Dave Rather and Ray Lewis go back a long way. In 1997, Rather bought Mother's Federal Hill Grille, a popular Federal Hill restaurant that draws packed crowds for Ravens games. He has had season tickets since the Ravens arrived in Baltimore in 1996.
Rather said he hasn't missed a home game and even went to Tampa, Fla., in 2001 to watch the Ravens — led by their then fifth-year star linebacker — throttle the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
On Sunday, Rather will be at M&T Bank Stadium for the team's wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. He hopes that it won't be the last time he cheers on Lewis, who announced Wednesday that he will retire after the team's playoff run ends.
"I'm a little shocked today, and a little sad," Rather said, standing inside the Federal Hill restaurant that boasts a signed Lewis jersey hanging over the bar and Lewis' iconic No. 52 in 6-foot numerals on the roof overlooking the parking lot.
"It's just been an honor to watch him play and we're definitely going to have a big loss in the spirit of the team until we can replace his energy, his emotion and his leadership," Rather said. "It's a sad day for Baltimore but all good things come to an end."
Rather said that he thinks Lewis' contributions to the franchise and the city "won't be truly appreciated until he's gone a couple of years" but is already thought of with almost the same reverence as Cal Ripken Jr.
But Rather and other longtime Lewis supporters understand that his pristine image is not as pristine as the former Orioles star because of what happened in Atlanta in 2000. Lewis was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta club. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge after agreeing to testify against two former co-defendants.
"I think he rivals Cal in popularity nationwide and internationally, but he's got a little history of legal troubles, while Cal is the All-American boy, so there are some people who hate him because of that and you still hear that, while Cal has never done anything wrong," Rather said.
Victoria Dixon always believed in Lewis, though she said many of her friends "lost faith" in the Ravens' linebacker because of that tragic incident.
"I never believed he could hurt anyone because of the way he helped so many people," said Dixon, who grew up in Baltimore and works at a day spa in Annapolis.
That admiration of Lewis can be found in the Kent Island home Dixon shares with her husband Gene. A room in the house is devoted to the Ravens and much of the memorabilia centers around Lewis — the largest of which is a life-sized, framed and autographed picture of a shirtless, sweating Lewis holding a football.
Bought several years ago at a charity auction, the picture used to be in the couple's living room, but it's now found a special place at the top of the stairs. A light shines on it "like he's an angel" and on Sunday, the Dixons will bring their prized picture down when they are joined by friends to watch the game.
It will certainly be different.
"We have suffered a tremendous loss," Victoria Dixon said of her reaction to Lewis' announcement. "If he can come back in another capacity — as a coach maybe — it will be better for the team. He's the whole heart of the team."
Paul Shea, a financial advisor who began rooting for the Ravens when he moved to Baltimore from Albany, N.Y., several years ago — giving up rooting for the Giants — said that Lewis' legal troubles were likely the result of "being around the wrong people" and proved he was a solid citizen because "you haven't heard anything since."
Shea believes that as a result of his otherwise spotless record, Lewis' legacy will be as "one of the best players Baltimore has ever seen and one of the best linebackers that has ever played the game." But he admits that the timing of Lewis' announcement to retire was "curious."
"I understand his retirement with age and injuries," Shea said. "It could be a motivational tool as a player. Normally you hear that after the season or before the season starts."
When he goes to the game Sunday, Rather will be thinking about that day and all the other Sundays that he has watched Lewis play.
"Seeing him do the dance and coming out of the tunnel, and listening to him give his pregame pep talk, there's nothing better than that," Rather said. [The retirement announcement] is definitely going to take the game up to a higher level. It's going to mean more now…Hopefully it elevates the team to go as deep as they can in the playoffs and maybe bring home another Super Bowl."