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The Gospel According to Ray

Nov. 13, 2006
Nov. 13, 2006

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Nov. 13, 2006

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The Gospel According to Ray

Ray Lewis has a story to tell, of persecution and redemption, of fathers and sons, of pain caused and pain endured. The trials he's suffered--and Lord knows there have been many--are all part of a master plan

The sinner isbreaking a sweat now. He's been telling his story for just over a minute, justenough time to start feeling it all again, and the reliving always brings rage.Called him liar, monster, abuser of women? Yes, the world did that. Called himkiller? Yes, the world did, and does it still: He saw the poster in Clevelandin September, back of the end zone, with the drawing of a knife and the wordsasking how Ray Lewis can still be free. But here? Tonight? No. Or as hesometimes lets slip, "Hell, naw!" He's got his people, a bobbing,loving, understanding sea of 2,000 black faces before him. He's got his pastor,Jamal-Harrison Bryant, standing behind him, saying, "Talk, Ray, talk."Tonight, indeed, Lewis has the Holy Spirit settling on him like never before.He grips the microphone in both hands, crouches ever so slightly, as if girdinghimself for the collision to come.

This is an article from the Nov. 13, 2006 issue Original Layout

"God has donesomething in my life--and not just for me to see it," Lewis says softly.Then his eyes flash, and he starts shouting, pointing. "God has donesomething in my life for ev-ery hat-er, ev-ery enemy.... "

Anoise--"whooooaaa!"--rises out of the rows at the Empowerment Temple innorthwest Baltimore, like the roar of an ocean wave gathering itself tocrest.

"... everyperson who said I wouldn't walk or ever play again!"

Applause,shouting, the wave full-faced and beginning to crash. Oh, he's got 'em now. Notthat they didn't come here on this Tuesday night in late September--somedressed in Sunday-best suits and dresses, some in Sunday-best r. lewis Ravensjerseys--primed to adore him anyway. After all, Lewis was the molten core ofthe defense that anchored Baltimore's Super Bowl XXXV championship in January2001, and this season, with him recovered from hamstring surgery and rechargedby the addition of quarterback Steve McNair, the 6--2 Ravens are again a threatto win the AFC. Still, he's not here to talk football. They're not here to hearit. Tonight is about redemption. Tonight is about loving the sinner and hatingthe sin. Tonight is about Ray Lewis, once accused of double homicide, thefather of six kids by four women, living the word and spreading it through TVcameras dollying around the stage.

"See, I had toface, face-to-face, my four-year-old child, who couldn't understand why hisfather was in shackles," Lewis is saying. "I had to face that Icouldn't touch my mother for the first time in my life. And God asked me aquestion. I was in jail 15 days, and He asked me, How long are you gonnacry?"

He goes on to sayhow men have to treat their women like "queens," sweet music to theladies whooping at his words. But the 31-year-old Lewis, stalking about in anash-gray three-piece and a thick-knot tie the color of clear sky, is goingafter bigger game tonight. For when you ask him, and often when you don't,Lewis will tell you these days that he's "anointed," that he enjoys"favor," that he is a "king" charged with fostering a nationalministry on the order of Martin Luther King Jr. and that, once football isdone, his mix of piety and street cred and that spectacularly nasty, CourtTV--chronicled fall will drag even the most hardened hearts to the light.Indeed, Lewis's revamped faith, like the man himself, is a raw, loud, electricthing, a muscular mix of the sacred and the profane. Every game day, justbefore another 60 minutes' worth of NFL hype and violence, Lewis will dip hisfingers in consecrated oil, seek out a half dozen of his fellow defenders andtrace a cross on each of their foreheads.

And he doesn'tlimit his touch to teammates. "You are blessed," Lewis told San DiegoChargers linebacker Shawne Merriman on the phone the night before the two teamsmet in October. "Limit yourself with how many women you see. And strapup!" It's a constant refrain to any young player who crosses his path."You know how foolish I was?" Lewis says. "One thing Ray's going totell you: Don't you sleep with no woman without a condom."

