By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO
When the Baltimore Ravens needed a role model in their infancy, they drafted Jonathan Ogden and he became their first Hall of Famer. When the franchise needed a Charm City hero, they drafted Ray Lewis and now he also has his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lewis is the national face of Baltimore. He supplanted Stringer Bell from “The Wire” and Cal Ripken, Jr. as the iconic image of the city on a steamy night in Canton, Ohio. In an induction speech that turned the stage at Tom Benson Stadium into his personal pulpit Lewis was preacher and motivator as the featured speaker during pro football’s version of a late summer revival.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis delivers his induction speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 4. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Those who scheduled the speakers knew that his induction speech would be more than just emotional thanks to those who prepared him to be forever remembered after a brilliant 17 year career when they scheduled him last. Lewis took control like Janet Jackson by donning a headset microphone that allowed him to roam the stage and share a choreographed dance moment with Ogden.
“I’m living proof of the impossible,” said Lewis to thunderous applause from Ravens nation. Take the challenge, work through the pain because on the other side of pain is glory.”
During the video presentation introducing him, Lewis’ career was defined by “swagger and success.” The montage of plays typified the relentless intensity he played with. He was the personality of a franchise and for an entire city. He did this through two world championships that created a legacy by forming a unique bond between a star athlete and the community in this era of free agency.
Lewis and Baltimore are a marriage where souls who needed one another came together at a time when each was desperate. The city was scorned and scarred by the departure of the Colts and being omitted by NFL expansion. After luring the first incarnation of the Browns from Cleveland Baltimore was a civic pariah in NFL circles and needed a reason to feel good.
When Lewis was facing double murder charges in Atlanta it became a rallying point for Baltimore. A city who had seen too many Black men victimized by a judicial system that turned flimsy ambiguous allegations into life changing incarceration rallied behind a player who – if convicted – would have changed the course of NFL history. The Ravens wouldn’t have been the defense that yielded just 188 points for the entire 2001 season and was the league’s stingiest ever during the post season run without him.
After the tribulations of his trial Lewis rewarded Baltimore with unwavering philanthropy. His Ray Lewis 52 Foundation continues providing personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth. The foundation has funded such events as adopting 10 families for the holidays, and Thanksgiving food drives on North Avenue. His Power52 company provides employment training for at-risk adults, returning citizen and underserved individuals living in Baltimore City and surrounding counties that prepares them for careers in the solar industry as well as other green jobs.
The deeply religious Lewis is a reborn person having evolved from an unbridled colt to thoroughbred in two decades. However, his legacy is not without its contradictions. Though not convicted, he pled guilty to obstruction of justice in the Atlanta murder case. You can argue he threw Ray Rice under a bus following his domestic violence case. Some accuse him of selling out when he wouldn’t stand firmly behind Colin Kapernick as the Ravens pondered signing him.
Despite the contradictions there is a certainty about his legacy. Baltimore loves Ray Lewis and he loves Baltimore back.