His struggles make him a symbol many in the city can understand, Councilman Brandon Scott said.

"For plenty of people in the city, he just has meaning because he's been here and he's been through things," said Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore. "When he came, the city had 300 murders a year. That's changed. He's changed. We all grew together. We all have a way to go."

Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, said he has spoken with dozens of young men who used Lewis as a role model.

"They like him not because he's hit the highest of highs but because he knows the lowest of lows," he said. "Every time he's on the field, giving his all, that's a bit of a light, a bit of hope, for the darkest places in Baltimore and the people who've struggled the most."

If Ripken represented Baltimore's hard-working side, Lewis embodies the feeling of forever being slighted.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it.

Joe Polek understands how others see Lewis. The Bel Air native has lived in New England and South Carolina for most of Lewis' 17-year career. He occasionally blogs about the Ravens in addition to working in radio.

"I get it," he said. "There are a lot of doubts about what happened in Atlanta," where Lewis was charged with murder in the fatal stabbing of two men after the 2000 Super Bowl. He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to testify against two companions.

Like others, though, Polek was won over by Lewis' transformation. He taught his young daughters the Ray Lewis dance, and bought them jerseys. He happened to get tickets to Sunday's game and — as was the case at Ripken's record-breaking game — could not hold back tears at various points.

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply "Psalms 91." Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. "You will trample the great lion and the serpent," it reads.

"Ray's story is ancient, and it is beautiful," Witherspoon said. "It speaks to Baltimore."