A few other thingsRay will tell you are that off the field he's not a vicious man and never hurtanyone, much less the two men who were stabbed to death outside Atlanta'sCobalt Lounge on Jan. 31, 2000; that he regrets the mistakes he made thatnight; that the resulting trial was a blessing because it made him change. It'sa compelling narrative, and Lewis tries hard to make it stick. "Life is sogreat," he will often begin a thought. When Lewis saw that poster atCleveland Browns Stadium he strode along the sideline reciting the Lord'sPrayer. Lewis says he's all about love, but when he talks about the FultonCounty prosecutor, the former Atlanta mayor, the people who tried to send himto jail? Then he goes all Old Testament, his love full of loud and righteousfury.

"The battleis: Am I O.K.?" Lewis is telling the crowd. "Even though I waspersecuted, crucified.... Am I O.K.? Let me give you a quick read-back on me,Church. When I walk into another stadium, 52 other players walk in there withme, plus coaches--and all [the fans] do to them is boo." He pauses, thengrins. "Now, when Ray Lewis walks out there..." he says, but the wholeroom cuts in laughing, ready for the roundhouse to come. "Church? I'm goingto tell you something about God, now.... When Mr. Lewis walks out, child, Ihear everything from 'Murderer,' I hear everything from 'N-----,' I heareverything from 'You shouldn't be playing football!' And when I break it alldown, I know they're talking about yesterday!"

Now they're all init together. Lewis starts bellowing, the crowd loses all control, clapping,stomping. He's going for a big finish: voice cracking, face wet, the wordscoming fast. Ray Lewis is feeling so justified that he's like a runaway train.And for all his spiritual growth these past few years, for all he will tell youabout his new walk, it's clear now that Lewis retains every bit of swagger,menace, that palpable promise of violence that made him one of football'sgreatest defensive players. He's not about to let this testimony end in a hazeof peace or love. No, this is payback, a bit of that Miami Hurricanesin-your-face, a holy f--- you to the world that tried to shut him away.

"Church: Everytime I step on the football field, He's prepared a table for me in the presenceof my enemy!" Lewis says, and now he's jeering. "And every time theythink they want to say something to me? Every time they think they want to boome? They have to pay--to come see me."

And it's over.Bryant steps toward him, reaches for the microphone, but Lewis is too far gone.He flings the mike down, and it hits the stage with a reverberating thunk.God's linebacker stalks away, certain he's feeling nothing but grace.

A week later, onOct. 2, Lewis is sitting at a table in the lunchroom at the Ravens' practicefacility in Owings Mills, Md. "Then I watch TV," he is saying about theaftermath of his trial six years ago, "and I hear [one victim's] youngerbrother say, 'Oh, Ray Lewis is going to get his one day. Just like he killed mybrother, he going to die.' This is on TV, a 13-year-old child. All because ofwhat y'all wanted to report that was dead-ass wrong! So the rest of my life Idon't know if somebody's going to walk up to me and put a pistol to my head.For the rest of my life."

You could say he'sparanoid, except that after District Attorney Paul Howard dropped the murdercharges against him for the deaths of two men from Akron, Jacinth Baker andRichard Lollar, Lewis testified against the remaining defendants, his formerfriends Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting. Both men were acquitted in June2000, and that fall Sweeting released a rap song lambasting Lewis as a snitch,reportedly with such lyrics as Oakley should have stabbed ya, and If I knewwhat I know now, it'd have been three bodies. In February 2005 the FBIinvestigated death threats e-mailed to Lewis's charitable foundation.

When the Ravens goon the road, Lewis still draws increased security at hotels and stadiums, andhis attitude from moment to moment ranges from devil-may-care bravado toperspective-warping fear. An hour after the subject of Atlanta has passed andthe conversation has long shifted to children and faith, Lewis abruptly pointsto a TV hanging over the table. "Look," he says. Reports fromPennsylvania Dutch country flash on the screen, the crawl detailing theshooting of five Amish schoolgirls. "Right there: 'Murders were revenge fora 20-year-old incident.'" He nods, eyes full of meaning. "See?"

But he moves onbecause, well, what choice is there? One by one, a dozen teammates stop toassure Lewis they'll be at his barbecue restaurant for the weekly get-togetherlater that night--one more sign that Lewis, the face of the franchise, is backas its heart too. Last year, sidelined for the final 10 games with the tornhamstring and unhappy with Ravens management, he had been a distracting,isolated figure, his misery confirmed when he publicly ripped the team'sdefensive schemes before the April draft. Taken together it felt like thebeginning of a bad-taste end to Lewis's Baltimore career; the team even brieflyscrapped their game-day player introductions, always capped by Lewis'ssignature gyrations.

Then, during theRavens' 4--0 start, Lewis reasserted control of the locker room, of M&TBank Stadium and of the intros: His dance has returned. He again leads the teamin tackles, quieting questions about age and health. "Ray strikes fear in alot of people--even when you're on his team," said Baltimore defensive endTrevor Pryce, an off-season acquisition, after the Ravens' loss to the CarolinaPanthers on Oct. 15. "He hit me in the face today, friendly fire, and I waslike, 'Oh, my Lord.' I can't imagine getting 20 of those a game as a runningback. When you see him as an opponent, the city of Baltimore and this teambuilt him up for so long that you expect, I'm Ray Lewis, I'm on billboards.There's none of that. From the first day I got here, he started preaching, 'Weneed to win. We, we, we.'"

Such a one-yearturnaround was small change for Lewis, a lock Hall of Famer who has spent sixyears disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's lament that there are no second acts inAmerican lives. Fitzgerald, of course, wrote in a time before talk-show meaculpas and high-speed news cycles made almost anyone famous and any deedforgivable. But even by today's standards, the second act of Lewis's publiclife has been a marvel of image rehabilitation. Murder suspect one night afterthe Super Bowl in 2000 and Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl the followingyear, he once seemed the embodiment of the Entitled Athlete, the culmination ofa thuggish era that featured O.J. Simpson, Latrell Sprewell and Rae Carruth.When the Ravens won it all, Lewis got no trip to Disneyland, no spot on theWheaties box, but he was still the best player in the NFL--and for theimage-obsessed league, a dancing, jawing, unrepentant nightmare.

Yet since then,Lewis's charity efforts--his annual donation of Thanksgiving meals to 400Baltimore families, his purchase of Christmas gifts for 100 needy kids, hisproviding of school supplies to 1,200 city students--have helped make himBaltimore's most-beloved public figure. Lewis's replica jerseys fill the70,000-seat stadium; his face is indeed plastered all over the city, asonce-wary corporations such as EA Sports and Reebok and KBank use his name tosell product. Even the league that fined him $250,000 for his role in theAtlanta incident surrendered; in recent years he has appeared in ads for NFLEquipment and worked as an NFL Network analyst. The cynical will say Lewisbought his way back into favor, but it's not as easy as it sounds: Neither O.J.nor former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura nor any other recentlyscandalized athlete has come close to Lewis's recovery.

"The questionwas what direction was he going to take?" says Ravens general manager OzzieNewsome. "Some athletes, if they get out of a situation like he did, say,'You know what? I got a free pass to just do it again.' Others learn from thelesson, and it makes them a better person. He jumped on the [right] track in ahurry."

Much of that canbe attributed to the power of Lewis's personality: as big as his 6'1",250-pound body and, when it's on, just as winning. His outsized energy andopenness inspire devotion even from those seemingly hurt by him. "He's anextraordinary man," says Ravens coach Brian Billick, after an off-season inwhich Lewis pointedly and publicly declined to give Billick a vote ofconfidence. "The most naturally dynamic leader I've ever beenaround."

"Ray has ahuge heart and will help anybody in need if he's able," says TatyanaMcCall, who met Lewis at Miami and has three sons with him. "I would beremiss if I didn't say I was proud to be the mother of his kids. It's notalways easy, but I am very proud."

In march, CheriBlauwet, a Paralympian, traveled with Lewis to Ethiopia on behalf of theVietnam Veterans of America Foundation to help in the creation of a sportsprogram for land mine victims. Lewis was there for two weeks and plans toreturn after this season; he's donated $67,500 for the expansion of arehabilitation center for amputees and pledged a similar amount for the nextphase of construction. Blauwet's friends and family had warned her of Lewis'sreputation: This is a man who, even before Atlanta, had been investigated threetimes for assaults on women, though no charges were ever brought. "Hepretty much turned that reputation on its head," says Blauwet, a wheelchairmarathoner. "He was incredibly gentle, introspective. Every time a childwould pass within his field of vision, there would be a comment or an act thatwas very genuine, and he treated the people working with him that way. I gotnumerous lifts up stairs and onto airplanes. He would say, 'Hey, babe, let megive you a lift.'"

