In the town where Ray Lewis grew up, some have criticized his off-the-field behavior over the years. But as he prepares for retirement many see a man who has grown up and changed for the better.
No street is named after Ray Lewis in his hometown.
City fathers have yet to erect a statue or post a plaque bearing the name of their local football hero, one of the NFL's most popular and decorated players. No "Welcome to the home of Ray Lewis'' sign can be found in a region dominated by citrus groves, cattle farming and phosphate mining.
But in Baltimore, there is Ray Lewis Way.
The Ravens middle linebacker is worshipped for his on-field exploits during 17 seasons and community activism in Charm City, which includes his Ray Lewis 52 Foundation to aid disadvantaged youth. In October, the Maryland chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame honored Lewis with the organization's "Outstanding American'' award for commendable deeds beyond the sport.
Back home in central Florida, and nationally, the view is more polarized. Perceived past slights, questions about Lewis' involvement in a double-homicide 13 years ago in Atlanta, and his fathering six children with four women, none of whom he married, seem to haunt Lewis.
Anna Burns Welker, wife of New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, dredged up Lewis' past with a Facebook rant last Sunday after the AFC title game, writing in part: "A true role model!" She apologized after a dust-up ensued.
But even in Lakeland, "You have two camps'' of thought, says Stephen Poole, who coached Lewis when he was a state champion prep wrestler.
"Some people love him to death - 'Ray's this and Ray's that.' Then there are others who do not like Ray. They feel he should be doing more for (his alma mater) Kathleen High and Lakeland. He has done well for himself but some are jealous,'' Poole told USA TODAY Sports.
Ernest Joe is a former head coach of the Kathleen High Red Devils football team. A large man with a friendly yet commanding presence, he is - like Lewis - a man of faith. The Baptist church deacon and Sunday school teacher shakes his head when he ponders one of Christianity's most important tenets in relation to a man he considers his son.
"I read something online with folks bringing up old stuff about Ray; it made me angry,'' Joe said. "We want people to forgive us, but we don't want to forgive anyone else.
"Ray has to rise above it. He's been movin' on. As far as I know, he's been leading a good life by not getting in trouble. People just can't hone in on the bad thing. What about the good things?''
On the field, no doubters remain. Lewis, 37, plans to play his final game Feb. 3 in New Orleans. The 13-time Pro Bowler will give his last inspirational pre-game speech to his Ravens as they meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Lakeland 'Always Home'
Lewis is the only current Raven with a championship ring after he was named Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001 in Tampa, 35 miles from where he was raised.
In the days leading up to that game, Lewis was asked about his hometown.
"He was being flip and said it was a one-light town,'' recalled Lakeland mayor Gow Fields. "Many people were offended ... One reason the community is as sensitive as it is, is that Polk County is looked down upon as being rural and poorly educated. People with that chip on their shoulder expected Ray to say something positive.''
Asked Thursday in Baltimore about how he is viewed in Lakeland, Lewis warmly said, "That's always home. That's where everything (is) that I'm connected to.'
He was born in Bartow, about 20 miles from Lakeland, located between Tampa and Orlando along the I-4 corridor. A city of nearly 100,000, Lakeland also is known as the longtime spring-training base for the Detroit Tigers and for 38 (named) lakes.
With an African-American population of about 20 percent, the city also has a history of racial divisiveness. At one time, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan had a Polk County address, which Fields paints as "part of the historical image of the community.''
During the Ravens' 34-7 wipeout of the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV, Lewis was unstoppable. But afterward, he was not permitted to appear on camera to give the customary "I'm going to Disneyland!'' exclamation reserved for Super Bowl MVPs. His likeness did not grace the cover of a Wheaties box.
For many, Lewis had become a leper.
A year earlier, Lewis, then 26, and two friends were charged with murder in the deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21. In a plea-bargain agreement, Lewis pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for lying to police. He received a year's probation and the NFL fined him $250,000.
Co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were acquitted. Lewis later reached financial settlements with parties related to the slain men.
Lewis had just completed his fourth NFL season in 2000. He led the league in tackles and was headed to his third consecutive Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Instead of a relaxing offseason, he found himself in a jail cell.
"He called me from Fulton County Jail,'' Joe recalled. "I said, 'Look, you gotta tell me . . . tell me the truth.' He said, 'Coach, I had nothing to do with this. I was there but I didn't do what they say.'
"That was good enough. We prayed. But I wanted to see him; I wanted him to look me in the eyes and talk like a man. It was tough seeing him behind bars. ... Here's a kid you groomed. (At trial), it was like my own child going through that ordeal.''
Lewis has declined to comment on the Atlanta incident.
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SOURCE: USA Today