- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

WESTMINSTER, Md. Think you've seen the best spin doctors in Washington? You haven't seen anything until you've trekked up to the Baltimore Ravens training camp and talked to players and fans alike about their embattled middle linebacker, Ray Lewis.

The spin? A murder trial may have been just what Lewis and the Ravens needed.

"I think Ray is concentrating more this camp, helping out other guys more than he did last year," fellow linebacker Jamie Sharper said.

"I don't think it had a negative effect on the team," said Frank Trzcinja of Baltimore, as he wore a Ray Lewis jersey and watched the team practice one hot morning at Western Maryland College. "If anything, I think it brought the team closer together."

Lewis himself has adopted the attitude that whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger.

"Trials and tribulations are what makes a man," he said.

This is the game of football where everything can be used as a motivational tool even something as tragic as the murder trial of the team's biggest star for his involvement in the death of two men stabbed outside a post-Super Bowl party in January in Atlanta.

It is a different world on the football field. Ravens coach Brian Billick went as far as calling it a "sanctuary" for Lewis.

"No one knows what Ray is thinking in his private moments," Billick said. "But I think this has been a sanctuary for Ray."

Lewis views the field as a womb, or maybe a church and he said he feels reborn every time he steps on it.

"I'm just happy to wake up alive every morning," he said. "I love what I do. I am blessed to be able to play this game, after what I've been through."

Before Lewis took to the field for the Ravens training camp last month, all of the focus was on Lewis the defendant in a murder trial. Shortly after his trial began in Atlanta, Lewis plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for his lying to police and telling fellow defendants to stay silent. In exchange, Lewis was asked to testify against his two friends and fellow defendants. Poor witnesses caused the case to fall apart for prosecutors and in June a jury found Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley not guilty of murder and assault charges.

In the end, Lewis was the only person convicted of anything in a court of law. On the football field, Lewis has been acquitted by the chief justice of the NFL himself, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Last month Tagliabue said Lewis would not be suspended for his role in the case.

"It's the courts who have the primary responsibility in this case," Tagliabue said. "We're not a substitute for the courts.

"The offense was a misdemeanor… . He had no problems before that and hadn't violated league policies," Tagliabue said of Lewis' plea. "I felt he had suffered a lot and paid a high price, both in terms of reputation and the trauma that was caused."

The commissioner wasn't exactly right. Lewis has had other problems. Before the trial, it came out that a former girlfriend of Lewis had accused him of abuse. And it also came out that Lewis had been part of an X-rated video as well.

And it's also not clear how much his reputation did suffer. When he was charged, he became a national symbol of the runaway criminal element in the NFL, lumped with murder suspect Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panthers wide receiver accused of having his pregnant girlfriend killed.

But at training camp, Lewis' number 52 is still the most popular jersey worn by fans. And when Lewis leaves the practice field, fans line up and chant, "Ray, Ray," and wait for a chance to get an autograph from the All-Pro middle linebacker.

It could have happened to anyone.

"It doesn't bother me what happened to him," said R.J. Hooker of Baltimore. "Everyone gets in a jam once in a while. I think it will make him play better. He'll be trying to prove himself."

All is forgiven.

"Baltimore is a good sports town," Trzcinja said. "We stand behind our players."

Lewis is not just a player, though. He is the heart of the Ravens defense, which is among the best in the league. There are high hopes for the Ravens this year mostly because of that defense and that means fans expect Lewis to be the intense, driven tackler he has been since his rookie season of 1996.

Lewis, 25, was the team's second pick in the first round (26th overall) in 1996, the first year the former Cleveland Browns franchise played in Baltimore. Lewis, coming from the University of Miami, immediately made an impact. He led the team in tackles (142) as a rookie and was named AFC Player of the Week after his first pro game, the team's opening day victory over the Oakland Raiders at Memorial Stadium.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Lewis has led the Ravens in tackles in each of his four years. He has been voted to three straight Pro Bowl squads he couldn't play January's Pro Bowl game because he was arrested in Atlanta days before. He is probably the best middle linebacker in the game.

The Ravens have struggled during Lewis' tenure in Baltimore. They went 4-12, 6-8 twice and 8-8 last year, but finished strong with a 6-3 record over their final nine games, including a 41-14 win over the team that would win the AFC title, the Tennessee Titans.

Because of that finish, there is plenty of optimism in the Ravens camp as they head into their second season with Billick as coach.

"Everyone feels good about this team here," Sharper said. "It's been a good camp. Everyone is focused on winning."

That, in part, is because of Lewis the fact that he is in camp and the fact that he came ready to play. Lewis' teammates watched him closely to see if he was still the intense field leader they had come to expect and if he also could handle the media attention.

So far, Lewis has been up to the task on both counts.

"Ray has been outstanding," Billick said. "He has a great passion for the game, and that is still there."

Sharper, his fellow linebacker, said, if anything, Lewis was more prepared than ever before, and that has helped the team relax.

"He came to camp in great shape, and has handled it well," Sharper said. "It hasn't been a distraction at all."

It might have been more of a distraction if Lewis was not in camp. There would be all sorts of questions about how the team would respond if he was not there.

"We have an attitude of winning here," Lewis said. "We have one goal, and that is Tampa [the site of this year's Super Bowl]."

There are still questions, of course, but they are about his life off the field important questions. Lewis may have escaped punishment that would keep him from his sanctuary, but he has little room left for error.

Tight end Shannon Sharpe, who signed with the Ravens as a free agent earlier this year, believes Lewis has learned his lesson.

"He realizes he made a mistake, and he's going to learn from it," he said.

Lewis, during a news conference after the trial, talked about the lesson he learned and he explained why he lied to police.

"You're in situations that you've never been in your life, so you just react," he said. "And when you react, your reactions are not all the time right. I think what I did was wrong."

And Lewis tried to teach others about that lesson in June, when, at the request of Tagliabue, he spoke at an orientation session for NFL rookies. Lewis urged them to be careful about the friends they choose and to be aware that they lead public lives.

The public at least the public that buys Ravens tickets and wears Ravens jerseys doesn't seem to care about Lewis' life away from the field, as long as it doesn't interfere with his life on the field Lewis' sanctuary.

"I think he was falsely accused," Trzcinja said.

Lewis said he is not concerned about what people think of him at least not the non-believers.

"I'm not here to erase thoughts in people's minds about me," he said. "I'm not here to please people. Fan reaction has never crossed my mind. My fans have been very loyal to me. I just had to come in here and do what I do. That's all I need to do."

In the sanctuary, that's all that is required of Ray Lewis. He has always done that well.

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