Not long after leaving professional football atop the sport’s highest peak, Ray Lewis tried to climb a mountain.
In May 2013, the former Ravens linebacker announced that he would make his way up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. “I am so FIRED UP for this adventure,” he said in a statement, the capitalization indicating he had perhaps found another outlet for his famous passion. Over three months earlier, he had played the last game of his Hall of Fame-bound NFL career, a win in Super Bowl XLVII, his “last ride” having ended under falling purple confetti.
But early that July came retirement blues. TackleKili, the organization Lewis was working with to raise money for and awareness of the need for clean water in East Africa, announced that Lewis had been unable to partake in the climb. A foot injury and fever had sidelined him.
"In the end, Ray’s decision was to let the team move on without him, rather than hold them back or put himself in a position where an injury which requires surgery could become even more complicated," TackleKili said in a statement.
The charitable mission, along with ESPN’s recent hiring of Lewis as an NFL analyst, would set the tone for Lewis’ post-retirement life. Over the five-plus years since he last played for the Ravens, Lewis has broadened his ambitions, if not his popular appeal. He has thrived in some areas, come up short in others but always remained active, as if manning the middle of some imaginary office space.
On TV, football fans still want to hear him talk, but he hasn’t always said the smart thing. Some Ravens fans wished his M&T Bank Stadium statue gone, but for reasons he said were ill conceived. He has produced a podcast and a New York Times best-seller, overseen rising football stars and his children’s growth into young adults. And through it all, he has remained committed to expanding his imprint, be it through local charities or national endeavors.
But Lewis’ most public face has been that of a commentator. A day after Lewis announced in early January 2013 that he would be retiring at the end of the Ravens’ season, Sports Illustrated reported that Lewis was close to signing a multiyear contract with ESPN.
Ravens great Ray Lewis on when he realized he could become a pro athlete. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
As a player, his charged, zealous pregame speeches were all but made for TV. As a prominent analyst on ESPN’s NFL coverage, he found that some things were better left unsaid. Among his faux pas at the network:
» Taking out his credit card, waving it in front of the camera and offering to pay half of any fine the NFL might impose on San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for a hit on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
» Giving a pep talk to the Bills, then coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the day before commentating on a “Monday Night Football” game between Buffalo and the New England Patriots — and not disclosing it on air.
“It’s not surprising that he got that first TV job at ESPN,” said Andrew Bucholtz, who covers sports media for Awful Announcing. But Lewis “kept on being the Ray Lewis we’d seen with the Ravens,” he said, and not a sage analyst dispensing insights into the game’s nuances.
“I think they figured that [charisma] would translate,” Bucholtz added. “I’m not sure it did in the way ESPN hoped.”
In 2016, Lewis was out at the network. A year later, he joined Fox Sports 1, then Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.” There have been other headline-making, head-scratching statements since — in April, he said of seemingly troubled New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.: “Where there's no God, there's chaos. Odell has removed God from his life” — but they were of little concern to Ravens fans. That was just Ray being Ray.
Then, last September, Lewis joined a group of current Ravens in kneeling before the team’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. Lewis, who dropped to both knees during the national anthem, later said he was praying, not protesting President Donald Trump’s comments two days earlier calling for owners to fire players if they didn’t stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The equivocation was almost universally panned. Friend and former Ravens teammate Shannon Sharpe called out Lewis, who had criticized former San Francisco 49ers quarterback (and onetime Ravens free-agent target) Colin Kaepernick that summer for kneeling.
Lewis, with his hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers, has made it easy for fans to feel connected. In his 2015 memoir, “I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory,” a New York Times best-seller, Lewis described how he was treated when he was arrested and jailed as a suspect in the Atlanta killing of two men after Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, his relationship with his parents, and the Ravens’ run to Super Bowl glory in his final season.
In November 2016, Lewis launched “Tackling Life,” a podcast with Dr. Christian Conte, a leading mental-health professional. The podcast is more “Loveline” than sports radio, with the two men answering listener questions about family problems, addressing their own life philosophies and occasionally talking about Lewis’ playing days. The 100th episode was released in March, but nothing since. Lewis is a busy man, after all.
Through Daytoon Distributors, which he co-founded, he has a limited-run Kentucky bourbon, Ray’s Reserve, the first two bottles of which Lewis last year planned to present to then-President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. He holds an invitation-only, two-day summer camp for top high school linebackers and running backs at the IMG Academy (Fla.). He does appearances and speaking engagements (reported asking price: $30,000 to $50,000). He’s even set to follow up his “Draft Day” cameo from 2014 with a role in a coming film.
Philanthropically, Lewis’ portfolio is as jam-packed. The L2 Family Foundation helps put single parents on the path to home ownership. The Power52 Foundation provides job training for Baltimore-area residents in the the renewable-energy sector. The Ray of Hope Foundation enlists "luminaries and game-changers" to record personalized videos of inspiration for those in need.
And yet there’s still so much more to do, he said recently, so many mountains left to climb.
“Life now, I don’t think it’s about what I did,” Lewis said. “I think it’s about where I’m going. I just think there’s so much opportunity that if you leverage it right, the world is whatever you want to make it. I wish more guys would take this part of life as seriously as they took the athletic side of life, to understand that your brand while you’re playing will set up this side of life.”