- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

OWINGS MILLS, Md. When the NFL announces its Pro Bowl rosters later today, Ray Lewis will be listed at middle linebacker for the AFC, just as he was last year.

Only this time Lewis, whom his Baltimore Ravens teammates are touting as the NFL MVP, plans to make it to Hawaii.

Last season Lewis missed the NFL's annual season-ending showcase because he was in the Fulton County (Ga.) jail. He was incarcerated in February on murder charges stemming from a post-Super Bowl fight in Atlanta that left two men dead.

Shortly after his trial began in Atlanta, Lewis plead guilty in June to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for lying to police and telling fellow defendants to stay silent. In exchange, Lewis was asked to testify against his two friends and fellow defendants, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, who were found not guilty of murder and assault charges.

Lewis remains under a one-year probation as part of that agreement, and the NFL fined him $250,000 for "detrimental conduct."

Lewis didn't let the Atlanta incident distract him from what he does best playing football.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder isn't worried about the public's perception of him. The fifth-year pro has his life back.

"I was living my life anyway," Lewis said. "Nobody dictates my life no matter what I go through. That's my business. I don't worry about what the public feels. If I worried about that, I would be dead somewhere. It was real easy to put that behind me."

He's no longer the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy he was before the Atlanta incident. He appears more mature now, forgoing the clowning around he did during his first four seasons. He has taken on more of a leadership role, mentoring younger teammates like rookie running back Jamal Lewis.

"He's pretty much thrown [the incident] out the window," Ravens second-year cornerback Chris McAlis

ter said. "That's old news. That's history. Even during the trial, Ray's focus was always on football. Everybody around here has left it alone, and nobody brings it up."

The Ravens middle linebacker has 160 tackles and is in the running for the NFL defensive player of the year award.

"They don't like giving [MVP] to defensive players," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "They think the guy that scores all the points is the guy that has been the most valuable through the season in the NFL. I don't think that's true. If we can break a couple of these records this year as a defense, with him being the leader on the defense, hopefully that would put him in serious consideration for the league MVP."

There's little argument that Lewis is the best player on the league's best defense, a unit poised to break the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season. Baltimore has allowed just 138 points with two games remaining, 49 less than the record set by the 1986 Chicago Bears.

"I've been doing the same thing for the last three or four years," Lewis said. "I think this season is no different. In our scheme, the middle linebacker has to be our best player, so the defense is on my back and I step up to the challenge."

Lewis prowls from sideline to sideline ready to explode into opponents. He has the speed and agility of a defensive back but tosses aside fullbacks and offensive linemen with impunity.

"I don't think people know what he does unless you play with him," Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "He's put in a lot of situations where he has to make the tackle or the guy is going to run and slam his head on the goal post. Ray's just a leader out there. Our defense is designed to put Ray in tough positions to make big plays. Ray doesn't have a facet of his game that he can't compete in. He can go and cover, he can drop, he can rush the passer and he can plug the line of scrimmage up."

Lewis was the second draft pick in Ravens history when the team chose him out of Miami with the 26th pick of the 1996 NFL Draft. Lewis led the Ravens in tackles in each of his five seasons and led the league in tackles in 1997 with 210 and again last season with 198. He has 862 tackles in 74 games an 11.6 average.

At 25, Lewis is still in his prime. Jack Del Rio, the Ravens' linebackers coach, says Lewis someday may join Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary among the greatest middle linebackers to play then game.

"Ever since I've been here, he's been hungry every day to be the best that he can be," Del Rio said. "The fruits of his success are being displayed on the field. He wants to be known as the best. He's got a long time ahead of him before we can make those kind of comparisons. He's still a young guy and has to sustain his excellence over a long time in order to be considered in that group."

And unlike last year, Lewis will get a chance to display those skills in Hawaii.

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