Ray Lewis prowled the stage for all 33 minutes of a sprawling Hall of Fame induction speech Saturday night, taking listeners on a tour of his childhood and playing career before concluding with a call for community service.
The Ravens great pointed out dozens of family members, friends, coaches and former teammates in the announced crowd of 22,205, thanking them for helping him fulfill an unlikely destiny as one of the finest defenders in NFL history.
Lewis, clad in purple pants and a matching purple and gold tie, received a raucous ovation from Baltimore fans as he took the stage at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. He began his speech, the last of the night, almost three hours later, at 9:55 p.m.
His daughter, Diaymon, introduced him, saying: “People knew the Ravens because of my dad. … Everything he knew, everything he lived for was through the Ravens.”
Lewis began by talking about the hard times and hopes he shared with his mother, Sunseria Smith, who gave birth to him at age 15.
“Remember what they told me when we were little?” he said, addressing Smith in the crowd. “That we weren’t gonna make it. Well guess what, Mama? We made it.”
He remembered how Smith tried to move the family to Tennessee when he was in 11th grade. But he believed his destiny lay in Florida. His mother sent him back with $39 and $20 in food stamps.
“I’ll make it,” he recalled telling her.
He said the University of Miami gave him its last scholarship, an opportunity no other big-time program offered.
When the narrative reached his NFL home, he asked his fellow 1996 Ravens first-round draft pick, Jonathan Ogden, to stand, and he incited the crowd with a long chant of “Baltimore! Baltimore! Baltimore!”
He praised the team’s original owner, the late Art Modell, as a “visionary” and one of the many father figures in his life.
Current Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti chartered a plane to fly coach John Harbaugh and seven players — linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda, punter Sam Koch, long snapper Morgan Cox and kicker Justin Tucker — to Canton after they practiced in Owings Mills on Saturday morning.
General manager Ozzie Newsome, who drafted Lewis No. 26 overall in 1996, sat on stage in his gold jacket with the rest of the 140 Hall of Fame members who greeted their seven new fellows (wide receiver Terrell Owens opted not to attend and held his own ceremony in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Saturday afternoon).
A cross-section of Lewis’ former teammates, from possible 2019 Hall of Fame selection Ed Reed to previous inductees Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson and Ogden, also attended.
Lewis’ friend, 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, sat near the front of the crowd with his wife, Nicole.
“How many times have we sat in a room together?” he said, addressing a tearful Phelps directly. “What did we say? ‘We’ll do anything for Baltimore!’ A lot of people call you the greatest Olympian, but I call you one of my greatest friends, brother.”
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis offered a tribute to his former rival: “Ray was a great athlete. He was fast, all that. But what was really great about Ray is that he was able to get his entire team to play with the energy and passion he played with.”
Before Lewis spoke, 82-year-old Jerry Kramer drew laughs from the Baltimore fans when he recalled an early 56-0 whipping his Green Bay Packers took from the Colts, who released a white horse to gallop every time they scored.
“We damn near killed him,” quipped Kramer, the oldest member of the 2018 class.
In narrating his career, Lewis harped on his final season, when his triceps “popped off the bone” in the sixth game of the regular season. He said a team physician told him no one had ever come back from such an injury in the course of one season.
“That was like pouring lighter fluid on an open flame,” he said.
Lewis had already privately decided the season would be his last, and he had no intention of finishing it on injured reserve. He said he called Newsome to tell him as much the next day.
He returned for the playoffs and concluded his career with a goal-line stand to clinch his second Super Bowl victory.
Lewis also obliquely addressed the runup to the 2000 season, when he was charged with murder in connection with the deaths of two men outside a Super Bowl party he attended in Atlanta.
Though the charges were ultimately dropped, he called those “some of the darkest moments of my life.” But he used the reference as another opportunity to thank the people who stuck by him.
“I tell you something,” he said. “God sends you a family that makes sure you’re OK when you’re going through what you’re going through.”