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Chad Pemberton: Checkered past trails Lewis on ride into sunset

Jan. 18, 2013 @ 12:08 AM

"Ray Lewis lives to fight another day."

That's what announcer Greg Gumbel said after the Baltimore Ravens upset the Denver Broncos in double-overtime with the cameras focused on Lewis's jubilant demeanor. Lewis embraced a member of the coaching staff which led into a sort of triumphant strut onto the field which led into a series of powerful gallops -- a sequence of movements that makes me think this is how feral things must move -- as the cameras cut to Peyton Manning, his face slouched into the slack, solemn look of a great but flawed quarterback who has just experienced his eighth one-and-done NFL playoff appearance.

Gumbel dropped this ordinary idiom in the small window of time between Justin Tucker's 47-yard game-winning kick and Lewis's post-game interview with Solomon Wilcots, wherein an emotional Lewis paraphrases Bible verse Isaiah 54:17 about forged weapons, "No weapon shall prosper -- no weapon!"

These phrases and images resonated with me, but at the time I wasn't sure why. It was only upon the 10th or maybe it was the 20th or 30th time I rewound my DVR that I was able to pinpoint how bizarre all of this seemed to me, how interesting it was that words like live and fight could be used so effortlessly to describe a man who can now spout vague things about weapons on national television even though said man was implicated in a double homicide more than a decade ago.

Lewis went from being accused of murder to become not only one of the best defenders of all time but arguably the most popular and respected defender in the history of the league. He's been named to the Pro Bowl 13 times and the All-Pro first team seven times. He's a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the only defender in the history of the NFL to record at least 40 sacks and 30 interceptions. There's a street in Baltimore named after him, "Ray Lewis Way," his ticket to Canton is a foregone conclusion and there will be, if I had to guess, a statue of him in front of Baltimore's stadium one day.

Which makes the arc of Ray Lewis's career so astonishing, but also messy. It's messy because people who might or might not have killed someone don't have streets named after them or statues erected in their honor -- victims do. And for the families of Richard Lallar and Jacinth Baker, the two victims who were stabbed to death outside of a club in Atlanta after the Super Bowl in 2000, no such memorials exist, just the lingering void that comes from the tragedy of lives lost before they are ever fully realized.

I wonder, though, how long must we have this conversation about Ray Lewis? How long do you hold him accountable for something from which he has been absolved? How much penance does he have to pay for something he might not have done in the first place? Is the fact that Lewis is the most recognizable, prominent figure from a group of people who were there that fateful night reason enough to hold him in contempt?

I don't know, I don't know, I don't know and I don't know. Answers to these questions wouldn't be so elusive to me if I knew more about what happened. Alas, there is no clarity. Nothing has come to light. We know nothing new. Just speculation, gut feelings, and opinions, most of which are warped by what we want to be true.

Lewis's transformation has been truly remarkable. From a courtroom standing trial for murder to a swan song, after what has been an extraordinary life of football and inspiration, that leads to one final chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. But there's a lesson in all of this, a cautionary tale about redemption -- how lives can be written and then rewritten, but how some things can never be forgotten.

Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at pemberton@herald-dispatch.com.

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