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Fans praise Lewis' efforts on and off the field

Ray LewisFootballBaltimore RavensSuper BowlHIV - AIDSCal Ripken, Jr.

Quann D. Massey heard his phone ringing at 2 o'clock Sunday morning. The screen showed an unfamiliar number.

The voice on the other line — Massey wouldn't say who it was, other than a representative from the Ravens — told him to get to M&T Bank Stadium a few hours later. Tickets would be waiting, courtesy of Ray Lewis.

Massey runs an AIDS-prevention program that is one of the causes to which Lewis has lent his support during his 17 years in Baltimore. If people elsewhere sometimes focus on Lewis' connection to a fatal double stabbing a decade ago, fans in the city where he came to define a franchise are more likely to speak of redemption.

"What he's done since, that's his record," Massey said.

As Lewis, who announced last week that he plans to retire after the season, ducked into the waiting huddle of teammates prior to Sunday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts, fans simultaneously roared and reached to wipe tears from their reddened cheeks.

He has been called the greatest inside linebacker ever to play the game. But local community leaders also cite Lewis' charitable efforts off the field, which he often has carried out quietly. And some say his relentlessly positive message and apparent spiritual growth over the years has given hope to many.

"Ray Lewis had a run in with police, did time in jail?" said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, an activist who has worked in Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods, before watching the game at home Sunday. "That makes him the average African-American man here. It's what he did after. That resonates."

Many in Baltimore are convinced that the Lewis who emerged after his arrest — and endured snubs from advertisers wary of his image, even after leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl win in 2001 — is authentic.

"Anything he's been able to do for the city, he's done," said Jim Mullen, a 34-year old from Middle River who's had season tickets since the team arrived. "He cares. You can't dispute that."

Through his Ray Lewis Family Foundation, Lewis has provided school supplies to thousands of city students as well as holiday meals and winter clothing to hundreds more families. He has worked to promote youth football, assisting with camps run by Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith. Lewis once drove through a snowstorm to watch a Poets playoff game in Frederick. He has shown up at practice and been unable to resist the urge to coach.

"He just steps on the field and he can't help it," Smith said. "Our kids saw that. But they just know. They know what Ray Lewis stands for. He tells them very bluntly to do the right thing. They hear that."

Massey doesn't actually know Lewis well but happened to meet his mother at a ceremony in the city a few years ago. Sunseria Smith convinced her son to assist Massey's efforts to spread information on prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Lewis designed a special patch for what Massey calls "Safer Sex Boxers," which feature a special condom pocket. With Lewis' named attached to the program, Walgreens agreed to sell the product. Proceeds benefit Massey's efforts to distribute materials and develop programs in city schools.

Massey, an East Baltimore native and Gilman graduate, had never been to a Ravens game. At 11 a.m., he and his sister emerged from the concourse at M&T Bank Stadium, nearly stumbling when they saw how close their seats were to the home bench.

Many of those most directly affected by Lewis' influence weren't at the stadium Sunday.

Edmondson football coach Dante Jones was at home, watching on television. The kids he coaches now don't know a time before Ray Lewis. To them, Baltimore football has always been showy and loud, driven by passion.

"That's the only thing they think of when they think of what it means to play football," he said. "And because of that respect, they're more likely to listen to his words."

For Baltimore sports fans, Ray Lewis has been a constant in the same way the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. was. Internet message board posters spent much of the week debating whether the emotion around his final game at home would match or exceed Ripken's streak-breaking 2,131st game.

Like Ripken did, Lewis took a lap around the stadium Sunday. He did so after conducting several interviews, and surrounded by a flock of photographers who tried to keep up. This was not an orchestrated moment, though. Only a few thousand fans remained.

Even in Baltimore, Lewis' legacy will be messier than Ripken's. He's cultivated diametric personas. On the field or in front of a crowd, he is unbridled emotion, most of it raw and tinged with righteous anger. But in commercials for Old Spice and EA Sports he's able to poke fun at himself. Those who've seen him work with children speak of him kneeling down and speaking softly to each one.

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."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Ray LewisFootballBaltimore RavensSuper BowlHIV - AIDSCal Ripken, Jr.
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