Hall of Famelinebacker Mike Singletary had been retired for a decade when he met Lewis in2003. Renowned for his singular on-field intensity, Singletary had beenconvinced he'd never again feel that passion. But during his first week asRavens linebackers coach, he was standing in the end zone in practice when itcame time for a goal line stand. The defense came alive. Lewis startedscreaming, "You ain't getting nothin'! You ain't!" and a stunnedSingletary found himself thanking God, tears streaming beneath his sunglasses."I was seeing everything I missed," says Singletary, now assistant headcoach of the San Francisco 49ers. "Only a few guys play the game with theirhearts and their souls. A lot of guys don't know what you mean by that. Youdon't know it until you hear it, and then you see it and you go, There itis."

Yet it's thatpassion--the obvious relish Lewis takes in football's brutal essence--thatmakes it easy for those who only see him on TV to believe him guilty of murder.Early in the morning of Jan. 31, 2000, Lewis and a group of acquaintances,including Oakley and Sweeting, exchanged words outside the Cobalt Lounge withanother group that included Baker and Lollar. Within minutes Baker and Lollarhad been stabbed to death. Lewis's panicked group piled into his stretchlimousine and sped off, gunfire blowing out one of the tires. Lewis toldeveryone in the car to shut up about what they'd seen, and during his initialinterviews with police he gave false information. The limo driver at first toldpolice he saw Lewis strike one of the victims, then recanted. Lewis maintainsthat he saw no one being stabbed and had acted only as a peacemaker.

Sunseria Smith wasin Hawaii, on the phone with her son, when the police came to the house whereLewis was staying. She heard her son yell, "What are you doing?" andthen, "Mama, I didn't do nothing!" before the phone dropped. When shevisited Lewis at the Fulton County detention center for the first time she puther hand on the glass separating them and said, "Is there any blood on yourhands?" Lewis told her he had nothing to do with the crimes. "And Isaid, 'That's all I need to know,'" Smith says.

The prosecution'scase against Lewis fell apart quickly, and the murder charges were dropped.Lewis pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor obstruction of justice, wassentenced to a year's probation and testified in the case against Oakley andSweeting. As he walked down the courthouse steps in June 2000, Ray turned toSunseria and said, "Mama, you have a changed man." In '04 Lewis settledcivil suits with members of both victims' families for roughly $2 million. Headdressed the families during mediation for the settlement, at once expressingsorrow and raging over his certainty that he'd been prosecuted solely becausehe was rich. Still, some family members will never be soothed by the settlementor Lewis's perceived transformation. "I hope he can actively feel what itmeans to have a loved one taken away, the way my nephew was," says Lollar'saunt, Thomasaina Threatt.

"The saddestthing?" Lewis says now. "Take me out of that equation, you got twoyoung dead black kids on the street. The second sad part is, because of thecourt system and the prosecutor's lies, I got two families hating me forsomething I didn't have a hand in, and the people who killed their children arefree. The people who killed their children could be having dinner with them andthey'd never know. Because all they know is the big name, Ray Lewis."

Hero to villain,good to bad, is a very quick walk in America. The reverse is much moredifficult; the fall is always easier to believe than the redemption, if onlybecause nobody wants to be played for a sucker. Yet suddenly Cindy Lollar-Owensis willing to try. She helped raise Richard Lollar in Akron and for six yearshas been a persistent voice blaming Lewis for the deaths of her nephew andBaker. In 2001 she stood outside the stadium in Tampa where Lewis would win hisSuper Bowl MVP award, holding a photo collage of her nephew. More than oncewhen Baltimore played in Cleveland she passed out fliers there demandingjustice.

But last month,after restating that belief in a phone interview, she called back. "This ismy conscience," she said. "I've been praying on it, and I'm saying Ibelieve [Lewis] was totally set up. I didn't want to say nothing; I was worriedabout how my family would feel. Come to realize, I've got to live withmyself."

Lollar-Owens saysthat before her father died of cancer in 2002, he told her she had to speakabout her change of heart. It has taken her four years. She has talked to Lewisonly once, by phone after the 2001 Super Bowl. She says he called to tell herhe was sorry for her loss. "There was something in his voice," shesays. "I just felt he was innocent."

Ray Lewis knowswhat his problem is. He'll tell you up front about his faults, about how he waswrong for years in the way he allowed "broke people" to get closeenough to jeopardize his career and his reputation, and how he "would walkaround and might not treat a woman the right way." But to him those aresymptoms of a larger malfunction. It's now conventional wisdom to decry theprevalence of single-mother households in black society, the lack of strongfather figures for young males. Lewis offers himself up as Exhibit A. "Ihad no one at home to confirm, help, release, whatever," he says. "I'vegot six kids? I've never had a conversation with a man about a woman--ever.I've never had a man sit down and say, 'Son, let me tell you aboutwomen.'"

