Ravens great Ray Lewis talks about each member of the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The archetypal image of Ray Lewis is embodied in bronze outside M&T Bank Stadium — the man in full in the midst of his famous pregame “squirrel” dance. The bronze bust that will soon bear his image at the Pro Football Hall of Fame cannot possibly compete with that.
The statue shows exactly who he is, superstar and strutting peacock, ready to go forth and lead the Ravens to victory on any given Sunday.
The bust unveiled in Canton will show only the face of the franchise, not the complete body of work that makes Lewis such an important figure in the history of Baltimore sports.
He cannot be adequately defined by mere statistics because he was a force of nature, both on the football field and in a hardscrabble city ready to embrace a hero that was as tough and gritty as the crumbling steel mill at Sparrows Point.
None of this is meant to diminish his induction or the realization of his personal quest to be among the greatest football players who have ever lived. He is as deserving as any of them and this was clearly the ultimate destination when he declared in early 2013 that the Ravens’ impending Super Bowl run would be his “last ride.”
It’s just that you can’t really put Ray Lewis in a glass case, just as you can’t tell his story without acknowledging that he was once a tarnished hero who had to rebuild his reputation after his involvement in a double homicide nearly derailed this journey.
Is this a story of redemption?
Sure it is. That’s one of the reasons Lewis’ spectacular career so resonates in Baltimore, a place that needs to know such a thing is really possible.
Lewis wasn’t born here. He was adopted, just like Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. He came out of the University of Miami and was the Ravens’ second pick in the first round of the 1996 draft, following Jonathan Ogden then just as he is now into the Hall of Fame.
They said he would have been drafted higher except that he was considered undersized for an NFL linebacker. But — as you might suspect — Lewis never had an undersized opinion of himself.
By his own account, he told a friend when he was 14 years old that he would someday be one of the greatest NFL stars on the planet and would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will get there even though his “measurables” didn’t impress enough pro scouts to make him a top-20 player in that historic first Ravens draft.
Of course, the thing about measurables is that they only measure things you can actually measure. They cannot measure the things that made Lewis play so much bigger on the Ravens defense than anyone would have predicted from his actual physical dimensions.
He remains a larger-than-life character who has tried in the aftermath of his playing career to use his unquestioned charisma and motivational skills to continue to make a positive impact on Baltimore, with mixed results.
In an attempt to help quell the unrest in Baltimore that erupted in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Lewis posted a video decrying the violence and telling young protesters to “get off the streets” and “go home.”
He ran afoul of the Black Lives Matter movement a year later when he accused the organization in another video of failing to direct the same anger toward exploding black-on-black crime as it does toward the issue of police brutality.
Most recently, he knelt with the Ravens players who protested during the U.S. national anthem before the team played the Jacksonville Jaguars in London last season, sparking the first significant threat to his tremendous popularity in Baltimore since he was arrested in Atlanta in 2000.
His decision to “honor God in the midst of chaos” prompted the circulation of a petition that drew tens of thousands of signatures from people demanding the Ravens take down the statue at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis weathered that firestorm of criticism and he’s still standing proudly atop that pedestal, his chest almost bursting through the No. 52 on his jersey.