Ray Lewis' transformation cements his legacy

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Ray Lewis has transformed into one of the NFL's most respected role models. (Evan Habeeb/US PRESSWIRE)

Do you remember when Ray Lewis was the NFL's public enemy No. 1? Back before Lewis started his own charitable foundation. Before he starred in commercials for the "Madden" video game series and for Old Spice.

Before stories like this were even fathomable:

When Lewis is asked to specifically address his legacy, he pauses and shows me his cell phone. On it is a fresh text from a young kid named Darious who lives in Baltimore and needs a heart transplant. Part of the text to Lewis read: "You've done so much for me." ...

Lewis has befriended Darious as Lewis has many young inner-city children around the country.

"If I had a legacy," Lewis says, "maybe that would be it."

Of course, no one's really forgotten Lewis' past. Just after Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, he was arrested and indicted on murder charges. Later, he accepted a deal that forced him to instead plead guilty to obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 12 months probation, then fined $250,000 by the NFL.

"When an NFL player engages in and admits to misconduct of the type to which Mr. Lewis has plead here, the biggest losers are thousands of other NFL players, present, past and future," then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said when levying that fine. "Such admitted misconduct clearly contributes to the negative stereotyping of NFL players."

Eleven years later, Lewis is one of the league's more respected and promoted players. And amazingly, he's made that transformation without ever softening his personality.

Lewis said Tuesday that if the Ravens win the Super Bowl, he'd retire to spend time with his son. Back in 2000, had his legal situation worsened, Lewis would have gone down in the books as a very talented player who never gave himself a chance to live up to his potential. Now? He'll leave -- whenever that may be -- as one of the greatest defenders of all time.

Forget Michael Vick. Lewis is arguably the NFL's greatest redemption story.

You can hate him for his brash, cocky persona on the field. You can still hold against him that fateful January night in 2000 when two Atlanta party-goers died. But you can't deny that he's made the most of his second chance in the league.

The city of Baltimore even renamed a street "Ray Lewis Way," in honor of the linebacker's work with the RayLewis52 foundation and other endeavors.

Lewis said last year in an interview with Yahoo!'s Graham Bensinger that the 2000 murder charge wound up being a blessing in disguise.

"Maybe what I went through actually saved my life, because of how comfortable I was with just thinking I was a normal Joe, when the reality was that I'm not," Lewis told Bensinger. "When you do find yourself going through something like what I went through, do you question yourself? Absolutely."