- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. The court of public opinion issued a guilty verdict against Ray Lewis, and the four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker doesn't want to accept the sentence.
Lewis, last season's NFL defensive player of the year and Super Bowl MVP, wants to be respected as a great football player and as a man and not thought of as a star football player wrongly accused of murder.
Lewis is bitter. Despite being the best in the league at his position, the 26-year-old believes he doesn't get the recognition meaning endorsements he deserves.
"The thing that [didn't happen] was that the people who made [endorsement] decisions, whoever they are, understood me as a man before looking at an incident. Then it would have been totally different," Lewis said.
Twenty-one months have passed since Lewis was charged with the murders of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. He subsequently plead guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to testify against his two co-defendants, both of whom were acquitted.
Time has not healed his reputation. Lewis' likeness does not appear anywhere. He's not asked to pitch products. The corporate world does not want to be associated with the Ravens' hitting machine.
Take, for instance, the "I'm going to Disney World" commercial with the Super Bowl MVP that appears minutes after the game ends. Quarterback Trent Dilfer who's no longer with the team represented the Super Bowl champs instead of Lewis after the Ravens pummeled the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV. Disney World is about an hour drive from Lewis' Lakeland, Fla., hometown, but Disney officials didn't want to be associated with him. Lewis also was passed over for the Ravens' Wheaties box.
"You can't be mad at something like that. You can just hope that the person who made that decision doesn't make the wrong decision again like that over somebody he doesn't know," said Lewis, who signed a four-year, $26 million contract extension last year.
Lewis can't control what people think of him off the field, but on the field is a different story.
Entering his sixth season, Lewis is in perhaps the best shape of his career. Lewis reported to Ravens training camp at 245 pounds 15 pounds lighter than last season.
Even at 260, Lewis was a sideline-to-sideline heat-seeking missile ready to explode on opposing ballcarriers. Lewis credits his weight loss to "just training" and didn't intentionally lose weight.
"I don't care what weight he's at as long as he's on two feet behind [defensive tackles Tony Siragusa] and Sam [Adams]," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
The emotional and physical leader of the Ravens' record-setting defense, Lewis wants to go down as the greatest middle linebacker of all time. He admires the great ones Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Ray Nitschke that came before him but feels he can surpass them.
Going into this season, Lewis has averaged 11.7 tackles a game over his career. He needs 109 stops for 1,000 tackles in his career. At this pace, he's on the path to the Hall of Fame as the best middle linebacker of his era and perhaps of all time.
"You see [other athletes in magazines] that really can't play, and it doesn't necessarily transpire with what happened to Ray a couple of years ago off the field," said Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, one of Lewis' closest friends on the team. "It has to do with what they like, and they don't particularly care a whole lot about this football team for whatever reason that might be.
"He realized that he didn't want to have the [trial] over his head because the only reason he was focused last year was because he had to be. Now what's his excuse? He just wants to be the best player he can possibly be. You don't find many guys that have been able to accomplish what he's been able to accomplish at such an early age."
The Ravens made Lewis the franchise's second-ever draft choice when they selected him with the 26th overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft out of Miami. Lewis has led the Ravens in tackles in each of his five years and led the NFL in tackles twice (1997 and 1999).
Everybody notices Lewis' sideline-to-sideline ability, but few recognize Lewis' other skills. He quickly breaks down formations. The 6-foot-1 Lewis can stand up men twice his size and explodes through would-be blockers. Coming off a spectacular season, Lewis said the Ravens' success this season is not about what he does on the field.
"It's not really about me to prove anything," Lewis said. "It's about our team trying to go back and win another championship. That's what we have to prove, not to anybody else but ourselves."

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