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The Life

December 20, 2000
ESPN The Magazine

Ray Lewis and I first talked about doing this story before the season. We've known each other for seven years, since he was a young linebacker at the University of Miami and I was a young columnist at The Miami Herald. I've been with him at some of his best and worst times—spending the day with him when he was drafted by Baltimore, watching him cry after his college roommate, Marlin Barnes, was bludgeoned to death in their apartment during Ray's junior year. A group of my friends was supposed to meet a group of his friends that Super Bowl night in Atlanta when two men were murdered outside the Cobalt Lounge, but bad weather changed our plans. I believe what happened to Ray that night and the following months could have happened to just about anybody in the NFL, and he does too. I believe his account of the events of that evening, and he trusts me enough to tell his story for the first time—a story about race, celebrity, circumstance and all manner of judgment, from his to his accusers' to the nation's. I've talked to him intermittently throughout this season and spent seven hours interviewing him Dec. 18 in Baltimore, at the Ravens' practice facility, over lunch, in his car and at his home. He was raw, honest and angry. The thoughts and opinions that follow all belong to him. All I've done is organize them. Most of the words are his, though there are a handful of places where I've paraphrased to convey his feelings more clearly. This is his story, not mine.-D.L.


I wept.

I wept into the phone while making collect calls to my family from jail.

I wept when my 5-year-old son asked me why Daddy was always on TV wearing chains.

I wept myself to sleep some nights on that nasty bed in that nasty cell. Those 15 days in jail after the Super Bowl were the worst, longest days of my life. I was bored, lonely, suffering, sad, frustrated, bitter, helpless ... and angry as all hell. It has been almost a year, and I'm still angry. At the politicians, because they played with my life, using my name just to make themselves more famous. And at the NFL, for hitting me with one of the biggest fines in sports history for a misdemeanor while the league's drug users, drunken drivers and wife beaters never get hit half as hard. I'd like to know when I get to stop paying for a crime I didn't commit.

In January, before the double-murder trial, I was locked in solitary confinement because celebrities ain't allowed in general population. I'd do 1,500 push-ups and 500 sit-ups before bed, trying to exhaust myself so I could sleep heavy without thinking why-why-why too much. I was on suicide watch some nights, so a guard would come by and wake me up at 2 a.m. to make sure I was still alive. I told him, "Man, I'm not going to kill myself. I've got too much to live for." I tried to think about football as much as I could. My body was caged, but my mind was somewhere else.

I would have gone crazy if it wasn't. They put me in the psychiatric area, so all I'd hear was insane people screaming, banging on walls, talking to themselves. I still hear all that crazy noise 11 months later. It wakes me up at night sometimes, and I sit on the edge of my bed and can't get back to sleep. I don't even want to think about what I saw in there. I seen some things nobody needs to see. There are certain chapters of this story that are going to have to stay closed.

I got one hour out of that cell for lunch, one hour out for dinner, 20 minutes for guests daily, and some extra time to talk to my lawyers. The rest of the time I was locked up for something I didn't do. It gave me an appreciation for freedom I never had before. It's a beautiful thing to be able to walk outside and feel the sun. It's a beautiful thing to lock your own door. I spent most of my time in jail reading a lot of fan mail, but I couldn't answer any of it because they wouldn't give me no pen.

I got arrested just before my flight to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, so instead of playing in that game, I watched part of it in jail. I saw Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders talking about how I wasn't the type of person who could ever stab anybody. That made me feel good and bad—good that they would defend me, bad that they had to be doing it in the first place. Me? Killing somebody? Man, please. I ain't even been in a fight since high school, but it seemed like every other time the TV came on in jail, it showed me in that damn orange jumpsuit and chains. That replaced my football uniform. That's the only way some people on the outside know me.

I'd worked all my life to be a famous football player. Now I was, for all the wrong reasons. I led the league in tackles two of my four years and became the best linebacker in the game, but America didn't really know me because the Ravens hadn't been on Monday Night Football even once. But now, because I had chosen some friends poorly, I was on everybody's television—in chains. I was getting dumped into the same car trunk where those FBI agents found Rae Carruth. I was O.J. Simpson all of a sudden.

Y'all must be trippin'. I'm O.J. because I went clubbing with friends at the Super Bowl and there was a fight outside the nightclub? Just because I was there, I was the one holding the knife? I'm a murderer? Ninety-nine percent of the players in the league could have found themselves in the exact same situation, but now I was the one representing out-of-control athletes? I wasn't a middle linebacker anymore. I was a symbol.

You know the NFL wouldn't have fined me 250 grand and threatened me with another 250 grand for probation violation if this hadn't happened in the same off-season as Carruth's pregnant girlfriend getting murdered, Fred Lane getting shot to death and Mark Chmura being accused of raping a babysitter. But I became an issue instead of a human, just like John Rocker, Latrell Sprewell, Rodney King and Mark Fuhrman, and that was more humbling than even those chains.

