TAMPA, Fla. - The television sports shows are filled with graphic images. One second, there's Baltimore Ravens incomparable linebacker Ray Lewis crushing running backs Jerome Bettis and Eddie George and Corey Dillon. The next second, there's Lewis again, this time in a much different uniform, in garish orange prison garb, facing a double-murder charge. The third shot is of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who was sentenced Monday to 18-24 years for his role in the ambush killing of his pregnant girlfriend. The final shot is - what else? - the obligatory O.J. shot.
The local newspapers are filled with stories rehashing the horror. A year ago, in the early morning after Super Bowl XXXIV, there was a fight outside an Atlanta nightclub. Two young men were slashed to death. Lewis, who was at the scene, told everyone with him not to cooperate with the police as their limousine sped away. He and two others were charged with first-degree murder, but the prosecution's case was weak. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor, and is on probation. He agreed to testify against his two friends, but they were acquitted. The murders remain unsolved.
“It's a disgrace for Ray Lewis to be on that football field,” an aunt of one of the victims told the Orlando Sentinel.
“Everybody stood behind him. His coach, his teammates, (Ravens owner) Art Modell, the NFL. Even if they thought for a minute he was guilty, they still would stand by him. You know why? Because a lousy football game is more important to them than two people's lives.
“When I see Ray Lewis on that TV, I just want to go get a gun and blow his head off.”
Welcome to Super Bowl XXXV.
Welcome to the NFL's worst nightmare.
It's bad enough Lewis was the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Now he's on center stage at the Super Bowl? You would have thought Elvis came back for a news conference to see the throngs around him at Media Day yesterday.
This wasn't what the NFL had in mind for its big week. This is the week you're supposed to read and hear about the uplifting stories surrounding the big game. The comeback of Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was run out of this very city. (Hang in there, Kordell!). The inspiring playoff guarantee of beleaguered New York Giants coach Jim Fassel. The amazing things done by the Ravens' defense. Giants quarterback Kerry Collins's successful battle against alcoholism
What a contrast Collins and Lewis made yesterday.
There was Collins saying, “In this business, we are in the public eye. Things in my past are going to be talked about. It's fair game.
“I think you have to be honest to yourself. I'm human. I have human weaknesses and frailties. We all do. Hopefully, people will see me as a role model because I'm trying to get it right.”
NFL types beamed.
Then, they saw Lewis in action. They should have known what was coming. Not long ago, he had said, “The league doesn't want me hanging around with thugs. But I'm surrounded by thugs in our huddle.”
Yesterday, Lewis was hostile at times, evasive constantly. “Football. Football. Football. That's all I'm talking about.”
A day earlier, Ravens coach Brian Billick had misguidedly tried to portray Lewis as a victim of “reprehensible” and “sensational” journalism. Lewis readily continued that theme. Those dead men in the street? He would have you believe they didn't suffer nearly as much as he had, all because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“This has never been about those dead kids in the street,” Lewis said. “This has always been about Ray Lewis. Well, don't blame me. Blame (district attorney) Paul Howard and the mayor of Atlanta. They never said, `We're going to get who did this.' They just said, `We're going to get Ray Lewis.'
“If I was just an average Joe, none of this would have happened and none of you guys would be here.”
Asked why he never has told his story about what happened in Atlanta, Lewis said, “I don't know what happened. If I did, I would have told (the police).”
Asked if he had anything to say to the victims' families - the same people the disingenuous Billick had said Lewis would love to meet for a face-to-face, heart-to-heart chat - Lewis said, simply, “No.”
You were looking for remorse?
Sorry. “Ray doesn't have anything to prove,” teammate Shannon Sharpe said. “Ray can let his play do the talking. You don't become Defensive Player of the Year and need to prove anything. He and Marshall Faulk are the best two players in football right now. I don't think you would get any argument from any general manager or head coach. Everybody would love to have Ray Lewis on their team.”
As a player, perhaps.
But as a person?
“Jesus couldn't please everyone,” Lewis said, shrugging.
You think that's offensive? Read this.
“People want to know how Ray Lewis will handle all of this,” Lewis said. “All I have to worry about handling are (Giants running backs) Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, come Sunday. Everything else is irrelevant.”
The unsolved murders of two men are irrelevant?
Somebody asked Lewis exactly that question.
“Football is all that matters to me,” Lewis said, coldly, without so much as a blink. “That's what I'm here for. Nothing else matters.”
The NFL types weren't the only ones who felt like throwing up.