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Lewis' Lasting Legacy

Posted Sep 10, 2011

Ray Lewis wants to be remembered for being a great man, not just a great player.

Before Ray Lewis' first game at Miami, he proclaimed his intent to be the greatest Hurricane ever.

When he arrived at the Ravens' training facility as a 20-year-old first-round pick in 1996, he told those he shook hands with that he intended to be the best player in NFL history.

More than 15 years later, there are no more personal accolades to lay claim to.

Lewis is a Super Bowl MVP. He's a 12-time Pro Bowler and a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  He's widely regarded as one of the best defensive players of all-time and a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he retires.

But with the end of Lewis' career inching closer and closer (the seemingly ageless one said he can't imagine playing past 37 and is now 36), he doesn't view his career through the lens of those accomplishments anymore.

Lewis is in the process of writing his epilogue. He wants to be remembered as something so much grander and something that many people refuse to acknowledge.

"Anybody can be successful," Lewis said, his eyes blazing with their usual intensity. "But when you talk about making a true statement or leaving a legacy on this earth, look back at the people you affected."

Lewis became a locker room leader almost instantaneously in Baltimore. As his fame grew, he became "The Godfather" to players around the NFL. Now Lewis is a shepherd to the entire city of Baltimore and is reaching nationally.

"That's what I believe the greatest legacy is," Lewis said.

"Once you get done playing football, it's what your impact is in communities around this world. When your name is spoken, what do people think about? For me, I want it to be that I'm always trying to help somebody."

'The Godfather'

Lewis can't pinpoint a time when his philanthropic roots took hold. It's just the way his mother raised him, he says.

Lewis' father, Elbert Ray Jackson, wasn't there when Lewis was born to Sunseria Smith. By the time he was six years old, Lewis' father had faded almost entirely out of his life.

Lewis grew up in the Washington Park projects before his mother's hard work lifted the family into a single-family home in Lakeland, Fla. There, the eldest Lewis served as the dad and protector of his younger brother and three sisters.

"Growing up very, very poor, we always had to find different ways to make it for each other. It was not just thinking about you all the time. It was thinking about somebody else," Lewis said.

"I didn't have nothing. I've always looked for that little inch of help, and I never got it outside of the things I learned myself. So me giving back is telling somebody, 'You don't have to do it the way I did it, because everybody doesn't make it out of that.'"

Once Lewis reached the NFL, his powerful voice and passion immediately made him the Ravens' locker room leader.

In 2000, he took rookie running back Jamal Lewis under his wing. A few years later, it was safety Ed Reed, who moved into Lewis' home to soak up all that he could. Now, Lewis' pet project is running back Ray Rice, who had his locker moved from one side of the room to right next to Lewis in the far corner.

Many players around the NFL have single-mother backgrounds similar to "Big Ray" and "Little Ray," whose father was gunned down in the street when he was just 1 year old. Lewis serves as that missing piece for a lot of them.

"With what he's been through in his life, he's a living legacy," Rice said. "To be around a guy like that every day, to share the laughs, the many tears, it's priceless. He's like my big brother, giving me advice and pointing me in the right direction."

It's not uncommon for a player (particularly younger ones) on the opposing team to approach Lewis during a game and ask if they can speak to him about their personal lives. They often refer to him as "The Godfather."

Lewis estimates that he has collected literally hundreds of players' phone numbers and could name at least two or three players on each team that he mentors on a regular basis.

His frequent caller list includes Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour, Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and, recently, Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Lewis also exchanges calls and texts with NBA superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native.

One player Lewis has particularly grown close to is San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis, the player pundits say will be Lewis' successor.

Willis grew up idolizing Lewis and dons his No. 52. Lewis calls Willis "Young Lion," and Willis calls Lewis "Mufasa," the sage king from Disney's "The Lion King."

"They fear him on the field, but off the field, the guy I know is a good human being," Willis said. "That's how I'd like to be perceived as well. He's a man that people look up to and people respect."

But it's not just players that Lewis most wants to help. It's people who need him far more.

'What Are You Doing Out Here?'

Win or lose, Lewis steps into his car after home games and tells his driver to take him to the worst parts of Baltimore, the "hoods of hoods." He's been doing it for years.

Lewis scans the streets not all that far from M&T Bank Stadium, looking for drug addicts, the homeless, gang members that he can talk to.

"I need one person who I get in contact with to touch that day," Lewis said. "If I pass by two or three, that's a bonus."

Lewis didn't want to share any details on the people he meets. They're situations that people don't want to hear about, he said, some of "the greatest horror you've ever seen in your life." Once, even Lewis' car was broken into.

"The question they always ask is, 'What are you doing out here?'" Lewis said. "And I ask the question back, 'What are you doing out here?'

"I grab them and tell them, 'Your life is about to change today. But you've got to make up your mind to make that decision. Make the decision to get off the dang corner.'"

While many NFL players are pushed to help those in need, Lewis seeks it out himself. He hears gut wrenching stories on the news, often in which a child is in need, and immediately finds a way to reach them.