My 5-year-old son, Ray-Ray, asked me about the handcuffs after I left jail. The family tried to keep him away from the TV, but he saw me in them, and he's no dummy. It broke my heart one time when I called home collect and could hear in the background, "Where's Daddy?" I've got four kids, and I didn't talk to any of them for the 15 days I was in jail because I had always promised myself I wouldn't lie to my kids about anything.

My father was always lying to me, telling me he was going to see me on this day or bring me something on that day, and he never did. So I promised myself I would never do that. But then Ray-Ray asked me why I was in chains, and how the hell do you explain what I went through to a 5-year-old when you can't explain it to adults? I just told him, "They were just playing with Daddy on TV." I could see in his face he knew I wasn't telling the truth. I got up, went to another room and cried.

My tears were always out of pure pain and frustration, to let the stress out, but never because I was scared. I wasn't afraid, not even knowing what juries can do to innocent black men, because I knew I hadn't killed anyone, and I have a deep faith in God. You are only scared in that situation when you feel like people are going to find out something you don't want known, and I didn't have anything to hide. I wasn't fleeing a crime. I was fleeing bullets. There was a fight I couldn't break up—I didn't even know how it started—so I got out of there. I didn't know that anyone was dead. I didn't even know that any one was hurt.

Yeah, I should have cooperated with the police from the beginning. I was wrong about that. But I trusted the people with me that night a lot more than I trusted the cops who interrogated me, especially with the way they were threatening me. I'm guilty of messing up the justice system. I'm guilty of being very sarcastic in the first interview with the police, and that's why I agreed to the obstruction-of-justice charge. If I had known I was going to get fined $250,000, I wouldn't have pleaded down because I didn't do anything. All I'm guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, but I feel like what I'm most guilty of is being successful.

If I'm just an average Joe, that's just two more brothers dead on the street. If the mayor of Atlanta is so interested in crime, why isn't he calling every house every time a child is killed in his city? Why just these families? Is it because they're the ones with the TV cameras in their house? Then the police take my computer and say I was planning a conspiracy? Are you crazy? A fight outside a club is a conspiracy? Man, they're not looking for killers. They're looking to make themselves famous. How did this trial become about me instead of the two people who died?

I don't blame the families of the victims for being angry at me. How can they not be, when the prosecutor is saying I'm the ringleader, making me the center of attention? Saying he could prove I had a knife? I've never had a knife in my life. And, with the Lord as my witness, I was trying to stop all those clowns from fighting. I pour my heart out to those families. I really do.

That's why I don't understand some of the heckling I've gotten this season. It hasn't been that bad, but the most messed-up thing I've heard was in Jacksonville. A kid yelled, "Hey, Mr. Lewis, you ain't going to stab anybody, are you?" And his father starts laughing. I told the father, "I hope you don't have no Jeffrey Dahmer on your hands." He says, "You don't know my child," and I say, "You don't know me either."

That's so heartless. Dummy, you ain't disrespecting me. You are disrespecting those families. Two people are dead and buried. That's so hateful, feeding off misery. I'm bitter about certain things, but I won't hate anybody for what happened to me, because you don't get into heaven hating. Jesus was spit on and lashed at and He hung his head and never said a mumbling word, so what do I have to say about people who still think that I murdered two people?

I prayed about what was happening to me the first night in jail, but I let it go after that. I didn't keep praying, asking God every five minutes if He had taken care of it. I put all my problems in my hand, threw them in the air, and let Him handle the rest. We can moan, cry and get upset because we're human, but He has control. He says that "to whom much is given, much is required" and "when you go through tragedy, I'll make it your biggest treasure." And I feel like the season I'm having is my treasure.

With the national spotlight on me, I feel like I'm the best defensive player in the league, at the middle of the best defense ever. Tom Jackson, Howie Long, Brent Jones—guys I grew up watching—say I should be the league MVP, and I think I'm the best player in the game too. I'd be leading the league in tackles again this year but we're only on the field for three plays at a time, and Sam Adams and the boys are tearing up the backfield before I ever get there. That's cool. I'll share. As long as we're on our way to greatness.

This is like no fairy tale ever told, me going through a murder trial and then being up for MVP, but people are finally seeing what I do best. People ask me how I made a certain play when we watch on film, and I really don't know. I just go. It's all instinct and passion. I don't even know what happens to me on game day. My body and mind transform. I'm in a different mode. Coaches have to remind me to breathe. From the time I strap on that helmet and leave the locker room, it's on.

I'm like a pit bull with a steak. If you are wearing a steak around your neck and you jump over a gate, that pit bull is going to go over a gate chasing you. If you jump in the water, he's going to swim after your ass, too. I'm bloodthirsty, but only about football. If somebody wants to sue me for hitting their child on the field, I understand. If a cat wants me arrested because he can't sleep at night, fearing me on Sunday, that's cool too, because I'm coming after your ass, and I can't be beaten. I think I'm invincible out there.