When Ray Lewis wasborn to the 16-year-old Sunseria on May 15, 1975, his father, Elbert RayJackson, set a tone that would endure for three decades: He wasn't around. Itwas left to Ray Lewis, a friend of Sunseria's, to sign the documents and givethe newborn his name. Jackson moved in and out of their lives in Lakeland,Fla., with some regularity, then all but drifted away when Lewis was six.Occasionally Jackson would call to say he was coming to see little Ray,"but he always would lie," Lewis says. "My mother would say, 'Yourdaddy's coming to get you,' and there were days when I would pack my bag, gooutside and just sit there. Sun goes down, my mama comes to grab me, and Iwould be boo-hoo crying, and she'd say, 'It's gonna be all right.' That was mywhole life: It's gonna be all right, it's gonna be all right. So as I'm gettingolder, I'm like, When is it going to be all right? Great mother, but you can'tteach me how to be a man. And I'm screaming inside, Can somebody please helpme?"

Ray eventually wasthe oldest of five brothers and sisters, the man in charge. As a teenager hewould braid his sisters' hair, take his little brother Keon Lattimore--now ajunior running back at Maryland--to day care, go to school, hit practice, dopush-ups until he passed out next to his bed. Lewis became a football andwrestling star at Kathleen High, like his father before him; everyone remarkedon how he resembled Ray Jackson. His father's coach, Brian Bain, once gaveLewis a program detailing Jackson's wrestling marks. "I posted it on mywall, and every night I'd see it," Lewis says. "Every one of thoserecords? I shattered them, and every time, I shattered them with pain. It waslike, Yeah! It's over! His name is out of there! That was my push: to eraseeverything about him."

When Ray was inhigh school, Sunseria showed him a letter stating that Jackson had legallychanged his son's name to Ray Jackson. Lewis ignored it. "I will never walkin his name," Lewis said then. "Ever."

The absence of afather figure--a "lack of," Lewis simply calls it--has been an ongoingcrisis that he has been speaking about from the moment he broke into prominenceas a Miami freshman in 1993. SI's attempts to contact Jackson wereunsuccessful, but Sunseria, McCall and Ernest Joe, Lewis's high school footballcoach, all confirm that Jackson was absent from Lewis's youth. Yet Lewis'sfixation has only intensified with time and what everyone around him insists isa true spiritual growth. Christianity explains itself through stories, and nowthat Lewis is witnessing, now that he's looking at himself as a featherbuffeted by forces far greater than man, he has no choice but to comb throughit all again and attempt to understand himself in a new context. All the badevents? His daddy? The trial? Mere tests and hurdles and setbacks he was meantto endure to get him to today. Never mind that Lewis may not know all the factsof his parents' relationship. "He was a child," McCall warns."Whatever transpired between his parents, all he knows are thestories."

On the footballfield, Lewis was undersized and unstoppable. He had 17 tackles in his firststart at Miami and declared his intention to be the greatest Hurricane ever.Off the field, he seemed incapable of creating anything less than a Category 5impact. He met McCall when she was a freshman at Miami in the fall of 1994.While she was carrying their first son, Ray III, the two got into a shoutingmatch that prompted Lewis's first run-in with the law; a resident assistantsaid she saw Lewis push McCall, strike her in the face and put his hands on herneck. McCall didn't press charges. If anything, she says now, she was theaggressive one in the incident. A year later Lewis stepped into an argumentbetween McCall and Kimberlie Arnold, a former girlfriend of Lewis's. Arnoldtold campus police that Lewis shook her shoulder and scratched her, but againno charges were brought; in 2000 she told The (Baltimore) Sun that "he'snot a violent or abusive person, not to me he wasn't."

