The last time I spoke to Ray Lewis was the beginning of this season. We sat inside an empty Baltimore Ravens locker room and spoke for 30 minutes about his place in football history. It was, without question, one of the best conversations I've ever had with any athlete. Ever.
Lewis' words can erode the thickest layer of cynicism. Those who hate Ray Lewis or call him a murderer or flame message boards with their disgust for him ... go ahead. Opinions are awesome! But the reason Lewis moves people -- teammates, coaches, friends, family, plants and animals -- was because of moments like the one when we spoke. I totally got it.
Lewis believes what he says. Whether you believe Lewis is up to you, but most people who interact with him regularly do.
"Here's the thing with Ray," says teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo, "if you know him, you love him. He's the most sincere guy you'll ever meet. That's why he's so believable to us.
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"I've seen him around kids and young people and there's nothing like it. They hang on his every word."
Lewis' football career is over. The next phase of his life begins.
Lewis is supposedly headed to television. Maybe ESPN. Maybe another network. And this would be a tremendous waste.
Lewis won't be good on television in the role executives will want him to play. Lewis speaks the language of inspiration, not the language of coach-speak. Diagramming the cover-two isn't what Lewis does. Talking about Green Bay covering the spread isn't Lewis.
Lewis also isn't a polished speaker, he's a raw one. Not that Terry Bradshaw is Othello, but his strength isn't giving football opinions.
There will also be a significant portion of the television audience that will despise Lewis. Maybe that adds to Lewis' television value. Maybe hate sells. But is that what Lewis wants to do with himself?
Lewis breaking down game tape is like having Deepak Chopra host a cooking show. You don't have Ric Flair diagram hurricanes on the Weather Channel. (Wait ... that actually might be cool. But you get the point.)
What Lewis can do, more than anything, is save football careers. Maybe even save lives.
The NFL should hire Lewis, not a network. Give him a position in the league office. I said a position, not a desk. Lewis would speak at every rookie symposium. He'd speak to teams at training camps. Most of all, he'd work one-on-one with some of the league's most troubled souls. He'd be in the hip pocket of a guy like Pacman Jones or multiple arrestee Kenny Britt. There are many dozens of players who could, unfortunately, use Lewis' help.
When the government wants to keep its computers safe they hire the latest graduates from Harvard as well as the craftiest of hackers. Law enforcement will work with ex-car thieves.
If you want to really reach troubled players, and improve the image of a league that still reels at times from news of arrests and malfeasance, you hire the guys who were once in the muck, and boy was Lewis once in the muck.
The murder charge ... the fact Lewis has had multiple children by multiple women ... this gives Lewis credibility in a league where there are still too many players having issues with arrests and children out of wedlock. This isn't the entire NFL but a significant chunk of it.
The phrase "street cred" is vastly overused and very '80s, but for the lack of a better term that's what Lewis has with players. I can't tell you how many African-American players have explained to me what happened to Lewis that fateful night in Atlanta could have happened to them because their friends were like Lewis'. The NFL has for years hammered home to players that they must leave bad influences behind, but this remains a significant problem.
Lewis could have more of an impact on troubled players than all of the past NFL commissioners combined.
In fact, Lewis and Goodell speak frequently, and it would not stun me if Goodell eventually did ask Lewis to play some sort of role with the league.
Lewis has done this before in a small role. In 2000 he spoke to NFL rookies at the league's symposium and was absolutely electric. There were 254 rookies in the room who head Lewis warn about the dangers of fame and not saying no.
"I had a problem saying no to friends," Lewis told the room. "Understand saying no to a lot of people is very important. Be firm when you say no."
The Chicago Tribune quoted then first round pick LaVar Arrington, speaking of Lewis: "That was a sledgehammer effect, somebody like him. I think it was important for all of these rookies, including myself, to see him. He told us about things we'd heard already, but coming from him, you could hear a pin drop. Other speakers, you could hear a little undertone of people talking. That's the type of respect he has."
"His speech was definitely moving to everyone here," running back Thomas Jones said then."You hear a lot of different things about guys being in different situations, but when you hear it from a guy in that situation, it definitely hits home."
Imagine Lewis not solely speaking to rooms but being involved in the lives of individuals who need help.
Wouldn't that be better than Lewis talking about the spread offense?