xml:space="preserve">

Ray Lewis remembered when he was a boy in Lakeland, Florida, with no father at home and no obvious prospects for success. He needed to find a place where adults would love him and help him discover a path to something better.

“It was this one building in Lakeland, a Boys & Girls Club,” the former Ravens linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer said Thursday. “Everybody knows my story about [how] daddy wasn’t around. But the Boys Club was, and I found one or two teachers that wanted to sit down and spend time with a kid that wanted to learn.”

Advertisement

Lewis told his story on a street corner, about 1⅓ miles north of M&T Bank Stadium, where he made his name as the greatest player in Ravens history.

In the background, on South Poppleton St., stood a former Catholic school building that will be renovated over the next year into a “Community Campus,” at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The facility will offer job training, exercise classes, computer access, a fresh food market and various youth activities for residents of surrounding neighborhoods.

In other words, it will resemble the place that helped set Lewis on his path to success.

“Every child, every homeless person, every person that’s lost an opportunity, they look for the same thing an infant looks for,” he said, speaking in his capacity as a board member for the University of Maryland, Baltimore Foundation. “An infant looks to be held, fed and loved. … If you put a baby to your chest and he hears your heartbeat, he calms down. Well, guess what? People that’s behind bars, they calm down too. They want the same thing. These buildings, the reason why they matter is because they give us an imagination that I can find my way out. That’s the whole goal of this.”

Before Lewis spoke, UMB President Jay Perman described him as “an incredibly generous man” and “a believer in this city’s great potential.”

The West Baltimore groundbreaking was another example of the multi-faceted life Lewis has led this year as he expands his post-playing activities. There was the July announcement that he would help refashion the former Ciao Bella into a new Little Italy restaurant known as Lew Gambino’s. Then came his abbreviated stint on “Dancing with the Stars,” the televised competition from which he withdrew after tearing tendons in his foot. Just recently, he said, his Power 52 company, which offers job training in the solar-energy industry to at-risk and underserved adults, graduated its 12th class of workers. And those activities come on top of his regular appearances as an analyst on Showtime’s “Inside The NFL” program.

Lewis, 44, said he’s “in an amazing place in my life” as he picks activities in consultation with a tight group of advisers.

“My internal team does a really good job with what I get involved with and what I don’t,” he said. “Health, wellness, financial literacy, mental health — it’s all about the total human being. That’s kind of how I say, ‘I’m going to get involved in that.’ I was on a call yesterday, with some very interesting business opportunities, but I was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to pass.’ Because it just wasn’t for me.”

He joked that he did not seek outside counsel before appearing on “Dancing With the Stars,” which he said he did purely for fun.

“That’s why my toe’s messed up now,” he said, laughing. “Because I didn’t talk to my team.”

Lewis narrowly survived one elimination round before bowing out in tearful conversation with his dance partner, Cheryl Burke. He told People magazine that pain was shooting up his leg before an MRI revealed he’d torn three tendons while practicing the cha-cha.

Lewis’ public magnetism in Baltimore has not diminished in the almost seven years since he played his final snaps for the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. At the UMB event, residents of the surrounding neighborhood, university workers and dignitaries crowded around him to snap photos and request autographs.

Given that connection, Perman said, it’s obvious why the university would want to partner with the former Ravens great.

“I think it gives what we’re doing authenticity,” he said. “Because let’s face it, Ray understands the people of this neighborhood better than I do. I haven’t lived it. I have a lot to learn, and Ray brings me back to reality. He explains things to me I never would have thought of.”

Advertisement

Lewis said that during his many conversations with Perman, the driving question is always the same: “How can we affect people?”

“Because if we affect people, we affect nations,” he told the crowd Thursday, drawing responsive murmurs of “That’s right.”

In lieu of using shovels to dig ceremonial clumps of ground, Lewis and others hung paper leaves on a metal elm tree sculpted by UMB’s provost. On his leaf, Lewis wrote, “We all come together.” Meaning that without people and their stories of love and struggle, a nice building is just a nice building.

“The football field was awesome for me, but I’ll tell you something that’s greater,” Lewis said. “I’m in my 12th graduation with my solar company, that’s bringing kids off the freakin’ streets and turning gang members, and guess what they’re saying? ‘Somebody gave me a chance.’ All they want is a chance, and this community center is a chance.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement