By David Roth
I watched Super Bowl XXXV, as you maybe did a dozen or so years ago, and so remember what Ray Lewis did to win Most Valuable Player in that game. He knocked down four Kerry Collins passes, became the first linebacker to win Super Bowl MVP in XXX years, and generally did what he did then, X or so years ago. He forced his crazy-eyed will on the game, he was everywhere even when he wasn't; the Giants gained all of 152 yards throughout. Lewis was not responsible for all of that, but he was there or near for all of it.
That is, he was barking mad and omnipotent and omnipresent and frankly terrifying, an old linebacking archetype taking a necessarily scary and urgent new shape in real time. This was 368 days after Lewis was there or near the murder of two men at an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV; he was convicted of obstruction of justice in the case, but nothing else. It is a frankly depressing obligation that, in all discussions of this case, it must be mentioned that the white suit Lewis wore that night was never seen again.
This was close enough, at least, that the Raven tabbed to say the words "I'm going to Disney World" after the win was Trent Dilfer, and not the game's most valuable and most indelible and most charismatic and most complicated player. That was Ray Lewis, who announced this Wednesday, after 17 seasons, that the Ravens' last playoff game of this season would be the last game of his NFL career. Ray Lewis, who has come some distance since he last dominated a Super Bowl, although in what direction and into what territory we don't quite know. It seems safe to assume that he was in command throughout the journey, at least. That, or that and some other things, is who Ray Lewis is.
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As it generally is in cases of his type, Lewis' defense in that murder trial was that he didn't see what happened. This was the thing that "Saturday Night Live" made fun of, and very specifically the thing that has haunted Lewis through the next decade-plus of his career. During that time, Lewis has become a unique figure in the NFL: very much an active participant in the league, but also a sort of go-to spiritual advisor for seemingly everyone else. Videos of Lewis' motivational speeches -- more heartfelt than coherent, as is generally the case with such things -- are YouTube touchstones; a typically opaque and typically heartfelt motivational speech at his alma mater, shot with all the visual panache of a proof-of-life video, has been viewed over half a million times. He is always willing and ready to break out a motivational speech for any high school football team who asks, and it's not at all difficult to imagine Lewis spending the next decade or so cashing checks from various corporate retreats and regional TED-talky executive-inspirational endeavors, and having a wild-eyed blast doing it.
It is, however, still difficult to imagine Ray Lewis not seeing anything in that nightclub, on that night.
This has nothing to do with the case itself, which is settled law and old news and at any rate quite thoroughly buried in the bleak and compromised ambiguities that define this type of murder trial; you only need to sit on the jury for one faintly similar trial to know how little is known or said or proved in these cases. It's more that Ray Lewis -- or at least the Ray Lewis we know, which is the Ray Lewis that plays football and talks and acts like that Ray Lewis -- sees and notices everything. What he does when he swaps his Ravens jersey for a white suit is not something we know, or maybe want to know.
What he will do and who he will be when he trades that Ravens uniform for civilian garb and a straight job -- chuckling at Shannon Sharpe's malapropisms on television, firing up regional managers, twinkling madly through some community ambassador gig with the Ravens -- is also not something we can know or understand just yet. It seems a safe bet that Ray Lewis isn't thinking about it yet, either. We don't know now, any more than we ever did, what Ray Lewis is thinking. That has always been part of his mystery, and his power. It's been the greater part, even with all the on-field accomplishments, of what makes Ray Lewis who he is. He is who he is, and what he does. But what we see is not just that. It's all that, and it's what we put over it.
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The central challenge of the NFL in general, and of Ray Lewis in particular, is fundamentally a rationalization: we are given a great deal of intricately choreographed violence, and then left to make it something more meaningful than simple carnage. If it's that and just that -- suffering on suffering, more egregious or at least more clearly understood in its original egregiousness every week -- then it is abhorrent, and something we probably shouldn't be watching. If the NFL is only a new and more sleek and sophisticated brutality, season over season, then it is not a sport so much as it's a hugely lucrative broad-daylight offense against a whole old set of values. Look at it that way, and the NFL is bad and the actors who deliver all that violence are at best deceived and exploited and at worst bad themselves, and we are ourselves all far worse for watching it. If you look at it that way, that is.
And if we're going to be honest -- and with the regular season wrapped and most of the NFL's cannon fodder swaddled in ice packs and recuperating, we might as well be honest -- the NFL actually is that, but not only that. This is a gut-wrenchingly violent sport, and an exploitive business, and some other lousy things, but it is also, without slipping into the giddy, ghoulish gladiatoral sentimentalities that justify so much of football's unjustifiable aspects, something more valorous than that. The NFL is in many ways war staged as a spectator sport, and if there's something perverse and perverting about that (and there is), what's left to redeem it resides entirely in the participants. What's left to redeem the game is, finally, exemplified in Ray Lewis.
And it's an open case, still, how redeemed or how redeemable he is, in certain contexts. But on the field, in the game, in his work and so it seems most fully in himself, Ray Lewis is already and always redeemed. His job is insane, maybe, and so maybe he is insane himself. But he gives himself to it in a way that most of us will never -- to our great benefit and good fortune -- be called to give ourselves to our work, or maybe to anything.
There is another video on YouTube of Ray Lewis, slightly less popular than that University of Miami motivational video but still nearly 300,000 views. It's an interview (typically passionate, typically not-quite-coherent) cut together with footage of some of Lewis' famous pre-game motivational speeches; the music that scores the last two-thirds of the video is “Your Hand In Mine,” by Explosions In The Sky, a song that first appeared on the soundtrack to the film Friday Night Lights in 2004. It is, despite itself, a pretty amazing video. Lewis speaks with his signature unblinking intensity about the importance of … or at any rate about how deeply he feels…or, okay, the goal of what he does, which is.
Which is. Well, watch it. There are bits and snatches of the speeches that Lewis famously makes to his teammates before games, little tastes of the fervor and purpose and passion that has defined his definitive career. But the video cuts away, or turns up the music, which is awfully evocative, and increasingly beautiful, at the moments when Lewis starts to lose the thread of what he's saying, or when that thread itself loses its way. Watch the video, and the whole thing seems terribly exciting and meaningful and comprehensible, and Ray Lewis looks like that strange thing's truest prophet: it is about fighting, and winning, and doing things together and because they must be done. The rest, the part that might justify it, is under the soundtrack or just not there at all. But if you watch it, and watch Ray Lewis and listen to him, you almost don't notice the way none of it ever quite adds up or closes or even, honestly, makes sense.
Even knowing all that, it is very difficult, when watching it, not to feel somehow inspired, in whatever inchoate and maybe incoherent way. Who ever knows this sort of thing, anyway?
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.