Yet violence hasshadowed Lewis at nearly every step in his life. While he was away at college,a dozen close friends and relatives from Lakeland died, one trying to rob abank. Each time Lewis went home it seemed he was attending a funeral. Then inApril 1996, UM linebacker Marlin Barnes and a female friend were bludgeoned todeath by the woman's ex-boyfriend in the apartment Lewis and Barnes shared;Barnes was buried the day Baltimore drafted Lewis. More than a decade laterLewis still cries at the mention of his friend's name. Barnes wasn't just theone workout partner who could keep up with Lewis; he also pushed him, told himhe was unique, even predicted his trouble. "Man," Lewis remembersBarnes telling him, "everybody ain't going to like you." Barnes filledthe void left by Lewis's father; he organized his clothes with care, so Lewisdid, too. He shaved off his body hair, convinced that it would give him thatextra 10th of a second, so Lewis did, too. When Barnes died, Lewis felt he'dbeen thrown back out on that stoop, waiting for a face that would never come.He punched a hole in a wall and thought, Now you're gone too?

After signing withthe Ravens, Lewis tried to reconnect with his father, gave him $5,000. "Heburned me," Lewis says. "Blew the money, left my life again." Everyonce in a while Jackson would surface, and everyone would remark on how alikethe two men looked. Lewis thought he could understand himself if he couldunderstand the dead ringer in the room. But over and over he would end upsaying, "Dad? Can you just come around and don't ask for nothing? Teach mesomething."

In 1997 Lewis andMcCall went to court to establish child-support arrangements. By then she wasexpecting her second child by Lewis; the court mandated payments of $3,800 amonth. The following year he was ordered to pay $2,700 a month, plus backpayments of $29,700, to a Baltimore-area woman with whom he had daughter. Theprocess left him drained, and he told his mother that maybe he'd just wait toknow his kids when they were older. Smith would have none of it. According toMcCall, Lewis has since made great efforts to spend time with his children(three live in Baltimore, three with McCall in Florida). He calls them daily,has movie dates with his two daughters on Fridays, sometimes brings all sixkids to stay at his house on the weekends of home games. "That's thebeauty: I give them what I never had," Lewis says. But he's only halfright. Like his dad, he doesn't live with their mothers, doesn't see hischildren every night.

His world hasalways been one of extremes--quotes, emotions, troubles, triumphs--and people'sreactions follow suit. Lewis's history and his raw views, about "deviouswomen" or how a black man in America is "still a n----- in a lot ofpeoples' eyes," will only reinforce the perception of those who call him athug. But plenty of people also sit on the other end of the spectrum, ready,like Singletary, to put their names on the line and speak about "thepureness of his heart."

When Singletarytook over as Ravens linebackers coach in 2003, Lewis was playing at a level fewhad ever seen, with a young man's fire, a veteran's knowledge and aonce-in-a-generation hunger. But the first time they spoke, Lewis begged forinstruction--and not only in football. They set up regular meetings, and thetwo went heart-to-heart for the next two years, discussing faith, family,"disciplines and desires and what a man is supposed to be," Lewis says.Whatever Singletary said, Lewis soaked up; once he suggested Lewis play more onthe balls of his feet, and in the next practice Lewis collapsed because hiscalves were cramping. He'd been trying to play on tiptoes.

After the 2004season Singletary left for San Francisco, and Lewis got that feeling again:what he needed, walking out the door. But Lewis was also pushing 30, and maybesome lessons had sunk in. Bryant, his pastor, sensed Lewis learning somethingnew and necessary: "If I'm a king, I am responsible to the kingdom I'vecreated around me," Bryant says. "He has found that he had to fatherhimself."

Last spring, aftera long silence, Lewis says he heard from Ray Jackson again. His father calledfrom Tampa to say he'd been put out by a girlfriend and hospitalized. Againsthis better judgment Lewis rushed from his home in Boca Raton, intent on movinghis father in at last. He sent a car to pick up Jackson; they were to meet atLewis's grandmother's house in Lakeland. But when Lewis arrived, Jackson wasn'tthere. He stewed for a few hours, then got a call: His father wasn'tcoming.

On the long ridehome, Lewis tried to grab hold of himself and say, Toughen up! But it was nouse. He cried the whole way, shaking, empty again, with familiar words rollingthrough his head: That's the last straw. I'm done.

Lord knows, ithasn't been an easy path. But who said it should be? Lewis studies the story ofDavid, who slew Goliath and became a king and had woman trouble too. He studiesJob and all the trials God put him through. What was 2000, after all, but thework of the same master hand? From jail to a Super Bowl stage, with millionswatching so he could become more famous, wield a greater voice than ever? RayLewis knows people will respond to him; he'll show you, with just a flick ofhis hands, how he can get 70,000 strangers to scream for him.

