From Reviled To Revered

(Editor's note: In light of Ray Lewis' storybook ending to a legendary career, we a re re-running this column from TSL editor-in-chief Vince Thomas that was written days after Lewis' injury.)

A few days ago, Metta World Peace (can we call Ron Artest) walked into the stands, again. The fans didn’t crumple into fetal positions or run for exits. They were all smiles. Ron walked up to a lady and kissed her hand. As he walked back onto the court, homegirl turned to a friend, who gave her some dap.

If you want an indicator of how thoroughly Ron has eased America’s fear that he’s a menace, look no further. Through quirky radio interviews, randomly amusing tweets, MJ tributes, beach football and dodgeball tournaments, our boy Ron has totally rehabilitated his image. The hood always knew Ron was a good dude – now the country knows.

Ron’s is an unlikely journey from pariah to panda. No athlete has transformed his reputation as thoroughly as Ray Lewis, though.

Ray suffered a torn triceps in Baltimore’s win, Sunday. He’s out for the season. It’s an injury that may end the 37-year-old’s career. He will go down as the greatest middle linebacker of all time (with all due respect to Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary), one of the five or six greatest defenders of all time (right up there with Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor) and one of 20 to 40 greatest players of all time, period. He revolutionized his position and – especially during his prime of the previous decade – had as much impact on the field as any player of his era.

But Ray’s true legacy will be his transformation from a man that much of America derisively called a murderer to a man that is now known most for being one of the greatest leaders of his time. Ray is now known more for his character, than his play. This is astonishing.

Back in 2000, Ray Lewis was charged with the murder of two men in Atlanta during Super Bowl week. He later plead guilty to obstruction of justice and, in exchange for testimony against the two other defendants, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, the murder charge was dropped. Public opinion, however, had already convicted Ray. This came at a time of what was like a nadir for the overall public perception of black American athletes and black youth culture, as a whole. It came on the heels of the O.J. trial, Latrell Sprewell choking his coach, Tupac and Biggie’s deaths, Allen Iverson’s polarizing ascension and Rae Carruth’s murder charge. Ish was real and the “thug athlete” stereotype was the go-to characterization for many.

Everywhere Ray went, he was met with derision. The fan chants, the derogatory signs, random people yelling things on the streets – persona non grata…that was Ray.

Once, the story goes, his three sons were standing outside the Ravens lockerroom, wearing their fathers’ jersey when a woman walked up to the boys’ mother and said, “I can’t believe you let your kids wear that murderer’s jersey.” Next year, one of those sons, Ray Jr., will play for The U, his pops’ alma mater, where no one will be walking up to Ray or his family spewing murderer-rhetoric. It’ll be all love.

Earlier this year, Forbes (via E-Poll Research) released a list of America’s most disliked athletes. Ray wasn’t in that company. In this way (and many others, for that matter), Ray is the anti-Tiger Woods.

Ray’s former coach Brian Billick once said of Ray, “He’s an extraordinary man. The most naturally dynamic leader I’ve been around.”

Ray’s fire and personality was such a thing to behold that it moved Mike Singletary – who was Baltimore’s linebackers coach from 2003 to 2004 – to tears. "Only a few guys play the game with their hearts and their souls,” Singletary told Sports Illustrated. “A lot of guys don't know what you mean by that. You don't know it until you hear it, and then you see it and you go, There it is."

Twelve years after sitting in jail, facing a murder conviction, Lewis is admired by his OG peers, revered by the NFL’s young players and well-respected by most of the American public. If Tony Dungy has a successor, it’s Ray Lewis.

Nobody wants to see a living legend end his career with an injury – Ray definitely doesn’t. He will likely be back to end things on his terms, so, excuse the early eulogies. But, as we reflect on the man’s legendary athletic career, spend a moment to recognize that Ray Lewis owns one of the 21st century’s greatest tales of redemption.

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