I've never felt that way off the field, though. I'm too God-fearing for that. It's not like I was out looking for trouble in Atlanta, thinking I was bulletproof. Yeah, I was wearing a mink and I was drinking, but it's not like I hang out like that in limos all the time. That's the world's biggest party, and it's supposed to be a celebration after a year of hard work for us. What am I supposed to do, be in bed at 10 p.m.? I do enough of that during the season.

It's not like I'm traveling with entourages around Baltimore. I'm mostly out bowling or at movies. Wednesday night is Bible study. Friday night is family night at the house. When I do go out, it's with my barber, my great uncle, Woodson, and maybe another credible set of eyes in case something breaks out. That's not an entourage. That's family. It may look like an entourage to some folks, because an athlete with a bunch of black people is always going to look like an entourage to some folks, but it ain't. I'm 25 years old. I'm not going to lock up in the house and stay there for the rest of my life. I've already been in jail, and I didn't like it.

I'm more careful than I used to be, though. When I walked down those courtroom steps free, I told my mama, "You have a changed man." I don't trust anybody now. My heart has always been too big, letting people into my life who shouldn't be in there, people with bad intentions who took advantage of my heart. I had seen signs from bad people in my circle, but always blinked them out. It took my life flashing in front of me in jail to respond, but I have. That's why I went to speak to a seminar of NFL rookies before the season. I believe that's my calling, and it'll be successful if I keep one kid out of a mess.

The rookies asked a lot of questions, deeper and deeper. They wanted insight. They asked me if I was mad. Hell, yeah, I was pissed, but I told them, "Everybody who is around you does not have good intentions. Your enemies, you know to watch them, but you don't know to watch your friends. Don't let a circumstance change you. If you know you have to make a change, change yourself."

People on the outside said I should have picked better friends, but that's like telling the Chargers to pick better players. What was I supposed to do? Background checks on my friends? Psychological profiles? I can't predict intentions. If one of your friends robs a bank today, did you know it was going to happen? The guys I was with that night weren't guys I grew up with. I didn't know they had records. I learned about that when everyone else did. If I was to eliminate everyone in my life who had done something bad in their past, then I'd have to eliminate myself, too, to be honest with you, because, like most people, I've done plenty of wrong.

Did I hang around with thugs? I guess. But what does that label mean? I come from thugs. I grew up in drug-infested neighborhoods around robberies and people getting killed. Those people were in my life long before the people paying me now. Thugs helped me get where I am, helped raise me, and I love some of them. I'm supposed to just erase everybody when I become a millionaire because the people paying me say so? Thugs were with me before I was famous, and I can't say the same thing about the people running the NFL. If you don't want me hanging out with thugs, then I can't be on the football field on Sundays, either, because there are thugs in every huddle.

Nobody is going to tell me who to hang with, not my boss, not anybody. I'm going to be my own man, make my own decisions, and some of them are going to be wrong. But I've learned a lesson. This mess has cost me my good name, cost me months of my life in jail and on trial, cost me faith in the judicial system and in the media and in "innocent until proven guilty." It has cost me more than $2 million. And it has cost me two groups of fans—the group that hated me for being in that courtroom to begin with, and the keepin'-it-real folks who thought I shouldn't have testified against my friends. It was an expensive lesson all around.

But the guys in the league know how easily it could have been them in my shoes. Do you realize how simple it is to get trapped in this situation? A fight breaks out involving your friends. Maybe they started it. Maybe they didn't. But now your friends are getting hit, and a champagne bottle is breaking over one of their heads. And you have one second to decide what to do. People say the smartest thing to do is walk away. It is the safest thing to do, yeah. But it isn't the most loyal or most courageous thing to do. It may not even be the right thing to do, if you care at all about your friends, if you care about anybody other than yourself. I tried to break the fight up. And look at what it got me.

People in football understand. That's why Mean Joe Greene came up to me after a game and said, "You are a strong brother. It took a man to come through that." Emmitt Smith said, "I love you to death" on the field—after I hit him! Levon Kirkland, who plays my position, sent me a book and told me I was his favorite player in the world. Fred Taylor told me everyone in the NFL went through that trial with me, and Eddie George was damn near in tears telling me how much seeing me suffer hurt him.

I was strong before, but I'm stronger now. I've never been in better shape, never felt fresher. I went to Hawaii after the trial and, even on vacation, I ran three times a day on the sand because I didn't want to have 30 tackles for the season after going through all this, and then have to listen to people say it affected my play. I promised myself that I would never go to the Super Bowl game itself until I played in it, and this year I plan on playing in it, not nightclubbing around it. During the trial, I heard a reporter on TV say that I would never be the same player again, and I've got to admit he was right.

I'm not the same player. I'm better.

This article appears in the January 8, 2001, issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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