership skills and heard the pregame speeches, but it is more than that to be a real professional. The common theme by anyone interviewed after his announcement, was their thoughts on his dedication to the game. He used his mental skills, in the film room and in preparation, to remain a top his game even as the year’s passed and he became an old man in NFL terms.

But he also passed that knowledge along as an older brother and friend to many that have graced the Ravens locker room. He currently has placed his locker next to Ray Rice, and their relationship is well publicized but there have been many others under his tutelage. Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott can attest their success to the help of Ray. This attribute sets himself apart from the likes of a Mike Vick or Plaxico Burress; as a true professional, he remained among the upper echelon of the sport.

So in the end, Ray Lewis has embodied what the 21st century athlete has become. You cannot tell his true legacy without mentioning the bad with the good. Whether you are a Ravens fan, if you follow sports, you have routed for the Ray Lewis story; because in the end he IS sports in this day of age.

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