Ray Lewis will undoubtedly be held in the pantheon of NFL linebackers long after his retirement.
But as the memories of his play fade and his records are broken, will he be remembered as a player who dominated the game of football or as a man once shrouded in murder accusations in Atlanta?
Simply put, the answer is both — and he’s to blame.
Having notched 1,558 tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions over the course of an illustrious 17-year career, Lewis reinvigorated the way middle linebacker was played; a true stalwart on a Ravens defense that was repeatedly built around him. Through his vibrant play on the field and his exuberant personality away from the gridiron, he continuously captivated NFL audiences.
But outside the city limits of Baltimore remains a legacy mired in questions about a murder that occurred over thirteen years ago.
Lewis was drawn into a messy murder trial over a fight that broke out following Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta in January 2000, which resulted in the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
While charges against Lewis were dropped in exchange for testimony, the details surrounding the case still loom like dark clouds over the linebacker.
“Thirteen years, you may be able to take a break from it,” Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports recounted Lewis telling him in an interview. “But I think about it every day.”
Wetzel told 106.7 The Fan’s Holden and Danny, that comment is actually more than Lewis has ever revealed publicly about the night of the murder.
“He’ll discuss forever his relationship with God, or his kids or his family,” Wetzel said. “He simply won’t discuss this.”
Therein lies the source of the double legacy. He simply won’t discuss it, leaving no room for closure as far as the public’s concerned.
“I think a lot of us compartmentalized Ray Lewis,” Wetzel said. “We enjoy him as a football player and this remains a sore subject.”
Wetzel credits Lewis’ openness toward every part of his life to the media, except the details of that fateful night, as the reason fans are left wondering if there’s something deeper, darker to be revealed.
“They don’t normally let the high-profile guy just walk,” Wetzel said.
Once the murder charge was dropped, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony and was given 12 months of probation.
“I would accept it more if it was just a guy who didn’t try to draw a lot of attention to himself,” Wetzel said.
The murky details left plenty of room for media speculation. And while thirteen years have passed, the Super Bowl magnifying glass is again drawing the unanswered questions into the spotlight.
“Thirteen years ago there’s two men who wind up dead in the street in Atlanta. Obviously his party is involved somehow,” Wetzel said. “Nobody gets prosecuted. But at one point he’s charged with murder.”
He suggests it’s not even an admission of guilt the public is looking for, but rather just an acknowledgement it happened.
“You could just sit there and say, ‘My heart bleeds for these two families because I know as a parent, how horrible it would be to lose a child,’” Wetzel said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
While admitting he would like to see some level of remorse, he concedes Lewis has actually managed to rebuild his image by remaining silent on the deaths.
“Twelve year ago he’s in the Super Bowl and you say ‘Wow, he’s a great football player but nobody wants to be around this guy,’” Wetzel said. “Over the years, by doing what he’s doing, he ends up doing all sorts of endorsement deals. He’ll be a TV analyst after the season.”
There it is. By never acknowledging the murder controversy, he’s built a legacy as a God-fearing man, adored by the city of Baltimore and respected by football fans everywhere. But they’ll always wonder.