Today Show Feature on Ray Lewis & La'Shaun Armstrong
Right Click for Full Screen Option

One such interaction was in late April, when Lewis sought out La'Shaun Armstrong, the 10-year-old survivor of the Hudson River tragedy. Armstrong lost his mother and three siblings when Lashanda Armstrong drove their van into the water. His biological father is in prison.

Lewis spearheaded a fundraiser for the boy and personally took financial responsibility for his well-being. More than that, Lewis has offered Armstrong as much of his time as he wants.

"I'm in touch with him as much as he wants to be in touch with me," Lewis said. "I want to give him structure, I want to give him peace and give him a true friend who will say, 'I'm here for you.'"

There are so many other examples that have gone untold.

There's Girvin, whom Lewis first met at a routine Make-A-Wish appearance before last year's game in Houston. The two just clicked. They shared favorite Bible verses and prayer. When Lewis found out two weeks ago that Girvin's brain tumor had taken the 17-year-old boy's life, he crumpled into his locker.

There's Darious, a local boy in need of a heart transplant. He and his mother were traversing the country looking for answers when Lewis heard their story and told them from then on he was footing the bills. Lewis got a text two weeks ago saying Darious' first procedure was a success.

"It will blow your mind what motivates me each day to keep going. It's situations like that," Lewis said with a broad smile. "Those are the relationships I keep."

'Doing Business On A Big Scale'

When Frederick Bealefeld was appointed Baltimore Police Commissioner in 2007, he soon received a call from Lewis. The linebacker wanted to sit down and talk.

Ray Lewis Trains with Baltimore City Police Officers
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"I was a little leery of him coming in, I will admit, for all the reasons people think of and more," Bealefeld said.

"But the first thing you learn about Ray Lewis is, if he's talking to you about hula hoops or recovery for drug addicts, he is absolutely sincere and 100 percent dedicated."

Lewis and his foundation have long helped at-risk youth and low-income families. They serve 400 families during their annual Turkey Give Away, which is going on its eleventh year, hold an annual Christmas gift-drive and give away 200 backpacks filled with school supplies every September.

They have started a program called "Ray's Kids with Character," which encourages those between the ages of 5 and 18 to gain badges of honor in 10 areas of achievement such as academics, community service and even financial literacy.

But Lewis wants more.

Last year, Lewis and Bealefeld kicked off a fitness program in which the linebacker personally trained Baltimore's police once a week during the football season. Lewis' goal wasn't to just get cops in shape. He spoke to them about being healthy people, physically and mentally.

"Ray was coming from an aspect that if there was a professional police force and we were able to get these cops in the right frame of mind, then that will help transform neighborhoods," Bealefeld said. "We're doing business on a big scale to make big changes and make big efforts."

Lewis' new plan, which he hasn't unveiled yet, is to train all of Baltimore. He wants to host a fitness program every Tuesday on his street, Ray Lewis Way.

He wants every person that comes to his street to get clothes on their back, to be fed, to walk away with a jug of water and some hope.

"We've got to change the thought process of our city," Lewis said with a campaigning politician's fervor.

"We can't have areas that are so beautiful and then other areas so cruddy. They have no vision in those places. I'm challenging the communities to come out together. Let's clean up the streets together. Let's stop looking at one person struggling and wondering what we should be doing. Everybody get in."

Lewis saw the extra free time allotted by the lockout as an opportunity for players to get out in the community. He personally picked up the pace, doing more than ever before.

Now that the season has started, Lewis hasn't slowed down. His phone is constantly ringing, constantly filling with emails and text messages from people asking for a quick word of encouragement.

By this point, Lewis estimates his rolodex is filled with thousands of people.

"My life never stops, and I've dedicated myself to that," Lewis said. "A lot of times, I'm not going to lie to you, it's the most draining thing ever. But that's my calling, to really reach out and touch people in a totally different way."

Ray Lewis Way Dedication Ceremony
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'The Ambassador Of Baltimore'

One of Lewis' proudest moments came on May 11, 2010, a drizzly day at the corner of North Avenue and Broadway in Baltimore.

It was the day Lewis had a street named after him, "Ray Lewis Way."

The dedication ceremony brought the seemingly unbreakable linebacker to tears.

"You read about things like that when people are dead," Lewis said. "For someone to honor your heart while you're alive by saying, 'This will be an inspiration to people for the rest of your physical life,' that's hard for me to grasp."

Those who have met Lewis, those in Baltimore, see him in a true light.

"In life, you've got to judge people by what they're doing," Bealefeld said.

"When kids run to him, they run to see Ray Lewis the role model, Ray Lewis the achiever, Ray Lewis the winner. That's how I've come to view Ray Lewis. This is a man dedicated to trying to do positive things. He is the ambassador of Baltimore."

Please Note

The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed on BaltimoreRavens.com represent those of individual authors, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of the Baltimore Ravens' organization, front office staff, coaches and executives. Authors' views are formulated independently from any inside knowledge and/or conversations with Ravens officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.

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