When Ray Lewis arrived in Baltimore 22 years ago, the second-ever draft pick for a franchise with no jersey, no history and no identity, he resolved to build a new football culture in his adopted city.
He succeeded beyond his and his fans’ wildest dreams, delivering two Super Bowls, countless fiery stadium entrances and the indelible No. 52 to a town that had felt jilted by the departure of the Colts a dozen years earlier.
So when Lewis arrived in Ohio this week to join the hallowed ring of NFL greats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was naturally greeted by many of the Ravens supporters he’d touched. They’d made their way from Maryland in planes, buses and cars, wearing Lewis’ colors and his number, hoping to shake his hand and have a cry or a laugh over the times they’d shared.
His induction ceremony Saturday night was a football celebration, but also a Baltimore celebration.
When Lewis stepped out to give the last speech of the night at 9:55 p.m., he began, “Baltimore! Baltimore! We in the building, baby!” The Ravens fans in the announced crowd of 22,205 greeted him with raucous cheers and a rendition of the team’s informal theme song, “Seven Nation Army.”
Lewis stepped out from behind the lectern and stalked the stage like a preacher, wiping his brow with a black towel. Over the next 33 minutes, he spoke of God, family, team and city.
“I was not the biggest, the strongest, or the fastest,” he said as he wrapped up with a broad call for service. “But my goals were clear. My actions were, and still are, in service of those goals. I was a leader on the field then, and I’m a leader in my community now.”
Lewis shook his head when the transplanted Cleveland Browns selected him No. 26 overall in the 1996 draft.
“I’m like, ‘There is no team in Baltimore,’ ” he remembered thinking.
But he quickly embraced his role as a chip-on-his-shoulder player for a chip-on-its-shoulder town.
He recalled his outlook: “I want this city.”
“I want to show us that we can love each other,” he said. “I want to show us that, hey, we may be down and out, but guess what, we will make it out. And that’s what those games became, those wars. And that’s why I think so many people loved coming to Baltimore games when I was playing. Because whether we won or lost, it did not matter. It was the fight. And that’s the way of my city. I love Baltimore as if it’s my parents.”
These are trying times for the city’s sports fans. The Ravens have made the playoffs just once since Lewis retired in 2013, and will begin the 2018 season as an uncertain bet. The Orioles are losing at a near-historic rate, and have shed many of their stars as they attempt to start over.
There’s real comfort to be found living in a more glorious past — and no one represents that past more clearly than Lewis, perhaps the greatest middle linebacker in history and the outspoken leader of teams that made the playoffs nine times in his 17 seasons.
“It does bring your mind back toward those times, and it makes you feel good,” said 31-year-old Akil Kellar, who traveled to Canton for the induction. “It makes you feel proud to be from Baltimore.”
For Kellar, Lewis will always be the man who gave Baltimore football a fresh identity.
“As far as being the face of Baltimore, that’s where it started,“ Kellar said. “For me, Ray Lewis means dedication, hard work and somebody that really gave everything to the game. I felt he’s the type of individual who symbolizes the way football is supposed to be played, with toughness and with passion.”
“Same thing for me,” said 35-year-old Sherree Talley, Kellar’s traveling companion. “He’s the greatest of all time.”
She bumped into Lewis and shook his hand outside the Hall of Fame on Thursday.
“Can’t beat that as the highlight of the weekend,” she said.
Jeff Ostrow of Baltimore remembered playing pickup basketball with Lewis when he was a newly arrived 21-year-old rookie.
This weekend, Ostrow took his 12-year-old son, Zach, to watch a middle-aged Lewis enter the Hall of Fame.
He marveled at the passage of time.
“Just to see him grow as a player, deal with all his hurdles and then go out winning a Super Bowl, it was awesome,” Ostrow said.
Lewis has been a controversial figure for most of his career. He was charged with murder in the deaths of two men outside an Atlanta bar hours after the Super Bowl in 2000. The case against him fell apart and the charges were dropped, but he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor.
Many fans, especially those in other cities, never got past calling him a murderer. More recently, Lewis managed to alienate people on both sides of the NFL’s national anthem controversy. He criticized protesting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and later kneeled with Ravens players as the anthem played before a game in London.
Even this week, social media critics taunted Lewis for grandiose claims he made about reducing crime in Baltimore while he was playing.
But his fans traveled to Canton to celebrate the whole, messy package.
Dave Rather, the owner of Mother’s Grille, named a bulldog Fifty-Two in honor of Lewis.
“Back in 2000, we made shirts that said ‘Free Ray Lewis,’ and I remember we went to a family function, and people were looking at us like, ‘How can you support him?’ ” he said. “A lot of people outside the city just look at him as a murderer and don’t want to hear anything else.
“But we in Baltimore know the real story. He paid a pretty big price and since then, he’s been a model citizen and helped a lot of people.”
Rather drove from Pasadena on Friday with his 12-year-old son, Adam.
Twenty-eight-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps flew in from Arizona for the ceremony. Phelps was a teenage swimming prodigy living in Rodgers Forge when he befriended Lewis. He’d later lean on the Ravens star for inspiration before Olympic races — and for counsel during difficult times.
“He’s a passionate man,” Phelps said recently. “He will always be my brother.”
On Friday evening, they laughed together at the banquet where an emotional Lewis received the gold jacket he’d wear at his Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti chartered a plane so coach John Harbaugh, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, quarterback Joe Flacco and others from the organization could make it to Canton after practicing in Owings Mills on Saturday morning.
Some fans traveled from more unexpected locales.
Lee Cash of Toronto said he’s bled purple, black and gold for 15 years, all because he was drawn to Lewis’ rare passion.
“He’s just the most incredible specimen I think the NFL has ever had the privilege of having,” Cash said. “He’s the greatest linebacker, guaranteed. And his persona, his leadership and his faith in God make him a tremendous human being. We love Ray.”
Cash’s wife surprised him on Valentine’s Day with tickets to the Hall of Fame ceremonies, much as she had with playoff tickets during Lewis’ last Super Bowl run in 2013.
On Thursday, he got an autograph from Lewis on the back of his No. 52 jersey, and he handed his favorite player a congratulatory box of Montecristo cigars.
Lewis called the turnout for his induction “so overwhelming.”
“The buses and you see all of these people coming. … That’s a lifetime with one city,” he said. “So it’s really overwhelming. But I tell you what, it’s so much love, and I give it back in so many ways.”
He spoke of sharing a “bigger celebration” with Baltimore when he returns to town after the Hall of Fame enshrinement. He did not offer details.
Lewis made it clear he planned to go past the suggested 10 or 15 minutes for his induction speech Saturday night. He promised to say “thank you” many times over.
Lewis’ induction was announced in February. He has spent the time since reflecting on his career.
“You really don’t think about the good and the bad,” he said. “You think about the people who helped you through it.”
But he also took his story back to the streets of Lakeland, Fla. As a teenager, he ran mile after mile with Phil Collins singing “In the Air Tonight” on repeat through his headphones. Lewis described his quest for greatness as a lonely, often selfish, pursuit — but one that ultimately led him to communion with his fans and fellow players.
“I never stopped chasing whatever being in the Hall of Fame meant,” he said. “And now I get it.”