Tuesday, June 13, 2000

OWINGS MILLS, Md. One week after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, Ray Lewis returned to obstructing tight ends over the middle.

In his first workout since standing trial on murder charges, the Baltimore Ravens’ star middle linebacker opened minicamp with a welcome present to new teammate Shannon Sharpe.

Sharpe, the former Denver Broncos tight end, ran a 2-yard slant. Lewis clotheslined Sharpe into the turf. The passing drill was supposed to be non-contact, and neither Lewis or Sharpe were wearing pads.

Welcome back, Ray.

“It’s always fun to step on the football field,” Lewis said. “It’s what I do best. Today was a moment that I knew was coming.”

Sharpe, who the Ravens signed as a free agent in February, was with Lewis throughout his weeks-long Atlanta trial. The outspoken Sharpe lives in Atlanta during the offseason, and he witnessed the trial and offered words of encouragement every day to Lewis.

“The thing was he had to keep working out,” Sharpe said. “There were some days he had to be in court, and he was beat. He had to be up at 7 a.m., get out to the courthouse by 8, get briefed by his attorneys and then he is in there all day until 5 [p.m.]. Some days he didn’t want to lift. I said, ‘Hey, this thing is going to run its course, and you are going to have to be able to go on the field and be able to play.’ ”

There is no doubt about how Lewis plays. The 25-year-old Lewis led the NFL with 198 tackles (131 solo) last season and led the league with 210 tackles in 1997. Lewis confirmed he worked out every day with Sharpe during his trial.

Still, Lewis’ teammates know this situation is far from over. Lewis received 12 months of probation as part of the plea bargain, and he remains in the spotlight. Even with the charges dropped, it will be awhile before the public forgets Lewis originally was charged with murdering two people in Atlanta after January’s Super Bowl.

“It’s not going to be that way,” Ravens quarterback Tony Banks said when asked if the Lewis case was over. “Every time something happens, Ray is going to be compared to the new situation whatever else new pops up that’s doing something he shouldn’t be doing.”

The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Lewis spent two weeks in the Fulton County (Ga.) jail awaiting trial. During his incarceration, he said one of his daily routines was reading fan mail. Lewis learned how close he was to losing everything.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ co-defendants, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were acquitted yesterday of murder charges by a Fulton County (Ga.) grand jury.

“He understands the situation he was in and is very fortunate and relieved to be out of it,” Ravens All-Pro safety Rod Woodson said. “Any time you are put in different uniforms and kinda put on display, a lot goes through your mind. He could still be there. I know he understands that.”

Until yesterday, Lewis has missed one minicamp and two passing camps because of his legal troubles. The Ravens have inserted a few new wrinkles into their defense the second-best unit in the NFL last season and Lewis has some catching up to do.

After yesterday’s practice, Ravens coach Brian Billick said he was impressed by Lewis’ physical condition and said, “Ray looks in good shape.”

For Lewis’ teammates, there was a widespread relief that their on-field leader is back.

“Our team is complete right now,” Ravens Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden said. “He’s an integral part of the team, and we’re glad everything is over with right now. I knew justice would be served.”

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