So now, Lewis canfeel it happening all over again. People had written him off after last year,marked him down as fading. Lewis was furious at the criticism. Billick andNewsome characterize Lewis's off-season sniping as a continuation of contracthaggles from a year earlier; before the 2005 season he had sought torenegotiate his seven-year, $50 million contract, signed in 2002. People werecalling for Lewis to be traded after he demanded the team beef up its defensiveline, called him a malcontent for questioning the team's commitment."Persecutions" is the word Lewis uses to describe the affair, at onceparanoid and proselytyzing: They're out to get him, and it's part of God'splan.

Yet the next thingyou know Baltimore spent its first-round draft pick on defensive tackle HalotiNgata. Then Lewis became the central factor in bringing McNair to the Ravens.Give me the pieces, Lewis told team owner Steve Bisciotti last February. Giveme a real chance at another Super Bowl, or let me go.

"What do y'allwant me to do, seriously?" Lewis says of his critics. "The thing you'vepraised me for--being a courageous leader--is the same thing y'all trying tocrucify me for now. I'm doing what you want, to say, 'Dammit, I'm not going toput up with this!' and suddenly [the team] said, 'Ray wanted to talk aboutmoney.' I never played this game for money, but now I do?"

Yes, there's thatword again: crucify. It's no slip. Lewis won't go so far as to call himself theSecond Coming, but he's close to believing himself a prophet of sorts, and ifmartyrdom is the price, so be it. "God has me to do what people are afraidto do: tell the truth," he says. "Yes, racism does exist. Hatred existsevery day. I'm not afraid. The worst thing that could happen to me--and I don'tsee it as the worst--is to be killed and go to heaven."

Delusional? Maybe.There are many who won't take kindly to Ray Lewis, of all people, telling themhow to live. After Baltimore's season-opening win at Tampa Bay this season,three of Lewis's sons were standing outside the Ravens' locker room, theirdad's name and number on their backs. A woman walked up to their mother and,speaking just above their heads, hissed, "I can't believe you let your kidswear that murderer's jersey."

Five weeks laterin Baltimore, it's different. The Ravens have lost a seesaw spectacle withCarolina that left McNair with a concussion. The plan looks shaky for themoment; McNair has struggled, the running game is a mess. Still, Lewis led thedefense in tackles again, and now he's in his family suite high above the emptystands. His kids are there, four boys and two girls squirming about his legs."Let me see your abs!" Lewis commands two of the boys. They lift theirjerseys, and he laughs and says, "You got to do your push-ups andsit-ups."

The kids spillinto the hall, Lewis bellowing, "Who knows my birthday?"

"May 25th ...no, 15th," says one. "1975!" blurts another.

"Grab yourbrothers' and sisters' hands now."

The group stops atthe elevator, Lewis's mother and sisters and friends bringing up the rear. ABaltimore police officer sidles up; a few hundred fans line the barriersoutside, waiting. "Do you want us to walk you out there?" the cop asksLewis.

He thinks, thensays, "No, there'll be lots of people."

On the groundfloor Lewis stands inside the main doors of the stadium, gathering the kidsaround him again. The crowd outside sees him through the glass, and you canhear his name in imploring tones, over and over, the pleas already starting fora signature, a photo. "Come on," he says and pushes; the doors flyopen. His head is down. Sinner hits the late afternoon air, plunging forward togreet his flock.

MORE LEWIS

For additional coverage of the Ravens, including anexclusive Ray Lewis photo gallery, go to SI.com/nfl.

"God asked me a question. I was in jail 15 days,and He asked me, How long  are you gonna cry?"
"The rest of my life, I don't know if somebody'sgoing to walk up to me and put a pistol to my head."
"I shattered [my father's records], and every time,I shattered them with pain. It was like, Yeah!
His name is out of there!"
"I've got six kids? I've never had a man sit downand say,
'Son, let me tell you about women.'"
"God has me to do what people are afraid to do:Tell the truth. Racism exists.Hatred exists. I'm not afraid."
PHOTOPhotograph by Michael O'NeillPHOTOBOB ROSATOPHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (2)TWO PHOTOSMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (2)TWO PHOTOSMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (TOP); BOB ROSATOTWO PHOTOSMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (TOP); DAMIAN STROHMEYERTWO PHOTOSMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (2)PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY