LAKELAND, FLA. — LAKELAND, Fla. - Above the entrance leading into the gymnasium at Lakeland's Kathleen High School is a full-body photo of Ray Lewis after capturing a Florida state wrestling championship. After eight years, the picture is still very clear, and so is the image of Lewis in his hometown.
About 30 miles from Lakeland up Interstate 4 is the greatest media circus event of the year, Super Bowl XXXV, and a Kathleen High alumnus is the featured attraction. While Lewis is being probed for answers to a double-murder case he was involved in nearly a year ago in Atlanta and his image is under siege, he is still looked upon as a hero by a lot of Lakeland residents.
The double-murder charges were eventually dropped against Lewis, replaced by an obstruction of justice violation in a plea-bargain arrangement. Lewis said he has put the tragic event of last January behind him, and so have a lot of his hometown fans.
It's about time the rest of the country moved on as well.
"The community feels good about Ray, and we believe he is a fine young man," said Ernest Joe, Lewis' football coach at Kathleen High and current principal at Auburndale, about 20 minutes from Lewis' former school.
"The community is aware of the situation he went through last year and how hard he worked to achieve his goals this season," Joe said. "He was not guilty of the crime he was charged with, and Ray has put it all behind him. We're going to support him."
But during the past two nights, Lakeland residents have watched Lewis on trial again. The questions never stop coming. The prosecutors in Atlanta weren't so relentless, so thorough. This time, the media want Lewis to show more remorse, even though he has already apologized.
Isn't "I'm sorry" enough, or must he grovel in front of all America?
This is not playing well in Lakeland.
"It's not that people won't leave it alone; it's the press that won't leave it alone," Joe said. "They've got to sell newspapers. They won't let him forget his past, even though he walks in the present. There will always be an asterisk by his name."
Current Kathleen High principal Tom Ray pointed a finger at the media, too.
"People here thought and still think very highly of Ray Lewis," Ray said. "The situation that happened almost a year ago was a tough situation. I learned some lessons from that myself. Just because the press writes something down and describes something doesn't necessarily mean that's how it happened. We can all learn from that. That person needs to have his day in court before we start deciding on innocence or guilt. He was tried by a jury of his peers, and the charges didn't go through."
Pardon these folks for being a little biased toward Lewis, but he is one of Lakeland's favorite sons, an athlete so popular that he crossed over racial barriers.
Lakeland is an orange-growing, phosphate-mining town of about 75,000 with subcultures of blacks, whites and Hispanics living in custom homes, ranchers and trailer parks with tidy yards. There is a perception that Lewis grew up in a lower-class neighborhood, but The Pines is middle-class and blue-collar. Travel through this community of about 75 homes and there are Maximas, Camrys and Ford pickups in the driveways.
Lewis may be the community's greatest athlete. He placed in three state wrestling tournaments and finished with a career record of 80-10. After Lewis' sophomore football season, Ray, then an opposing coach, swore Lewis was already one of the best players in the state. The team won the city title in 1992 and the district title in 1993. The principal said Kathleen has never reached that stature in football since Lewis left.
He is right.
But residents here liked Lewis because he had charm and could energize crowds on the playing field or with his dancing at night at a place called Sonny Boys, a cinderblock crab house. Lewis also attended church on Sundays, a mandatory rule from his grandparents.
Before the trial last spring, Lewis often came back home.
"He is a role model," said Jim Missouri, 15, who lives in The Pines. "I think he is a pretty good guy, and it's encouraging that someone in the community has made it. Most of my friends here don't think he had anything to do with it [the murders]."
"Ray is tight," said Reggie Simmons, 16, also from The Pines. "He goes out and plays his game. He does his thing, but he also gives you courage."
"He has been through a lot," Simmons said. "A lot of people thought we might turn against him because he ended up being a witness against his former friends. But that showed courage. He had to defend himself, and he was going to do whatever it took to show he did not do those things."
Ray said he has not contacted Lewis about coming back to the school this week, but there have been discussions about retiring his number. He knows Lewis has other priorities, like winning a Super Bowl.
"When the season is over and he wants to come back, we'll welcome him back with open arms," Ray said.
The kids at Kathleen can't wait. An alumnus will take center stage Sunday, finally on the field instead of being grilled by reporters.
"What he has shown is that anybody, regardless of where they are from or what school they go to, can become something special if given the opportunity," said Christopher Freeman, 17, an offensive lineman at Kathleen. "To go through what he has been through and to carry your team to the Super Bowl is a tremendous accomplishment. He has my support and everyone else's around here. You won't find many people who will say bad things about Ray Lewis."