Ravens great Ray Lewis on the leaders looked up to in his career. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
As Michael Phelps hit the wall for his final turn in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2016 Olympics, a familiar voice rang through his mind.
He had spoken by phone to his friend, Ray Lewis, as he waited in the ready room outside the competition pool in Rio de Janeiro. And as Lewis so often did, he followed up with a text message.
Phelps pulled it up the other day.
“He basically said, ‘Let’s go. This is our ground. This is our time. It’s never been touched before. Leave your mark on history,’ ” he read, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. “I remember reading that and coming off the wall. I felt so good coming off the wall. For him to be there for me, and help me get through everything, and then to be able to send that message, that to me is so special because of the bond we’ve built.”
As Lewis prepares to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 4, it’s natural to celebrate his playing career and what he meant to Baltimore. But those who know him well say it’s a mistake to overlook his impact on players from other teams and on people outside of football entirely.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti actually found it mildly frustrating when Lewis would counsel stars on rival teams.
“It was like, ‘Don’t give it to them,’ ” Bisciotti said, laughing. “But he did, because he was genuine. He wanted the best for players, and he never felt the end result wasn’t worth the effort, even if it made his competition better. Which is admirable.”
Because of Lewis’ hunger for engagement, his reach extended beyond football, to police and religious leaders in Baltimore, to Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, and yes, to the most decorated Olympian in history.
Each of these people talk openly about how Lewis has offered a strong shoulder during troubled times and how he leaves them feeling uplifted after each encounter.
‘A runaway preacher’
“Ray, to me, is really a runaway preacher,” said the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the activist pastor at Empowerment Temple AME Church, where Lewis attended services in Baltimore. “If he wasn’t playing football, he would have been pastoring.”
In fact, Bryant used to joke with Lewis that he’d best not set up a church in Baltimore. “He’d empty me out in two Sundays,” Bryant said with a chuckle.
Bryant met Lewis in 2004, when Deion Sanders joined the Ravens and began attending Empowerment Temple.
“He had such a magnetic personality, and his leadership was so brazenly brilliant,” the pastor recalled. “He was always thinking about a calling in life that was greater than just being an athlete.”
Bryant gently urged church members to give Lewis his space when he attended services with his mother, Sunseria Smith, and his sisters. Otherwise, the young star would have spent the whole day talking to people.
But he did ask Lewis to speak to the congregation several times.
“He’d pretend he was nervous,” Bryant said. “But then he’d get up there and it was like I was looking at T.D. Jakes,” referring to the well-known preacher.
The pastor felt from Lewis the same thing that so many others point out: his hunger for personal connection.
‘He’s not an entourage guy’
Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith felt it years later, when Lewis reached out in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody and the ensuing civil unrest.
“We just clicked,” Smith said. “He’s not an entourage guy. It’s not like you have to get through this bureau of folks to talk to him. He’s right there.”
They posted a Facebook video of their conversation about how to improve the city they both love, and Smith said it reflected the nature of their interactions. Lewis will often come at a problem from an unexpected angle. For example, he suggested talking to young Baltimoreans about violence by illustrating the mess they leave for their families — not just emotional but financial and logistical — if they’re killed.
Less surprising was the intensity Lewis brought to each encounter.
“I’ve been in a room with him and maybe one other person, and it’s like being in the middle of the huddle,” Smith said. “It’s like, ‘Man, is he about to tackle somebody?’ ”
When Smith’s brother, Dionay, was slain last year, Lewis came to town and visited with his friend.
“So much of this stuff is done behind the scenes, and people don’t see this part of him,” Smith said. “He’s not lying on a beach in Florida. There are people who were unemployed who are employed, police officers and community members who’ve been influenced by him and are out there doing good. And he’s done a lot of this stuff in the last five or six years, since he hung up his jersey.”
‘Commitment to craft’
For Plank, Lewis represented the precise story he wanted to tell about his upstart apparel company, with a hometown twist to boot. They actually did not meet until well into Lewis’ career, but to the young CEO, their union seemed fated.
“The greatest part of my job is being able to be around these incredible athletes, and you look at it and say, ‘Aren’t they lucky to be blessed with so much raw talent?’ ” Plank said. “And what you find out is, yeah, there are aspects of that, but the work ethic, the commitment and the dedication Ray would have to his craft is just so severe. … Ray, he was never the biggest or fastest or strongest until he built himself that way. But he just cared and tried harder than anyone else. ”
Lewis officially signed with Under Armour in 2007, and he and Plank have grown closer in recent years. Plank has helped Lewis learn the ropes in the business world, while Lewis has provided a reliable source of inspiration, both personal and narrative, for Plank.
“Intellectual curiosity is one of the traits I value most, and he’s just an incredibly curious guy,” Plank said.
He laughed, recounting the fury with which Lewis threw himself into cycling when he retired from football, building up to daily 100-mile rides. Imagine, he said, coming around a curve on a country road and seeing that 250-pound ball of muscle, clad in spandex, atop a dainty bike.
“But that’s his commitment to craft,” Plank said. “Everything he’s ever taken on, he has that ambition and belief that he can be with the best in the world.”
‘A gigantic teddy bear’
It was that very quality that pulled Phelps and Lewis together like magnets.
They met in 2000, when the 15-year-old Phelps had just returned from his first Olympics and visited Ravens training camp in Westminster.
Though Lewis is 10 years older, both men say their bond formed almost immediately.
“I guess really, ever since then, we’ve been inseparable,” Phelps said. “We’ve been brothers, really, through absolutely everything.”
They were both proud mama’s boys and representatives of Baltimore, but they shared an even rarer compulsion. As the late Richard Ben Cramer wrote of Ted Williams, “Few men try for best ever.” Lewis and Phelps did.
“We the best to ever do this. Plain and simple,” Lewis said, reflecting on their bond. “Me and you. It was like, ‘Bro, ain’t nobody else going out there like this. It’s me and you.’ ”
When Phelps was charged with drunken driving in 2014 and contemplated suicide before he eventually entered treatment, Lewis helped pull him out of the darkness.
“Anybody can be there when the confetti is dropping. You have friends and family you ain’t never had in your life,” Lewis said. “But when you find someone who’s willing to be there through a time of trial … my brother was going through it. And this is what I’ve always tried to do for people I love. Sometime it’s harsh, but it’s real. My baby boy came to me broken, you know. And I’m like, all right, I’m going to give you exactly what I did. We’re going to go under, and I’m going to do it with you.”
He gave Phelps Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life.” Phelps started reading it the first day he entered a rehabilitation center in Arizona. He called Lewis that night.
“When I heard his voice on the phone, I was in tears,” Lewis said. “I knew a light had clicked on. That’s what all of us look for, that one moment when the light will come back on.”
When Phelps appeared in a Baltimore courtroom for sentencing later that year, Lewis showed up and wrapped his friend in a huge bear hug after the proceedings.
“I think for me, that was really a wake-up call and a learning experience,” Phelps said. “I think a lot of things started clicking because of the stuff he had told me over the years. Everything started adding up and making more sense. For me, I’ll never forget that day that he and I had a conversation, and those words … will stick with me for my entire life.”
Phelps said his current efforts to raise awareness of mental illness are partially inspired by the help Lewis offered at the swimmer’s moment of greatest need.
Lewis spoke at his wedding and had everyone in tears. Phelps expects the same at the Hall of Fame ceremony in Ohio. He hates hearing criticism of the man he calls a brother.
“He’s a gigantic teddy bear. I love the guy to death,” he said. “I get very defensive if I ever hear somebody talking negatively about him because of the relationship we have and how I truly know him as a human being. I know how big his heart is.”