After Atlanta, taking stock

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The price of Buckhead will come due now for Ray Lewis.

Forget about dollars and cents, although that bill is expected to be shockingly high once it's tabulated.

The Ravens linebacker, who already lost most of his off-season, will pay for his indiscretions in Atlanta with his reputation and his freedom - at least the freedom to which he is accustomed.

When Lewis returned to Baltimore on Friday, he attempted to put the 4 1/2 -month ordeal of double-murder charges behind him with a public mea culpa.

But it will not go away that easily or so quickly. Not the stain on his reputation or the haunting memory of the circumstances that could have placed him behind bars for a long time.

The rehabilitation of Ray Lewis likely will take several forms, will require time and sensitivity, probably a change in lifestyle, and most likely a personal reinvestment in the community.

And, judging from appearances in that Atlanta courtroom, it will require a lot of prayer.

"Ray realizes now that his mission in life is bigger than football," said Rev. Richard Harris, "that football is just a means to an end, a means to give him a forum to really do what God has commissioned him to do."

Harris is the director of Mountain Movers Ministries, an entity operating out of Atlanta, Tallahassee, Fla., and West Palm Beach, Fla., that works with athletes from high school to the pros. He sat through Lewis' portion of the murder trial in Atlanta as the linebacker's spiritual adviser. Their relationship goes back to Lewis' collegiate days at Miami.

When the trial started, Lewis asked Harris to join him, Harris said. When Lewis was done, he made repeated references to having God in his corner.

"This was a test to give Ray a testimony," Harris said. "He bent, but it didn't break his spirit. It was a test of faith. I think he passed the test.

"He's been to hell and back."

Religion may be the backbone in Lewis' return to normalcy, but he will need more than faith to become a productive citizen and star player again.

Dr. Don Beck, a social psychologist in Denton, Texas, who has worked with the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys, believes Lewis is capable of making the return trip.

"He, as a human being, can come out of this as a much better person," Beck said. "I think the raw material is there, but he will have to do it his way. The best thing for everybody around him is to give him space and realize it's a journey he's got to make on his own but to be there to support and encourage him."

Art Modell intends to give Lewis, 25, all the space he needs. The Ravens' owner said the team will take great pains to protect its three-time Pro Bowl player.

"I have great confidence in my organization, the people in my organization, that we will insulate him from any further unwanted exposure and let time take its course," Modell said. "Time will heal a lot of things."

At last month's league meetings in Baltimore, Modell said he would speak to Lewis about his off-field behavior once the linebacker was exonerated of the charges. Modell declined last week to say when that meeting will happen, only that it will be private.

"We want this thing to simmer down and put this behind us," he said.

'A very young man'

The Ravens, with realistic designs on a playoff berth this season, almost certainly will attempt to rein in Lewis' lifestyle.

"I continue to remind myself that Ray is still a very young man, beyond the Pro Bowls and his experience on the field," said coach Brian Billick. "Being young, he needs to be aware there are circumstances that you're not aware of that you need to be aware of.

"I'm going to continue to remind him of his accountability in his actions to himself, his teammates, the organization and the city of Baltimore - as I will with other players."

The NFL will have its say in the matter, as well. Under the league's personal conduct policy, and because of his misdemeanor obstruction of justice crime, Lewis is subject to a possible fine. As a consequence, he may be required to have clinical evaluation and follow-up counseling. What's more, because drinking was involved in the incident outside the Cobalt Lounge, he also is subject to the NFL's substance abuse policy and faces a possible evaluation for that, as well. While on probation for one year, Lewis is banned from using alcohol.

He is expected to make a trip to New York to meet with league executives shortly.

Meantime, Lewis seems agreeable to a change in lifestyle. In his Friday news conference, he admitted - in his own way - that he made mistakes in Atlanta, both before and after the flash of violence that took two lives.

"If there is anything I would change in my lifestyle, it's the choices I make," Lewis said. "I've always been a guy who made great choices, always been a guy who kept his head on focus.

"Everybody stumbles every once in a while. But I don't think it's about stumbling. It's about recovery, seeing where you go from there."

'The important first step'

Ron Cherry, Lewis' Baltimore attorney, says he feels Lewis simply has to return to the lifestyle that made him a favorite in Baltimore.

"I'm not sure Ray needs to do anything in particular to rebuild his image," Cherry said. "He's taken the important first step by admitting to mistakes in the aftermath of the Buckhead incident.

"If I were to advise Ray, I'd say go back to giving us that extraordinary effort on the field, giving back to the community. To some extent, it was those things that made fans love him before.

"It's been proven he's not a killer, that he was wrongfully accused. He just needs to go back to the way he was."

Ed Garland, Lewis' defense attorney who attended Friday's media session, indicated Lewis isn't likely to make the same mistakes twice.

"You don't have to worry about Ray Lewis being in limousines, other than if somebody sent it for him, [wearing] long mink coats, or running with questionable people," Garland said. "In fact, he will probably set up a system to make sure that questionable hanger-on type people cannot get near him. I think that is his intention. But he doesn't know as a 25-year-old exactly how to do that."

Billick says his biggest concern now is the Lewis will become a target for the predators who follow sports and big-name athletes, looking to make some easy cash and a fast time.

"There are people out there that will see an opportunity, given Ray's probationary status and what he has at risk," Billick said. "Those people will specifically try to put Ray Lewis in a position where they can extort money from him for fear that, however unfounded the charges may be, they can present an appearance of wrongdoing on Ray's part, strictly for financial gain."

Rev. Richard Harris has seen those dangers.

"He's been a target in some instances," Harris said. "I've personally witnessed where women have thrown themselves on him, and he resisted. I think he's been sitting on a time bomb for a long time."

The time bomb went off in Atlanta last January. Lewis became a celebrity athlete who was admittedly guilty of bad judgment and poor decisions, though not of murder.

An unreal world

Ron Shapiro, a Baltimore attorney and longtime sports agent, believes Lewis does need to make changes. He has studied the phenomenon of famous athletes getting into trouble for years; he even wrote a book, "High Price of Heroes," that he never had published because of the delicate subject material and potential repercussions.

Shapiro is sympathetic to the plight of the wayward athlete.

"Ray's going to have to deal with whether or not he wants to move beyond the unreal world that some sports stars wrap around themselves into the real world of challenges that will face him - if not tomorrow, when he finishes his playing career," Shapiro said.

"What I mean by that is that the world of hangers-on and sycophants and entourages is an unreal world that will do nothing to help you develop a value system to help you avoid the kind of problem he faced in Atlanta. They're yesmenof the sports world.

"He's going to have to find a mentor, or people whom he respects, because they're willing to say no to him rather than merely willing to coattail onto his fame and fortune."

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