“I turn into a different person on the field,” Lewis said. “I am a totally different person off the field. But on the field, I’m driven to do whatever it takes for my teammates. There are so many of my teammates here today who I’ve honored and told them that I would do anything in my power so we can feel that confetti drop together, because that is the ultimate. For me being a leader of this team, I owe that to them.”
No one can questions Lewis‘ contributions to the game as a player — a two-time defensive player of the year, a seven-time All-Pro, a 13-time Pro Bowler, a linebacker who defined the very essence of his position with his barely controlled fury.
Yet he spent a great deal of time in the days leading up his final game talking about the role of faith in his life. He described himself as non-denominational — again, someone who can’t be defined in cut-and-dried terms — but made it clear he relies heavily on a power beyond this world.
“God has always been a part of my life,” he said. “Faith is accepting things unseen. It’s hard to believe in sometimes, to listen to what man says. We can be tricky with words. We all can. We hear, ‘You’re too small. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ You don’t have too many more people to believe in than your faith. So my relationship with God is the ultimate. I don’t claim a religion. I claim there is a higher power. There is a higher power I go to. And I’m emotional when I go to him. It’s the ultimate conversation. There are no bad conversations with him.”
Talk like that can make some people skeptical. Those who lost loved ones in Atlanta 13 years ago likely would question his sincerity. Just hours after the end of a Super Bowl where Lewis was merely a spectator, he and several companions were involved in an altercation with another group outside a nightclub. Two men were stabbed to death. Lewis was accused, at the very least, of covering up the role of others and ditching a white suit he was wearing (it has never been found). He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against two others. They were acquitted, while Lewis received probation and a $250,000 fine from the NFL.
The following year, when the Ravens won their first Super Bowl and Lewis was designated MVP, Disney broke from its tradition and asked quarterback Trent Dilfer to proclaim, “I’m going to Disney World.”
But, in fairness to Lewis, he has largely stayed free from controversy since that gruesome night — deer-antler spray notwithstanding — managing to transform his image from renegade to elder statesman. After he announced his retirement, shortly before the Ravens began their surprising run through the playoffs, he even got a big hug from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“He taught me how to be a pro,” Baltimore running back Ray Rice said. “It’s a simple saying, but there’s a lot that comes with being a pro. He’s also taught me how to be a man as well. At the end of the day, when he announced his retirement, he put it into perspective by saying, ‘There’s life outside of football.’ The life outside of football is being a man, and that was really special for me because it just meant the world to know that this man took his time, not only to embrace me, but he took me under his wing and showed me how to do this thing.”
“I get to leave on my terms,” he said. “That’s the ultimate.”